As the new web editor of Food & Water Watch, I am awed daily by the fierce work being done by our organizers, volunteers, researchers, legal experts, and all of our team to protect the public’s access to trustworthy food, clean water, and a livable climate. When it comes to keeping food production safe and equitable for people at every income level, the sheer amount of potential fights an organization can take on is astounding. I wanted to know how a leader in these fights goes about smartly strategizing and triaging them in the way that makes Food & Water Watch so effective.
So I sat down with Wenonah Hauter, the founder and Executive Director of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action. She's also the author of the critically acclaimed books Foodopoly and Frackopoly, which exposed the machinations and corporate control behind the food and energy industries. I wanted to get the bigger picture of the organization's work to create trustworthy food systems from Hauter herself — here is our conversation.
“Every day I look at my email inbox...there are a lot of really critical things happening in the world. And I think sometimes food gets left behind.” —Wenonah Hauter
Angie Aker: “Everyone deserves to trust their food" is our mantra that explains why Food & Water Watch fights against things like arsenic in chicken feed (which we successfully worked to ban on a national level in recent years) and factory farms — we just had a big victory in Oregon which shut one down. It might seem obvious but explain some of the background on why this statement has so much meaning for Food & Water Watch.
Wenonah Hauter: Well, every day I look at my email inbox and it's full of urgent appeals and there are a lot of really critical things happening in the world. And I think sometimes food gets left behind. There are so many problems with our food system. One example is the way that animals are grown on filthy, polluting farms and then the way meat is processed in dirty slaughterhouses. We used to be able to depend on government meat inspectors but now meat corporations are replacing real inspectors with company employees — and at the same time increasing the speed of slaughter lines. This is something we’ve fought against for a long time. We’re talking about replacing a real USDA inspection system that makes sure meat is fit to eat with a scheme to increase profits for meat corporations. Inspection has been replaced with chemicals like trisodium phosphate and bleach products....And it’s not just meat. We eat fruit, vegetables and greens that are also making people sick. It's a long-term experiment with your family’s health! This is just a tiny slice of how your family might be impacted.
An emerging issue is how food products are contaminated with plastic. In fact, plastic contamination is one of the places where we see how all of the issues we work on are linked. Microscopic pieces of plastic are contaminating sea salt, fish, and bottled water. There’s evidence that chemicals from packaging and bottled water leech out into the water or food and these chemicals aren’t being studied or regulated. There's the plastic in the ocean that fish are ingesting and recent research showed that most brands of sea salt are contaminated with plastic. Of course plastic is made from natural gas...so all that fracked gas we’re trying to stop is creating a plastic manufacturing boom here at home. Meanwhile, fracked gas is being shipped to Europe to make more plastic. And on top of those things, fracking for oil or natural gas is a major threat to our global climate. Chaotic weather threatens our very ability to grow food.
AA: In this everyday, 24-hour news cycle where there are so many horrible things taking over the headlines, it's easy for this piece to get lost. But it's so, so important because food and water are the building blocks of human life. Food & Water Watch is keeping this front and center at a time when other people are losing sight of it.
AA: Since the organization was founded in 2006, how has Food & Water Watch's work on food issues evolved?
WH: Well, we still work on many of the same issues like bacterial contamination, factory farms, and GMOs, but we’ve also expanded into many other issues that are threatening our food, like how climate change could cause massive problems in the future. The issues we work on — food, water and a livable climate — are linked. The fires, floods, droughts and chaotic weather mean that we really need to move away from a food system dependent on transporting food long distances. We must develop regional food systems and move away from thirsty commodity crops that are the building blocks for processed food.
That’s why we work on policy at the federal and state level. And it’s why we have organizers on the ground working with grassroots groups to hold our elected officials accountable. Yeah, things are discouraging now with Trump in office and the current state of affairs in Congress. A lot of our work is defensive but we know the work we’re doing now is building for the future.
For instance, for years we fought to prevent chicken from being produced in China, a country that has a very poor food safety record. We know that the only thing that will stand between consumers and food poisoning is the use of chemical disinfectants on the chicken. U.S. meat companies do that here — things like trisodium phosphate and bleach. But, things will get worse for consumers if the chicken is processed in China.
AA: It's a good thing that Food & Water Watch is keeping its eye on the ball with this. Consumers — if they knew that — would probably choose not to eat foods that were produced that way. What are some of the big food fights ahead in the next year for Food & Water Watch?
