Hungry for Answers: An Interview with the Bartlett Brothers on Big Ag and the Future of Food

From by Arianna King
Hungry for Answers: An Interview with the Bartlett Brothers on Big Ag and the Future of Food

In December of 2014, three brothers combined their passions and talents for farming, food activism, and power analysis to challenge three of the United States’ largest agricultural companies to a public debate on the future of food. Farmers and activists by trade, the three Bartlett brothers—Andrew Kang Bartlett, David (Bartlett) Abazs, and Stephen Bartlett—have long been committed to bringing justice and awareness to the growing problems associated with large-scale agribusiness. The public debate is structured so that each month, the Bartlett brothers demand real answers to big questions including whether big agriculture or agroecological farming is better for family farmers, and which agricultural paradigm—big agriculture or agroecological farming—will foster healthier communities and economies around the globe.

As of June 2015, six months after they first challenged Monsanto, Tyson Foods, and Walmart to a public debate on the future of food, the Bartlett brothers received a “no thanks” from Walmart and nothing from the other two CEOs. But they have succeeded in amplifying the already growing conversation on the necessity of small-scale family farming.

Recently, Food Tank had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew, David, and Stephen to find out more about what they hope to accomplish with this national public debate, as well as discuss in depth the importance of supporting small-scale agroecological methods of farming.

Food Tank (FT): In December of 2014, the three of you challenged Monsanto, Tyson Foods and Walmart to a National Debate on the Future of Food, what led you to initiate this challenge?

David (Bartlett) Abazs (DA): The idea came when I was exhibiting at the National FFA conference in Louisville, KY, last year. The FFA conference is sponsored heavily by Monsanto, Tyson Foods, and other companies that are part of the industrial farming complex, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of industry PR going on about “feeding the world” and “feeding the hungry.” All with 55,000 impressionable young people there!

My farming approach to provide people and the planet with a safe and sustainable diet stood out in stark contrast to the slick campaigns and carnival-like atmosphere. It would have been great to do a workshop, but those cost thousands of dollars to get on the agenda.

Honestly I felt the urge to curl up in a fetal position. The other option was to fight back. The latter response won out. We are fighting to get these differences between industrial agriculture and agroecological, organic agriculture exposed! Fighting to be heard amidst the din of multi-million dollar marketing. Fighting to talk publicly about our choices as farmers and eaters and encourage an open dialog on what we want the future of our food to look like. Being civil folk, the fight we chose was a debate.

Andrew Kang Bartlett (AKB): The corporate gang that has taken over our food and farm system is a behemoth. Even though millions of people now realize this, and civil society is organizing to take back control, when you are up against a behemoth you end up playing defense a lot. The debate challenge sends in the offensive team. Yes, we realize that the Bartlett brothers may look like ants when viewed from the heights of corporate boardrooms, but we are not alone in our critique and foolish are those who ignore a swarm of angry ants.

FT: How did you select these specific companies to be part of the challenge?

AKB: We are three brothers, so it wouldn’t be fair to debate only one or two CEOs, so we chose three companies.

As the largest food seller in the country whose employees often rely on SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; formerly called “food stamps”] to cope with the low wages, Walmart was a no-brainer. We taxpayers are footing the bill for Walmart’s corporate profits.

JBS, Cargill, National Beef, and Tyson are the giants in the livestock world. But JBS is Brazilian, Cargill is a private company, and National Beef is beef, which might have been a better choice since they are not “chicken”...Tyson?! And since we Americans eat so much chicken each year—around 90 pounds per person—we figured focusing on this corner of the four-pillared monopoly in meatpacking would be good.

One, we have retail. Two, we have the livestock monopoly. And to represent the epitome of food and farm imperialism, Monsanto was the obvious choice. Dishonorable mentions went to ConAgra, Bayer, Syngenta, and ADM.

FT: How have the corporations that you've challenged responded, and how has the response met or disappointed your expectations? 

Stephen Bartlett (SB): We did get a ridiculous booklet from Walmart about how good Walmart is for family farmers. Otherwise, there has been a very loud silence, which is absolutely what we expected. Of course, we are fully prepared in case they agree to debate us.

