The Lexicon of ‘Food’ and ‘Farm’

The Lexicon of ‘Food’

There was once a website called “lexicon of Food, ” which stimulated thought about the meanings of the words we use. This is a revised version of a post I made under my profile there. Here I suggest some root terms that affect many things, and that need discussion. 

In one sense, “food” is simply what we eat, and we all know what it is. On the other hand, in reviewing 21st century activism related to food, a number of complications and contradictions emerge in relation to this word. There are also questions about fake food, things like trans fats that were never in the human diet. Years ago, A. V. Krebs, author of The Corporate Reapers, quoted Mary Hartman on the TV show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, as saying “They don’t make food out of food any more.” 

Beyond “what we eat,” food is used in a variety of compound terms that seem to need rethinking. Examples include “food system,” “food industry,” and “food movement.” When used in these ways, “food” refers also to “farming.” In turn, farming and the processing of farm products also includes “nonfood” products, often at the same time. So the meaning of “food” also seems to include both “farm” and “nonfood. What’s called the “food system” or the “food industry,” then, involves many non-food items, which can be produced in the same factory at the same time. So it’s really an artificial division to speak of a system and an industry that’s merely “food.” 

Food books, films and other resources often have a large “farm” component. Farming (farm production) is part of the “food system” or “food industry.” On the other hand, “farm,” (which can be used in similar ways,) is in some ways a much larger category.

Likewise what’s called the “Food Movement” includes “farm” sectors. These sectors include things “farm” that go beyond food. Related to this is the question of things “farm” that are often not included in the Food Movement. Sometimes these days, given the overwhelming urban or food-side leadership of the Food Movement, we find that the other things “farm” are viewed negatively, with arguments that farming should be more or less “food only.” This, however, is a misunderstanding of some key farm issues that are important to the Food Movement. 

For example, what are perhaps the biggest farm issues cannot at all be adequately addressed with a food-only bias. “Cheap food” is the easiest example. It’s misunderstood because “farm subsidies” and the “farm bill” are misunderstood. Any adequate solution involves “supply management,” but you can’t do that only in terms of food. You need to manage the supply of “nonfood” farm products as well. Additionally, from a “food only” perspective, crops that are used for both food and nonfood should have the nonfood uses removed. This, of course, would greatly increase the oversupply problem we already have when there are markets for both food and nonfood. If nonfood production were eliminated, and farmers produced “food only,” there would be radical oversupply there as well, and prices would crash.

On the other hand, of course, there are many fewer U.S. farmers than food consumers. Farm advocates have therefore emphasized the “food” aspect of farming, in an effort to win consumer support. 

Sociologically and politically, the Food Movement has emphasized the “Big Food” complex. Farmers, in contrast, have referred to it as the agribusiness industrial complex, including both food and nonfood. Additionally, both food and nonfood represent the “output” side of the agribusiness, the products produced from what farmers raise. For farmers, the input complex, selling products to farmers, is also emphasized. So agribusiness isn’t just a food and nonfood complex.

One further simplification on the “food” side is that farmers are often described as having the same economic interests, and the same politics, as agribusiness. It is often not known that there has been a “Family Farm Movement,” a “Farm Justice Movement, which generally directly opposed the advocacy of Agribusiness. So the lumping together of farmers and agribusiness is false. See more on this further below. 

I conclude that, in our time, “food,” is the dominant word. This seems to reflect an urban point of view, and a context of urban domination. Cities are the places where power is concentrated, and also where the power of thought is concentrated, in universities and colleges. This has been true since the Bronze Age, when cities emerged as the headquarters for empires, and where rural areas paying tribute served as the primary wealth of empires.

While, throughout its (mostly forgotten) history, the Family Farm Movement has opposed the dominant “agribusiness” narrative and paradigm, a newly dominant, (in key ways,) “Food” narrative and paradigm differs in major ways from that of agribusiness, and that of the Family Farm Movement. In some ways today’s Food Movement sides with agribusiness in practical terms, largely out of misunderstandings of the facts. At the same time, its rhetoric opposes agribusiness.

