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.