December 19, 2005

The State of Food

Shortly after the battle of Fallujah in Iraq, the siege begun after 4 U.S. contractors were dismembered and hung from a bridge in 2004, there was a report on a website known as Rense that U.S. troops had used flesh-eating chemical weapons on the civilian population. The story was given so little credibility at the time that the White House was never even put in a position to have to deny it. In this case, though I opposed the war from the beginning, I was among those who dismissed the report as soon as it came out, based on the fringe reputation of the source.

I did not want to believe, not for a minute, that such a thing could be true.

A few short weeks before the end of this fall term, the pictures finally came out and with them, official acknowledgements from the U.S. and British governments that white phosphorous had been dropped on the residents of Fallujah. The bodies in the pictures were burned beyond recognition, desiccated, looking like ashy set pieces from a bad horror movie. There was no denying the truth of it, no matter how much I still would like to.

American society faces a similarly structured problem when it comes to the issue of food production. With most of the population performing work far from growing or raising food, or any of the other necessities of life and health, agricultural issues seem far removed from the common experience. Even though agricultural practices affect everyoneís daily life, not only through food production but through environmental side effects, most of the public is left to choose between seeking out information from non-mainstream sources or accepting the official government and corporate story.

When the first European settlers burned through the primary stored bounty of New England in a scant 200 years, that might have been the end of high intensity agriculture in North America. The settlers might have turned back to the native inhabitants of their new home and adopted a more relaxed style of land management that included long fallow periods and increased geographic flexibility. Or they may have simply clung to their old ways and lived in reduced circumstances like the inhabitants of Easter Island or the first European settlers of Greenland, more attached to the formalities of their social system than to a prosperous future. Didn't happen like that.

Beyond the rich forest ecosystem that stored biomass in thin soil and combustible tree canopies, there were vast, rich plains where the prairie grasses had been helping to lay down layer after layer of crumbly, black soil for tens of thousands of years. As soon as the original inhabitants were cleared away, the settlers helped themselves to a bounty of soil that hasnít reached bottom yet, despite trying very hard.

After the California gold rush, another treasure trove of agricultural land was discovered in the arid soils of the coastal state. The dry climate kept the nutrients in the soil instead of washing them deeper underground or out to sea and agricultural entrepreneurs moved there by the thousands to mine the next big opportunity. And there, in the early part of last century, a great deal of the farm mechanization and crop species standardization was developed that enabled the modern corporate agriculture model to emerge and spread around the world.

Completely disconnected from either the migratory village traditions of the natives of the Great Plains or the family farming model that came west with the settlers of the other states, there was no local competition for the profit-oriented centralization of farming production. The growing agribusiness sector was increasingly dominated by wealthy land speculators and politically canny merchant growers who worked to get representation in the corridors of power.

Today, the U.S. multinationals that dominate the food industry also dominate the government agencies who are tasked with watching over them. The revolving door between government and industry positions as well as steep political contributions often hold regulatory bodies in check when issues of public safety come up. The government and industry consensus expresses concern over losses of profit, but rarely leap first to express concern about loss of life or health in their rush to toss the precautionary principle over the side as new chemicals are introduced into our environments and bodies.

Yet these issues continue to be brushed over in the media. The debate over genetically modified organisms and the patenting of living things, all the rage in poorer, third world countries, barely makes the news in America. The speed of our soil erosion and draining of our water tables only shows up in the public consciousness in the form of political fights between environmentalists and farmers. Of course itís always farmers, not Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland, fighting people. The myth of the family farm obscures that most of the family farms are gone to have been replaced by sprawling, open air, dirt floor food factories.

It isnít just my end of the quarter exhaustion speaking when I say that the public is tired. Iíve heard from so many people who tell me they donít vote or watch the news that politics is just too hard to follow. Theyíre busy and exhausted and they barely have time to follow one issue, let alone the many required for them to feel confident about their political voice. The politics and policy of food are among the most complex of these issues, with every step outside the conventional framework rigged with landmines of legal privilege and financial expectation. But at the same time, they have a simple story that people could probably relate to if they could only be told more clearly or more often.

The way we get our food is killing the land. The living communities that support health and plant productivity, from beneficial birds and insects to the billions of organisms in a tablespoon of healthy soil, are weakening and dying away. The slow death of the land is killing our communities and the communities of people around the world whose land is drafted by the global economy to make up for what we lack here at home. The loss of local agricultural knowledge is making the damage worse, helping to burn faster through millions of years of stored carbon in a single generation of humans.

The story is a little frightening at first. One does not want to believe it. We have to eat, donít we? What can we do?

At the same time that the story makes us feel alarmed, it should also make us feel powerful. As the wealthiest set of consumers in history, every company wants our patronage and approval. One voice they can ignore, but get enough people together and they are forced time and again to take notice and back down. As Iíve seen the liberal blogging community has been working towards, members of our wider society need to look to each other with the trust and knowledge that given accurate information and a little faith, those around us will make good decisions and act with the interest of others in mind.

Fear holds the cover on the official story and mistrust holds people back from respecting one another enough to demand the full participation and accountability of each person to their society. At bottom, these are problems of human interaction that canít be solved by clever policy, only by simple faith in each other.

Posted by natasha at December 19, 2005 11:33 AM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

Although, the Army insists they have only used flares.

The damage I've seen in the photos is as though the phosphorous was dropped on the directly and ignited; that's not a known tactic from our armed forces since before Korea.

I don't know what to make of it - whether it's an accident (flare going off at ground target instead of in the air, ordinance going off in a bundle instead of seperately), intentional, or something else.

But it isn't something they've ever mentioned in the Army/Marine material and such that they'd intentionally (militarily) burn targets with the material.

If it isn't a tactic they use, and that wasn't the intent when it went to the lines - how did it get used that way?

I wish this administration wouldn't try to make us look like kooks for actually trying to investigate what actually happened. If it were up to them, we'd not have known about Abu-Gahrib, and they'd not have stopped it.

And that's what bugs me the most about it. Troops don't know what is or isn't against the law - and they're not encouraged to know. And no, I'm not making this up - I'm often called upon to tell my friends in the military what's going on in the real world outside the bubble of their coworkers.

Posted by: Crissa at December 25, 2005 08:20 PM