The Lexicon of ‘Farm’

Like “food,” “farm” is an important root term that needs to be understood in our time. In one sense, “farm” refers to what farmers do, as agriculture, in raising domesticated crops and livestock. 

In my discussion of “food” I’ve emphasized that part of “farming,” the “farming system,” and the “farm industry,” for example, is not food. It is, therefore, in this way, bigger than food. It includes feed, (animal food,) fiber (i.e. cotton, wool,) and raw materials for many nonfood items. Fuel is also part of all things farm, and has been so for thousands of years. Today we think of biofuels (i.e. biodiesel and ethanol,) but farm fuel also has included and still includes feed for draft animals, such as pastures, crops, such as oats for horses. So “farm” includes that which becomes food, but also includes more. 

When terms like “food industry” and “food system” are used, it’s often really impossible to separate out the non-food components, which can be produced by the same “food” processors in the very act of processing “food.” The same can be true in reverse. From cotton, for example, we get cotton seed, which can have a variety of uses, including use as a “food” item. For example, I’ve heard that the brown stuff on Baby Ruth and Butterfinger candy bars was, at times, made out of cotton seed, with no cocoa or chocolate listed among the ingredients. 

Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the new “Food Movement” often seems to be rejecting the non-food part of all things “farm.” It’s sometimes suggested that “farms” should produce only “food.” For example, Tom Philpott suggested that 10% of midwest farmland that’s been used for corn and soybeans should be changed over to fruit and vegetable production. While that’s would certainly reduce “food miles,” it would be devastating to farmers that grow vegetables and fruits. By my calculations, Philpott’s suggestion, if implemented, would mean something like a 160% increase in land used for vegetables and fruits, (to 260%!), causing massive oversupply, with a devastating impact on vast segments of the farm and food system. Another suggestion has been to stop raising livestock and use the land for food. That too would lead to a similar massive overproduction, a similar devastation. Each of these approaches is a radical misunderstanding of the farming system. (See and

More generally, the Food Movement often simply erases the word “farm” from various kinds of usage. It’s a “food industry” or “food system.” It’s “food justice,” “food security,” or even “food sovereignty.” Likewise, recently we’ve heard calls for a “National Food Policy.” While there is merit in talking specifically about food at times, it really doesn’t make sense to try to address national policy on the basis of this limitation. What we need is an updated National Farm and Food Policy (

Globally, of course, nearly 80% of the undernourished, (and nearly 70% of the population of Least Developed Countries,) are rural, mostly farmers. For that reason, the call to “feed the world” with inexpensive “food” is misleading and even seriously mystifying. ( The underlying problem is “farm” poverty and rural poverty, (poverty in rural economies). Much of this is caused by cheap farm prices caused by overproduction. So to “feed the world” with more and cheaper food and with less nonfood farm production is to cause overproduction, cheaper prices, greater poverty, and more hunger and starvation. Instead we need to “pay the world,” to fairly pay the world’s farmers, (the “undernourished,” the LDCs,) which then will create greater wealth and more jobs in their rural economies. To do that effectively we need to manage and reduce the supply of both food and nonfood, in order to raise prices. This approach has been widely supported, for example, by the WTO Africa Group, ( by La Via Campesina, ( and by the European Community ( They support the narrative and paradigm of the U.S. Family Farm Movement, not that of Agribusiness and the Food Movement.

In recent years the work of the “farm” (“Family Farm” or “Farm Justice”) movement has been taken over by the “Food” Movement (under various names, such as “Good Food Movement,” “Sustainable Food Movement,” & see more in Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics,” “Preface to the 2007 Edition”). Historically, (i.e. over the past 60 years, and also 150 years,) however, it was almost entirely a “farm” (or Family Farm) movement that did the vast majority of movement work in many of the categories of what are today called “Food Movement” work. There are also other “farm” movement sectors that oppose work on “farm justice.”

