The Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) sends numerous action alerts urging members to take action on issues ranging from raw milk access to meat processing regulations to vaccine choice and medical freedom. Why? And what does it take to have a successful activism campaign?
Let’s start with why. WAPF is, first and foremost, an educational organization, and its members spend a lot of their time, energy and money obtaining high-quality, nutrient-dense foods. Surely that’s enough, right?
Unfortunately, we cannot shop (or farm) our way out of the problems facing our food systems. Decades of government policy that told farmers to “get big or get out,” combined with the economic and political power wielded by huge monopolistic and oligopolistic companies, mean that we do not have a functioning free market nor the basic infrastructure necessary for a healthy food system. Where there used to be small canneries and slaughterhouses in every county, now entire regions lack any processing options—leaving each small farmer and business to pay exorbitant amounts either to use distant facilities or build their own. The same problem is replicated for almost every type of farm or food input, as well as all the distribution and marketing channels. We need systemic change to rebuild the infrastructure and counter anti-competitive practices.
But even when they know there’s a need, people are only going to dedicate the time and energy to being an activist if they have a reasonable belief that their efforts will make a difference. And that means building a successful movement.
Successful activism can be distilled into four basic elements: Know what you want; know who can give it to you; get enough people involved; and make them give it to you. However, behind each of those simple phrases is a lot of work! The fact is that activism is an ongoing, iterative process, and there are no silver bullets or quick fixes.
Before getting into the four elements, there is a background concept that is important to understand: the power ladder. At the bottom are people who are powerless. As one slowly rises in the power structure, one is first recognized, then “at the table,” then able to make a deal, then able to make a deal stick. The top rung on the ladder is governance, where one is in a position to actually make the laws and rules. Because one’s position on the power ladder can be fluid and may differ based on the topic, it’s not useful to spend a lot of time or energy trying to classify your position precisely. Rather, it’s a concept to keep in mind generally when setting goals, looking for allies and engaging in the other elements of an activism campaign that we will discuss next.
ONE: KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
Step One is, “Know what you want.” This step can be broken down into goals and objectives. Goals are broad, general statements of purpose or aspirations. Objectives, which can be achieved more quickly, are specific, achievable and measurable. Objectives can be stated in a short phrase with this structure: “to [do something] [how much] [by when].”
There are always multiple objectives that could be chosen on the path to a goal. In assessing which one(s) to pursue, it’s helpful to consider not only what you gain with that objective, but how it may (or may not) help in taking the next steps. In addition, possible objectives should always be assessed with respect to their ability to attract more allies and supporters (more on that in Step Three).
TWO: KNOW WHO CAN GIVE IT TO YOU
Step Two is, “Know who can give it to you,”
namely, the decision-maker(s). Although in many ways this is the easiest step, it often trips people up. People tend to want to focus on their opponents, which is a mistake. There is also a tendency to generalize and talk about things like “the government.”
Decision-makers are the people who have the power and responsibility to make the changes you want, to meet your demands, and/or to make decisions that lead toward the achievement of your objectives. This is often a majority of the city council or the state legislature, plus the mayor or governor. It is not “the legislature,” because you don’t need every member on your side. In addition to getting a majority of the members to vote the way you want them to, however, you also need to identify those in key positions, such as committee chairs, and either gain their support or find an alternative pathway. (More on that in the final “make them give it to you” step.)
THREE: GET ENOUGH PEOPLE INVOLVED
Step Three is, “Get enough people involved.” This step can be the biggest challenge. On the plus side, local food and regenerative agriculture can be a great way to bring people together from every location on the political spectrum. Food is not a conservative or liberal issue—it’s a human issue. It’s vital to embrace truly that perspective and not just pay lip service to it. All too often, unfortunately, people will develop their objectives based on their personal philosophy, and then expect everyone else to buy into it.
If you truly want to build a broad power base, you have to engage people who have different views from the very beginning. In developing your objectives, get their input and take it seriously. It’s often the case that there are several possible objectives that would meet your needs; some of them may be more or less appealing to people from different political viewpoints. Pick the one(s) that will bring people together and keep the diversity of views in mind as you develop your messages.
A positive is that agriculture is not a particularly high-profile issue on which most elected officials have staked out positions (as compared with issues like gun control, abortion or tax policy). So where it may take thousands of people speaking up to change a politician’s position on one of those high-profile issues (and sometimes not even then), it often only takes a small handful of constituents to shift politicians on a local food issue.
At a recent conference, Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie noted that, on many days, his office receives around ten phone calls. That’s all. He went on to share that several of those come from “frequent flyers”—people who call every day. Don’t become a frequent flyer! But do you think you could convince ten people who live in your district to care enough about a specific local food issue to call your U.S. Representative in the same week? Now you’ve got their attention! And at the state level, it can take as few as half a dozen constituent calls to make a difference.
