March 06, 2006

We Are How We Eat

If being an affluent society doesn't mean eating well, I can't imagine what it does mean. - Brian Donahue in The Essential Agrarian Reader

What's the state of food, you ask? Oh right. You probably didn't. We don't do that, unless it comes up peripherally when we're talking about people who don't have any at all, usually in other countries but sometimes here, too. Then it's okay to bring up stories like this (which are important), about how malnutrition is costing developing nations 3% of their yearly productivity and is implicated in over half of all children's deaths worldwide, based on how many people die of diseases that aren't fatal when you're well fed.

... [R]ates of under-nutrition in children across India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan ranged between 38% and 51%, compared with 26% in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Nearly half of India's children are undernourished, compared with a quarter of those in sub-Saharan Africa," said Praful Patel, World Bank vice president for South Asia.

... "It is intimately linked with poor health and environmental factors, and yet policymakers, politicians and economists often fail to recognize these connections" - Jean-Louis Sarbib, World Bank

In the context of discussing globalization, agriculture comes up as a land use or indigenous rights issue, sometimes a 'corporate oppressor pushes out little guy' story, some mention of the (laudable) Fair Trade movement may be involved. It's an economic sidebar with a dash of property rights. I realized the other day that even the estimable ZNet, with it's multifaceted topic list, has no agriculture section. They've got a conference mentioned on their website called Life After Capitalism, which regrettably lacks an obvious forum addressing the question of what the frak we would all eat after adopting an alternate commerce structure.

Food is, you know, boring. Growing it? Snoozing already, here. It's like money. When you've always had it, you don't tend to worry that much about it. These essentially agricultural discussions don't typically happen in an atmosphere that encourages education on the core issue of where we get our food and how it's grown, marketed and distributed.

Our sub/urbanized public tends to know very little about how food happens except that it often occurs in flat places with warm summers and rows of plants. Sometimes terraced paddies are involved. If you were paying attention in history class, it may have stuck in your head that slaves used to have something to do with it and it's always seemed popular with the peasants. Not that we have peasants in America anymore, but if we did, they would at any rate be landless. As a reasonably typical public school attendee in a big city, that about summed up all I knew about food production for much of my life.

The Farmer points out over at the Farm Runoff blog that one reason many of us wind up hearing so little about it (I used to know more about the stock market, just from cultural osmosis, which has never been part of my work and also represents a pretty low, frakking bar) is because of media intimidation that would make a tinpot dictator's heart swell with pride. Margot Ford McMillen explains:

Ask someone who's studied industrialized agriculture and they'll tell you it's bad because large monocultures and confined animals pollute the air and water. Then they'll tell you the food that comes from industry is tasty but unhealthy. They'll tell you it's cheap because it's subsidized by the government with so many subsidies that the big companies ought to give it away.

Then they'll tell you the big guys hog the resources and put farmers out of business rather than helping rural economies. They'll cite the studies that say that rural counties with small farms have less spousal abuse, more kids in school, more churchgoers and more engaged parents. And, finally, they'll tell you that the big players manipulate the democracy.

... In Iowa, lawmakers are pushing for a bill to label and punish people who complain about factory farms in their neighborhood. The so-called "chronic complainers" may be researchers or they may be citizens trying to protect their families and their real estate investments, but under this law if you complain three times about industrialized agriculture, you are labeled and you have no right to be heard.

In 13 states, there are already laws against disparagement of agriculture. In the words of South Dakota's version, this includes "dissemination ... of any information ... that an agricultural food product is not safe for consumption ... or that generally accepted agricultural and management practices make ... food products unsafe ..."

... In Missouri and Illinois and many other states, lawmakers are pushing a law forbidding photography or dissemination of photographs taken inside an agricultural research or production facility. Violation would result in a misdemeanor citation. ... [The] passage of these laws jeopardizes the rights of employees, researchers and scientists to protect the public or to even carry out their work. If, for example, an employee, researcher or scientist presents results of an experiment at a national meeting, that researcher will (in the language of the bill) "knowingly distribute records, data, material, equipment or animals" or "photographic, video or electronic image ..." and can be prosecuted.

Furthermore, one section of the bill forbids scientists and researchers from raising, soliciting, collecting, donating or providing material support. In other words, research scientists in Missouri and funders who "provide material support" will be at risk of breaking the law if they pay for research.

And if the scientists, researchers and employees somehow manage to raise the money and distribute their findings in spite of this bill, major discoveries will go unpromoted because journalists are at risk if they possess "records, data, material, equipment ... or any photographic, video or electronic image ..."

California's corrupt business lobbies are doing their own part in all this, by trying to shred food safety laws, such that if someone did manage to tell you that there was dangerous stuff in what you feed your family, there wouldn't actually be a law against putting it there. According to the post, such efforts are currently underway in several more states.