The farm-side of the Farm and Food Movement, (of which my family has been a part since long before I was born,) has often called for food-side help, (for example here, in 1985, [] where I used the term “food” in my title, to get people’s attention, even though it was almost entirely a “farm” movement that did the activism). We didn’t really see much food-side help showing up over the long decades of the recent phase of our fight (i.e. since the 1950s). Most farmers had been run out of business by the 1990s through distributive farm injustice, without any kind of significant “Food Justice Movement” showing up. Now, as we enter the 3rd decade of the 21st century, however, a huge food-side movement. To farmers, it might seem like a miracle. Unfortunately, so far, the food-side of the movement doesn’t seem to know much about it’s farm-side history, policy, economics, sociology, etc.

The term “farm” and the term agriculture, like the word “food,” are also used in compound terms, such as “farming system,” “farm industry,” “farm interests,” and “farm lobby.” Some of these “farm” terms are used in misleading ways by agribusiness interests, by mainstream media, and, I influenced by them, by the new Food Movement. For example, what are called the “farm interests” or the interests of the “farming industry” of the United States are often not in the authentic interests of farmers at all.( Nor does the “farm lobby” support the authentic interests of farmers. 

This is especially true for issues like “farm subsidies” and “farm trade,” which are said, (by both agribusiness apologists and the Food Movement,) to be wanted by farmers. This is false. ( The majority of farmers have long supported fair price floor and supply management programs, with no subsidies. We find, then, that, in the Food Movement and mainstream media, farmers are thought to be politically powerful and allied with agribusiness, neither of which is true. Most often this is simply implied, through the terms that lump the two together. The farm movement (Family Farm [or Farm Justice] Movement) that represents authentic “farm” or “farmer” interests has almost always lost the political fights on the big farm bill and trade issues. In our day, these losses have become increasingly mystifying, as the new Food Movement, has opposed agribusiness in its rhetoric, but (unknowingly) supported it in it’s policy proposals, which have almost always maintained the agribusiness status quo, by leaving out advocacy for adequate price floors and supply management.

These misunderstandings have been reinforced by the presence of farmer front groups. These include, for example, the National Corn Growers Association, (which opposes fair prices for corn growers,) the National Pork Producers Council, which opposes the policies needed for hog farmers to stay in business, and similar groups for soybeans, wheat, cotton, etc. ( The failure of the urban Food Movement then easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If Family Farm (Farm Justice) Movement activists point out that Food Movement positions are wrong, it’s often believed that they represent an agribusiness perspective, as the actual history of farm activism remains unknown. (

Finally, the full definition of “farm” (or better “agriculture,”) needs to be supplemented by the work of agrarians like Wendell Berry, for example in The Unsettling of America, where he discusses the larger meaning of things agricultural to human society. Related to this is the negative use of terms like “farm” and “agriculture” in some new historical work on the origins of agriculture (i.e. Evan Fraser & Andres Rimas in Empires of Food; Richard Manning in Against the Grain). Paradoxically, they lump the “agricultural revolution” (peasants in villages) in with the “urban revolution” (cities, civilization, the power complex, empires). These then are criticisms “farming,” where the agricultural revolution is blamed for the failures of the urban revolution, (cities, states, empires, the power complex). (, and see my comments there.) The baby is thrown out with the bathwater. 

In contrast Lewis Mumford defined the differences between early agriculture and the bronze age quite well, in The Transformations of Man, in The Myth of the Machine: v. 1:  Technics and Human Development, and in The City in History. In general, see also Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. This contrast, between “plowshares” and “swords” is also seen in the Bible, over and over, from start to finish. There religions of empires are repeatedly criticized in favor of “the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 5:6)

Amazingly, then, this simple question of the lexicons of “food” and “farm” are quite complex, quite contentious and quite mystifying. This has led, then, to a loss of power for those working against the status quo on farm and food issues. It is an intellectual failure, leading in turn to a political failure.