To be clear, there is no magic number, and there are certainly no guarantees. We have some very powerful opponents with deep pockets who make significant campaign contributions to key officials. But the number of constituents you need to make an impact is far fewer than most people imagine!
Note that I reference the power of constituents. Elected officials answer to their voters. When they get calls or emails from non-constituents, they basically ignore them. If you send an alert telling people all over the state or the country to call committee members, for example, generally all you get is very annoyed legislators and staff.
What those constituents do is also important and can make a major difference as to what “enough people” means. For example, online petitions and auto-emails are almost useless. Typically, the staff will quickly set up a filter that sends all emails with the same subject line to a folder—and they may not ever bother checking how many emails went to that folder.
Elected officials want to know how much you care and why you care. There are two reasons for this. First, as human beings, it helps them relate. Second, as elected officials who depend on the voters to keep their jobs, they want to know whether you really care enough to remember this when it comes time to vote. Do you care enough to be talking with your friends, family and community members and influencing their votes?
Some people resort to saying things like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t vote for you next year.” While it sends a clear message, it’s not helpful; it comes across as a threat, which no one reacts to well. Moreover, it’s often an empty threat, made in anger. It’s far more effective to demonstrate with your actions that you will remember this issue come voting time, actions that include taking the time to call or write a personal letter, putting in the time to develop a clear message, sharing the reasons this issue is important to you and following up.
FOUR: MAKE THEM GIVE IT TO YOU
All of this leads to Step Four: “Make them [the decision-makers] give it [your objective] to you.” Obviously, this is much easier said than done, and entire books are written about campaign strategies. For this article, I’m going to focus on the issue of negotiation.
Negotiation means you get some of what you want, and the other side gets some of what they want. Too many people view compromise as a bad word and consider any kind of com promise as an abandonment of one’s beliefs or ideals—which simply isn’t accurate. No one gets what they want, when they want it, all the time (and I hope, for the sake of your family and friends, that you already realize that!).
There are rare occasions when refusing to negotiate is the right move, namely when: (1) you have complete power; (2) you have no power; (3) you have nothing to lose; or (4) you would prefer to risk losing completely. I have never been in the first three positions, but I have been in the fourth more than once. Another way to look at that last situation is that you have reached the point in the negotiation where any further concessions would leave you with a result that is either meaningless or, in some cases, actually takes a step in the wrong direction. At that point, it is legitimate to draw a line in the sand—but only if you and your allies truly believe that it would be better to risk losing completely than accept the deal being offered.
When negotiating, it’s important to keep the power ladder in mind. How much power do you have, and how much do your opponents have? Be honest in your assessments. What can you give the decision-maker in return for doing at least part of what you want? That can be something positive (support from constituents) and/ or the removal of something negative (lifting negative press attention).
This is also the time to step back and really look at your goals and objectives. Think about what you need to improve on the current situation. If you get some portion of your original objective, what can you do with it? Does it set you up in a good position for more later? If you wait, will you get more, or does a delay mean a permanent loss of some kind? Bring together your core allies and have these hard discussions.
Consider two different examples from Texas. The first Texas cottage food law was proposed in 2009 and died. In 2011, we brought it back. The bill garnered opposition from not only local health departments, but the powerful Texas Medical Association and Texas Retailers Association. They succeeded in blocking the bill from coming for a vote before the House, just as in 2009. We found another bill to which we could add an amendment. . . but the only chance of success was if we severely restricted the bill to focus on baked goods, herbs and jams and jellies sold only if the consumer drove to the person’s home.
Was it worth it? While we were frustrated at getting such a small change after an immense amount of work, the answer was yes—and looking back ten years later, our yes is even more resounding. Because that little success meant that there was no longer a blanket prohibition on the sale of foods made in home kitchens. And in the next legislative session, we came back, showing that no one had gotten sick and the law had helped many small start-up businesses. That helped us get more foods and more locations allowed. In 2019, we got yet more foods—including live ferments—and a removal of any restriction on location (so long as the sale is direct to consumers). Each step not only expanded options for some groups of people (even if not as many as we wanted) but also laid the groundwork for us to be better positioned in the next round.
In contrast, while being willing to agree to changes to our original bill, we repeatedly rejected certain compromises on Texas raw milk bills because of a consensus among the stakeholders that the compromises would actually move us backwards even while appearing to be victories. In refusing, however, we never lost sight of our objective. We continued to organize, build our grassroots and talk with legislators. And after ten years of failing to get a bill passed, the political power we built through those efforts has paid off: the state agency is adopting significant reforms to Texas raw milk regulations this spring.