So then you get the environmental perspective (also important), noting with alarm that pesticide pollution is rampant, without going deeply into why. I mean, how the hell did our ancestors feed themselves if they had no pesticides? The shortish answer to that is: polyculture, permaculture and preserving the biodiversity of locally adapted plants and animals. Poly- and permaculture may be new-to-us words, but the principles are merely formalized extracts from the agricultural heritage of the global south and many small farm managers through the ages.

To remind you, my gentle readers, why agriculture affects all of us (in addition to everybody needing to eat), here's a short list of global issues that can't be addressed without fundamentally reforming agriculture and the current agribusiness model: Rural and third world poverty, hunger, gender and racial equity, clean water and air, land/wetlands/ocean habitat conservation, indigenous rights, fossil fuel use/conservation, public health, global warming along with it's impending refugee crisis, population pressure and biodiversity.

So how are my own two favorite western states dealing with agriculture at the moment?

WA: The state legislature will fund riparian (waterside) conservation grants that would make it easier for farms (and others) near waterways to afford to protect them, along with a farmland preservation grant program. This last aims to prevent the complete pave over of farmland in desirable areas as happened in ...

CA: Most of California's major cities have grown up square on top of what used to be the country's best agricultural powerhouse. A recent attempt to claim back some of that heritage and help the impoverished is about to turn from healthy food for 250 families into 50 crappy jobs selling bologna and processed cheese:

... For thirteen years, in the depressed inner city of south central LA, 250 families have been feeding themselves on with organic fruits and vegetables grown on a farm that was once completely paved and considered completely useless for growing anything on.
The farm has almost zero fossil fuel imput and zero transport cost. It's a model the whole world should be copying, but instead the city has decided to give them an eviction notice. The sheriff's office delivered the notice on March 1st. This farm does great things, and its in everybody's best interest that it survive.

The city wants to replace it with a Wal-Mart. ...

And ain't that just the way of the world these days.

Posted by natasha at March 6, 2006 01:17 PM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

And just to make things more interesting...

These people not only jump the shark, they're tapdancing on the SOB.

I mean, what's next? Enabling men in black cloaks to legally tie women to railroad tracks?

Posted by: Palamedes at March 7, 2006 02:38 PM

Each year we buy two sheep, a pig and half a bison directly from the farmers, so we know exactly how they are raised. The meat tastes so much better than supermarket meat--there's no comparison.

This does require you to have a freezer, however. A more advanced system might be a community freezer so that people in apartments could do the same.

Buying directly from family-owned farms and bypassing agribusiness is the way to go. The internet makes it much easier than it once was.

The US is way behind. You can find a lot more of this going on in places like the UK and New Zealand.

Posted by: maidhc at March 8, 2006 01:23 AM

Here's the latest on he LA story you mention...

Posted by: Palamedes at March 9, 2006 12:40 PM

You are so right. I can only quote Wendell Berry, he understands it all...

Wendell Berry writes:

"Between these two programs--the industrial and the agrarian, the global and the local, the most critical difference is that of knowledge. The global economy institutionalizes a global ignorance, in which producers and consumers cannot know or care about one anothers, and in which the histories of all products will be lost. In such a circumstance, the degradation of products and places, producers and consumers is inevitable." (Citizenship Papers 121, my emphasis)

Knowledge is vital for our physical health, because what we eat can make us sick. It is also vital for our more general health, because this knowledge relates us to other people upstream and downstream from us (literally and figuratively). Why then do you choose to make us more ignorant and sicker? I can think of only one reason, and, again, Wendell Berry explains it very well:

"The idea of people working at home, as family members, as neighbors, as natives and citizens of their places, is as repugnant to the industrial mind as the idea of self employment. The industrial mind is an organizational mind, and I think this mind is deeply disturbed and threatened by the existence of people who have no boss. This may be why people with such minds, when the approach the top of the political hierarchy so readily sell themselves to `special interests.' They cannot bear to be unbossed. They cannot stand the lonely work of making up their own minds.
The industrial contempt for anything small, rural, or natural translates into contempt for uncentralized economic systems, and sort of self-sufficiency in food or other necessities. The industrial `solution' for such systems is to increase the scale of work and trade. It is to bring Big Ideas, Big Money, and Big Technology into small rural communities, economies, and ecosystems--the brought-in industry and the experts bein invariable alien to and contemptuous of the places to which they are brought in. There is never any question of propriety, of adapting the thought or the purpose or the technology to the place.
The result is that problems correctable on the a small scale are replaced by large-scale problems for which there are no large-scale solutions." (CitizenshipPapers 145).

I read those words and I look at the actions you, our Congress, took in writing and passing your food labeling law and I see contempt for America and Americans. You worship money, and you are subservient to those who have it. You lead us into wars to get the oil to make the food. You lead us into ignorance and contempt for ourselves. Uniformity of food, of people, of ideas, of places. What will be the next uniformity you ask for?

Posted by: andy at March 10, 2006 08:36 AM

I should explain that the above comments were part of a rant I wrote to congress. I'm sorry, I didn't realize when I cut and pasted that nobody would understant the "you." I was referring to our representatives...


Posted by: andy at March 10, 2006 08:38 AM