AKB: I am not disappointed. The situation is definitely critical, what with the scale of destruction caused by industrial agriculture and the people that are hurt, but time is on our side as more and more people wake up to the need for change. I feel sorry for Hugh [Grant, CEO of Monsanto], Donnie [Smith, CEO of Tyson Foods, Inc.], and Doug [McMillon, CEO of Walmart]. Their jobs depend on endless growth and short-term profits, so they are the ones scrambling.

FT: Have you received responses and encouragement from other individuals or organizations? What do those responses look like?

SB: Most responses have been wonderful, with lots of additional information sent our way documenting the ills of Big Ag. Lots of encouraging messages like: “Someone needed to do this, and we are glad you are!”

DA: We get lots of “that-a-boys” and only recently we are beginning to get a few challenges and negative comments. These recent negative responses make me think we might be starting to tickle the underbelly of industrial agriculture. Apparently our message is going beyond the choir and beginning to reach the corporate trio. We’re going to need a much larger groundswell and national media to get them to the debate table.

AKB: When I told farmers and food sovereignty activists in India about the challenge, they were excited. Some wanted to send their own messages to Monsanto (video 1 and 2) and to Walmart (video). One Twitter follower called our “Can you see them now?” video “gangsta,” which I’m pretty sure is a compliment.

FT: What do you see to be the biggest problem with Big Ag, and how does this challenge target those problems?

DA: The real problem with Big Ag is that it approaches agriculture first as a business and second as a business. I, and many others, practice agroecological, organic farming by producing food in tune with the environment. We grow healthy, rich, and resilient soil, maintain a great diversity of plants and animals, and never degrade the land we depend on for the sake of greater production or profit. We profit from the earth’s richness and abundance that we are in partnership with to foster. Earth first, business second!

SB: Big Ag’s biggest problem is that they are deaf and dumb and blind. The corporations of Big Ag walk around like giant robots and they crush whatever they step on. Their tractors and combines compact the soil. Their chemicals kill insects and microorganisms, both the good and the bad ones. Topsoil washes off our monocropped lands into the Gulf of Mexico. Their 18-wheelers barrel down the highways. Big Ag is entropy writ large, but not the kind that decomposes into new life like grass clippings and kitchen waste. No, their entropy destroys. Our challenge is a cry in the wilderness, or a small sabot (a French wooden shoe) thrown into the vast machinery of death. It may not clog the cogs, but it helps to stay moving while more people wake up and get motivated to act.

FT: After the completion of this year-long challenge is there another project in the works?

DA: We’re hoping this won’t take a year and they’ll agree to debate us sooner! If they choose to avoid debating such easy targets like ourselves, we will need to widen the call. The food and farm issues before us are too important. These three CEO’s and companies need to get out of the closet and face the public.

In the meantime, I will continue to work with people in my community to reclaim our food system as we build a more resilient, profitable and just food system in the Western Lake Superior Region. Our family farm provides coolers of vegetables to 80 families in our area, and I manage the Wolf Ridge Organic School Farm, which will provide vegetables and eggs for all of the 140,000 meals served in the [campus’s] cafeteria. In my spare time I consult on aquaponic facilities, and I’m now directing the Organic Consumers Association’s new AgroEcology Center in my hometown. Combined with the efforts of other farmers and activists in the area, we are regaining control, one carrot at a time.

SB: We aren’t waiting by the phone. In Kentucky we’re growing food in and around Louisville, sometimes in collective style using traditional Three Sisters growing systems. We’re growing heirloom corn, squash, beans, and even dry land rice.

AKB: Our work is also to connect and act in solidarity with farming groups around the U.S. and world, as we try to do through many coalitions including the US Food Sovereignty Alliance. Our power is in agrarian know-how, agroecological approaches, and the combined strength of millions of people pushing for food sovereignty.

FT: If Food Tank members could do one thing to support this project, what would that look like? 

DA: Follow us on Facebook, [our] blog, or Twitter, and in the short term, contact media people, make phone calls, send letters to the CEOs of Monsanto, Walmart, and Tyson Foods demanding them to this debate.

Over the long term, let’s strengthen policies—like our trade policies—and vote for candidates who lift up family farmers that are using organic and ecological agricultural methods. Let’s return our food and farm system back to the people.

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