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So What?

1 March 2009

I have posts to make up about The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Hope’s Edge (I’ll get to them…), but at the moment what’s on my mind is The Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, ed. Vadana Shiva.

Talking with Prof. Everbach a couple of weeks ago, he asked me, “So what?” I’m doing all this reading and learning about what’s wrong with the current food system, and how people think it should be, and their philosophy as to why it should be like that. But, so what? What am I going to do about it? How am I going to change things? What needs to be done?

The Manifestos are about what needs to be done on a global-political level, and I mostly agree with it. Food doesn’t take well to be commoditized like shoes or computers: it doesn’t travel well: food is best cultivated and distributed as locally as possible, and global legislation should favor a localcentric, diversified system rather than globalcentric, industrialized approach.

This makes sense to me; the agro-industrial complex doesn’t need the support of the WTO and FAO to thrive; it has enough power from it’s sheer size. The global trade organizations should work to promote a competitive market, which means protecting the interests of the small players. Furthermore, trade should be encouraged as a benefit, not an expense, to the local economy, which means local industries, agriculture especially, should be supported.

The other major premise of the Manifestos deals with the agricultural biotech industry. Besides a staunch position against GM foods generally, they are adamantly opposed to the patenting of seeds and lifeforms, a cause very dear to my heart. For one, I don’t know how they prove that there is no “prior art”. Two, it discourages crop diversity, and encourages dangerous monocultures. Three, GM crops rarely delivers on the promise to be more productive, and are more expensive than their natural counterparts, and sterile seed prevent farmers from being self-sufficient or financially independent, and make them completely dependent on the whims of industry year after year.

The Manifestos are directed towards change in government and intergovernmental organizations. Which makes sense. Agriculture is not capable of thriving in a free market, as it is full of externalities (such as pollution, soil degradation, diversity loss) as well as serves a market with a fairly inelastic demand. Or course, much of regulation is saving the industry from itself, as unsustainable practices will come back to harm the business in the long run. Also food security, biodiversity, and agricultural independence are public goods that the market has no reason to provide on it’s own.

However, while I have strong opinions at the policy level, and have much support for those striving for governmental change, I feel a pull towards the other end of the movement, to the personal, “grassroots” level.

There is a lot of argument among food advocates, I’ve noticed, as to which is more important: change on the personal level or change on the policy level. I don’t see why the answer can’t be “both”. Policy change is important: we need a political environmental that’s supportive of small farmers, high-quality local food, that provides consumer education starting in grade-school, that regulates using the precautionary principle in favor of consumers instead of industry, prevents the patenting of life, and understands sustainable solutions.

Those are some big tasks that require a huge amount of advocacy time and energy. However, no less important than making the government fertile and receptive to positions of Good Food, is making the consumers, and ourselves, fertile and receptive to the cause. The system is broken from above because we have offered no resistance from below. People need to take their food, their health, their lives back. Education on the personal and community level is crucial to raising awareness. Kitchen gardens, CSAs, guerrilla gardens, community gardens are all necessary to provide empowerment and connection with the cause. It is important that we get in touch not only with where our food comes from in nature, but the people it comes from: not mere consumers but “co-producers”, as Carlo Petrini advocates. There need to be people who interact with local communities, providing information, sparking discussions, fostering connections, organizing initiatives. Controlling your own food supply provides security: it protects your children health, it provides a buffer when money is tight, it creates a satisfaction unachievable in consumption, it keeps money and work within a community. Food is power.

We cannot merely say “this needs to be done”. We must do. We cannot hope to change the world if we are unwilling to first change ourselves.

Top-down, bottom-up…all efforts are needed. And when we meet in the middle, we shall feast and dance.

My poetic side is starting to take over, so I should stop here.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 1 April 2009 12:25 PM

    The movement of the current US administration is bring everyone and everything under a global-world control so “local” farms, gardens, etc. are looked on as bad. As a matter of fact, there is a bill in the Congress sponsored by the Left to require ALL food growers (and brokers, middlemen, retailers) to document everything they grow and sell or give away so ALL food can be traced back to its source if there is a problem with the food. So a neighborhood garden will be required to document each food distributed in the neighborhood or face fines and/or jail time! If they have 20 families in the neighborhood garden, 20 forms for each fruit and vegetable will have to be completed before it can be distributed! The current administration professes to support local gardening/farms but is legislating them out of existence with paperwork and bureaucracy!
    Growing food locally is OK in educated societies with knowledge of fertilizers, pesticides and related, but in the third world, it is often dangerous to trust the local food. The third world farmer learns about a pesticide that kills the insects eating their crops so they buy the pesticide and spray double or triple the amount necessary because they want to insure their crop is completely safe. The result is food loaded with pesticides and it is also polluting the ground water along with more fertilizers! It was safer when they used human waste for fertilizer and burning fires on their land to scare away some of the insects!
    There is an agricultural biotech industry Rice Institute in the Philippines which has secured a supply of most the world’s rice seeds/kernals which have ever existed. Their work creates new and better rice for the world’s rice farmers because after awhile a new rice strain that was not liked by one or more insects becomes liked by them. The insects adapt to survive! The rice crops around the world would not be able to cover the needs of the world without this institute so there are good agricultural biotech industry operations and not all are bad.

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