WH: Well, the work to stop companies like the Wonderful company from using oil wastewater to irrigate crops is one of the big food fights that we're going to be involved in. We've already started doing public education around the use of oil and gas wastewater in food products. We know that this is happening in California; that it's widespread; that it's affecting almonds; that it's affecting organic food; and that so far Governor Brown has refused to do anything and in fact, the California legislature has not done anything yet. We think it's much bigger than California although we don't have proof of what's going on in states like Colorado or Texas or Arkansas, places that we see our fruits and vegetables being grown, and so that's going to be a big campaign.
And as I also mentioned, a lot of our work is going to be defensive in nature. We know a lot of our meat products are coming in from overseas, places like China or Australia, because they've been declared equivalent to our food safety systems. We know there are a lot of problems with ours and we've taken a hard look at other nations that are sending in meat products and we know that food safety systems in a country like China are much, much weaker. We're going to continue to work on that and draw attention to it.
AA: It sounds like there are so many food fights out there to be fought. That leads me to my next question, which is what are some of the challenges that Food & Water Watch comes up against when deciding which of those fights to wage and prioritize?
WH: Well, there are so many fights and so we have to try and prioritize them based on where our expertise is, based on where — if it's a congressional fight — we might be able to actually make a difference; where the largest number of people are going to be impacted. We have to try to use our resources in the best way possible. And that's why it's so important for us to have monthly supporters, because we need to be able to depend on having enough resources to actually go out and try to put pressure on elected members of Congress, to actually do these defensive measures I've been talking about, to draw attention to what's going on in regulatory agencies, and really to make the connections between what's happening on a number of different issues that we work on and why they are all related.
For instance, we know our climate is changing. We know that one of the impacts that we're seeing for climate change is more chaotic weather. We know that it's going to be much more difficult in the future to depend on the climate and we know that even in the insurance industry. Lloyd's of London (the big insurance marketer) put out a report a couple of years ago called “Food Shock,” where they talk about the likelihood of having catastrophic weather in a couple of different continents, how it could actually cause famines, and that this could lead to major economic issues — in fact it could even bring a collapse of the economic system. I know that people don't like to hear about these doomsday scenarios but we should be prudent.
We should be planning for a climate that is not as dependable as we've had in the past and we need to be looking at more regional food systems. To do that, we need to change a lot of food policies in Congress and we need to try to hold accountable our elected members of Congress in elections that are coming up in 2018, 2020, and beyond. We need to make this a priority because having enough trustworthy food and water is critical, and monthly supporters make the work possible.
AA: So in that landscape of advocacy groups that do work to keep food sustainable and available, describe what sets Food & Water Watch apart.
WH: Well, I think what makes us different is, first of all, we realize the importance of having a long-term vision. And so we have our eye on the future and what kind of food system, what kind of society we want. And we're not afraid to say what that is. But in the short term we are also developing a strategy to actually step-by-step bring these changes and we have developed a staff on the ground in many states who are building our volunteer-power, people-power to hold our elected officials accountable. So we're building the political power to get us to where we need to be in the future. And I think that makes us very different. We know what good policy is but we're developing a strategy to actually be able to take us to where we're going to implement those policies.
We don't really see that we're going to win by asking, for instance, the meat company Tyson to do right. There are some groups that might talk about “let's put pressure on Tyson to make them behave.” Well, their business is growing chicken and other meat products in an unsustainable way. We're not going to waste our time asking them to be better. We're going to try to build the political system to hold them accountable because that's what we need to do for the long term.
AA: That's what creates lasting change because you could get Tyson to comply with you for a week and the next week you know you'd be starting all over again. Changing things at the policy level is exactly where it's at. So speaking directly to Food & Water Watch readers, what one action could they take today to support the fights that you're going to wage on their behalf?
WH: They could take action on our website or through one of the actions that we send through email to hold one of their elected officials accountable — taking action is very important. Or they could donate on a monthly basis [link] to Food & Water Watch because we really depend on having people willing to tithe once a month to do this work and have a really engaged supporter base that values our work and is willing to invest in it.
AA: Wonderful — here's hoping that our readers want to do both. We need all the help we can get, right Wenonah?
WH: That's right!
AA: All right, thank you so much for chatting with me today.
WH: Glad to be here.