Two different decisions, both based on an assessment of our objectives, our position on the power ladder and the options available to build more power.
THE LONG VIEW
It’s also important to recognize the difference between “negotiation” and “persuasion.” This is where advocacy differs significantly from outreach and education. Education is all about persuasion—giving people the facts in a format that convinces them to change their mind (and hopefully their behavior or decisions). Negotiation, on the other hand, can occur whether or not the other side changes their mind on anything. The decision-makers don’t have to agree with your arguments. Can you get something from them anyway? Recognize that simply repeating your arguments doesn’t work. If you can’t persuade and you don’t negotiate, you gain nothing.
The single most important thing is your mindset: take the long view. We didn’t get into the current situation overnight—it’s the result of over fifty years of bad government and social priorities—and we’re not going to fix it with a single bill or any other simple, easy approach. It’s going to take decades of hard work to reach our long-term goals. Along the way, we will win on some objectives, and we will lose on some.
But even our losses can bring us closer to that ultimate goal, if we keep focused on concepts such as building allies and rising on the power ladder. No one person can do it alone, but each person can make a difference.
FEDERAL POLICY UPDATES
FOOD SAFETY MODERNIZATION ACT
In the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Congress directed the FDA to develop additional traceability requirements for foods the agency designates as “high risk.” Those requirements were to apply to “facilities,” which would exclude farms and retail food establishments (grocers, restaurants, cottage food producers and anyone else who sells primarily to individual consumers). The agency was also directed to consider the impact on small businesses; given that in previous FSMA rules, the FDA had classified food businesses with up to one million dollars in gross sales as “very small businesses,” it was anticipated that the agency would end up excluding the vast majority of local producers.
Unfortunately, due to some language inserted by a well-intentioned but careless organization, the FDA identified ambiguities that led to a proposal to apply these new requirements to every person and business in the food chain, with only extremely narrow and circumscribed exemptions.
Anyone who grows, harvests, manufactures, packs, stores, sells or uses any of the high-risk foods as an ingredient in food that they make, manufacture or sell will have to keep extensive, detailed records with electronic spreadsheets. The list of covered foods includes eggs, leafy greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, soft and semi-soft cheeses, seafood and more.
Farmers would have to keep records that include the GPS coordinates where each crop was grown, and the date and time it was harvested, cooled and packed. Only farms with less than twenty-five thousand dollars in annual sales of produce would be exempt. Farm sales that are direct-to-consumer would also be exempt, but if the farm makes any wholesale sales (to grocers, food hubs or others), those sales would be subject to the rule. And even tiny farms that are exempt for having annual sales below twenty-five thousand dollars could be forced to keep the records if they make any wholesale sales, because the businesses buying their crops would need that information.
A presentation by the FDA on the proposed rule included a thirty-five-page-long example of all the steps required just to document the cherry tomatoes used in a packaged salad kit.1 And that’s just one ingredient!
The FDA received numerous comments about the problems with its proposed rule. While there is no official way to force the agency to make changes to a proposed rule, public pressure—whether directly on the agency or through legislators who influence the agency—can be successful. We will be working on this issue in the months to come.
ELECTRONIC ANIMAL ID
To end with good news: Last summer, the USDA proposed mandatory electronic ID for cattle through an informal “policy” decision. The cost of electronic IDs, and all the related infrastructure, would pose undue costs on small farms, threatening their future. But by avoiding the normal rule-making process, the USDA also dodged the normal requirements to do a cost-benefit analysis and identify the impact on small businesses.
President Biden’s Executive Order 5 put a halt to rules and regulations that were not yet finalized, pending review by new administration appointees.2 While the Animal ID plan was not officially a rule, the executive order also covers “any agency statement of general applicability and future effect that sets forth a policy on a statutory, regulatory, or technical issue or an interpretation of a statutory or regulatory issue.” The Office of Management & Budget (OMB) has confirmed that the Animal ID proposal was withdrawn.
This is excellent news! But the fight is not over. Just as when we stopped the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) back in 2010, we know that many powerful players, both within and outside the agency, still want to move to a mandatory, all-electronic system for animal ID. Their plans are designed to benefit large-scale agriculture’s export market, at the expense of small-scale farmers and our ability to rebuild local and regional food systems. Stay tuned—we will need you to speak up again.
1. Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. Proposed Rule: Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods: Supply Chain Example. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/media/145838/download.
2. Memorandum from Ronald A. Klain. “Regulatory freeze pending review.” The White House, January 20, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/20/regulatory-freeze-pending-review/.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2021🖨️ Print post