We are what we eat: Richard Manning talks to FERN about his travels in Iowa

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with supporters at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. Photo by Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register.

FERN’s latest collaboration with Harper’s Magazine is Richard Manning’s story, “The Trouble with Iowa: Corn, Corruption, and the Iowa Caucuses,” the cover story of the magazine’s February issue. (The piece is available now for Harper’s subscribers, and will be open for others after Feb. 1). Manning, author of Against the Grain, hits the campaign trail with the Republican presidential candidates and asks why all of them–and, for that matter, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders–shy away from any talk of Iowa’s most glaring problem: the stranglehold that industrial agriculture has over this and all our other midwestern farm states. FERN’s editor-at-large, George Black, talked with Manning about the relationship of Big Ag and politics at the onset of the electoral season.

For you, what has been the most striking development leading up to the caucuses?

Ted Cruz is a contrarian, so it didn’t surprise me all that much that he took a strong stand against the federal ethanol mandate, which is responsible for ensuring that about 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop winds up in gas tanks. This is a big deal in Iowa. Conventional political wisdom says you can’t win there if you oppose big ag on ethanol, but he did and he is still a strong contender. The significance of this extends well beyond Iowa and corn. I think it speaks volumes about the fundamental schism in the Republican Party, that the pro-business, country club Republicans no longer have any sway whatever with the Tea Party, populist, evangelical wing of the party. This corn-based indicator in Iowa portends much more significant seismic shifts in the party during the next few months.

In some ways your story is a pretty grim assessment of the hold big ag has on the Iowa landscape. Did you see any counter-trends?

There is very little doubt that industrial ag has a near-total grip on Iowa, and yet everywhere I went, I was surprised at the vibrant and determined counter-current in alternative ag. Virtually every politically engaged person I spoke with was also somehow involved in producing food in traditional ways: legacy breed hogs, free-range chickens, big gardens, sustainable crops. There were also signs of a maturing marketing system for farm-to-table produce, but less obvious signs as well. For instance, I stopped by a well-stocked, attractive Whole Foods market in Des Moines one afternoon and found it packed shoulder-to-shoulder with a lunch crowd, no parking left for blocks around. And even in rural Iowa, Hy-Vee, the big-box Midwestern supermarket chain with a store in virtually every town, has adopted a new policy of offering locally grown produce.

My reporting has taken me to Iowa several times during the course of 20 years, and this was not nearly so apparent on those previous trips.

Still, be forewarned: If you order the cheese omelette in most any restaurant in Iowa, city or town, there’s about an 87 percent chance the innards will be Cheez Whiz.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the negative aspects of American exceptionalism, such as gun violence, high incarceration rates, or climate denialism. Having written a lot about food and agriculture internationally, do you see the power of big ag as something else that’s unique to this country, or is it mirrored in other parts of the world?

 One of the more intriguing characters on the Iowa political scene is a big ag mogul, Bruce Rastetter, who is viewed as a GOP kingmaker. He’s sort of a mini-Koch, who made his money in factory hog operations and later an ethanol factory, which actually did wind up being sold to the Kochs. But now his new ventures are in Tanzania. So yes, at least some people hope to replicate this system elsewhere, but in much of the world, I don’t think they’ll have all that much success.

Industrial agriculture requires sophisticated infrastructure and not just highways (Iowa’s are great, by the way) and such, but also social infrastructure: tamed politicians and predictable norms and institutions to enforce contracts. Big ag needs control, and much of the developing world is too chaotic to deliver it, which is a bit of back-handed good news for those places.

A couple of decades ago the looming question in international agriculture was: Who will feed China? For a while, the answer was China would, but then the Chinese began looking to the developing world and still are. Now I also see them popping up everywhere in the U.S., especially in Iowa, where, as I say in the story, they recently bought the giant pork processor, Smithfield Foods. What they are pursuing here is the stability, predictability and control achieved by big ag. A few places like Brazil in the developing world can deliver that environment, but most can’t.

You allude briefly to the dependency of big ag in Iowa on immigrant labor, yet Trump and Cruz are riding high on anti-immigrant language and policies that would gut the state’s whole economic model. The irony is so glaring, yet no one seems to be talking about it. Say a bit more about that. 

There’s no way to deconstruct that irony and explain it, other than to maybe sit in on a few rallies and understand this has nothing to do with reason and so defies explanation. Nativism, xenophobia, and racism are with us still, and one of the markers of this deep-seated, foaming-at-the-mouth irrationality is people don’t even understand their own self-interest. It makes no sense. Exactly the point.

This is precisely why this issue is going to drive a deep wedge in the Republican Party. A lot of the pro-business country club Republicans do understand where their economic interests lie.

Your piece is obviously focused on the Republicans, although you note that Clinton has come out in favor of ethanol subsidies. Have either she or Sanders made any explicit link between their focus on economic inequality and corporate power and how those things are manifest in Iowa?

Not a word that I heard or read. There’s a sort of unwritten rule in American politics that yeomen farmers, the salt of the earth, are immune from criticism, a rule that’s elevated to holy writ in Iowa. In the context of modern agricultural methods, this is an anachronism, because the independent yeoman farmer envisioned by Thomas Jefferson as the foundation of American democracy is an extinct species. This is industry like any other.

I attended back-to-back rallies in Iowa, one for Trump and the next day Bernie Sanders. Sanders did indeed hit the themes of inequality and corporate power hard and strong, yet he said not one word about their roots—literal roots—in the farm fields surrounding the town where he spoke.

Our self-image as a nation is that we have moved beyond agriculture to a post-industrial information age, which forgets that our dominant land use is still ag, our nation’s biggest environmental problems are rooted in ag, and, above all, we still are what we eat.

You can read the full text of Manning’s story in Harper’s Magazine, “The Trouble with Iowa: Corn, Corruption, and the Iowa Caucuses,” here