This is the last installment of The Local Foodie Fight blog as we’ve known it. (Hah.) Sorry I up-n-disappeared for a while. It’s been harder than I thought post-grad and interning 40 hours a week and I had meant to post a “recap/this is what I learned/final summation” from this past semester but it took a while and so here it finally is. Nothing too revelatory or groundbreaking. If you have followed the blog at all over the past 4 months, nothing here should be new but I think it’s a helpful post to kind of tie everything together–well as much as that can possibly be done. After this post, this blog will become strictly a place for recipes and restaurant reviews.
The majority of the food production problems the United States and most of the world is experiencing with regard to sustainability is the result of the Green Revolution, which happened from around 1943 to 1970. This “Green Revolution” isn’t what you would initially think. It actually refers to a series of research, development, and technological initiatives that increased industrial agriculture in volume, largely replacing many small family-owned operations. The initiatives were essentially intended to do one thing: increase the amount of food calories that were produced in order to feed an increasingly larger population.
The initiatives that were pursued during this government-motivated movement involved the development of high-yielding grains and commodity foodstuffs (like heavily subsidized corn and soy), expansion of irrigation infrastructure (which led to issues of soil nutrient depletion, groundwater depletion and erosion), and use of genetically modified seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides (which would later prove detrimental to human health and specific ecosystems). Furthermore, this reliance on corn and soy translated into a dependence on more heavily processed food that utilizes ingredients like soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. I highly encourage you to conduct an experiment over the next day: look at the ingredient label of everything you eat. Unless you are allergic to soy (my roommate is, it’s a tough lifestyle), or you follow a macrobiotic or raw diet, I would bet at least 25-50% of the food you eat has at least one of these ingredients.
This cheap, fast, processed food has gone on to contribute to obesity, heart disease, cholesterol problems, and other health problems and also poses increased risks related to food borne-illness due to the high quantity of food being turned out and the cross-contamination that results, coupled with insufficient federal standards. This has also resulted in an agricultural economy that has power concentrated in just a few hands and pockets, namely giant corporations like Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield and Monsanto, which weakens local economies and cultures across the globe and contributes to global warming through the carbon output of the transportation used to move this food such far distances. Furthermore, this has led to a growth in organic labeling but also has contributed to misleading marketing that has further confused consumers and created a divide between people and wholesome, nutritious food. This divide is a cultural side effect of our current food system that will take much work to fill.
There are several challenges this movement is currently facing.
It can’t be just ‘trickle down’ or ‘bottom-up.’ Too many authors and scientists are preaching about green development while sipping from McDonald’s cups and Dasani bottles. And too many urban gardeners don’t understand how government involvement affects what people are able to do in their personal lives and how to make behaviors more practical for people on tight budgets. Leaders of the movement need to be more united, informed, and responsible for their personal actions and the message those actions send to the public. Throughout my research and while speaking to experts, there has seemingly emerged two somewhat distinct “camps” of thinkers in the field of sustainable food system development: people who believe progress will come from the “top” (government regulations, subsidy revisions, legislation, corporate restructuring, breaking up monopolies, changing company practices) and those who believe progress is going to be motivated from the “bottom” (individuals, families and communities making changes in their personal lives). It is with optimism that I believe both sets of changes are happening and both will continue to happen until both collective needs and personal needs are met in a way that is equitable, as well as ecologically and economically beneficial. Not only will the possibilities made through political action trickle down to consumers, but consumer action and demand will rise up to influence those who possesses the political power and what decisions they are driven to make.
The Farm Bill requires intense overhauling. This is an issue many organizations are lobbying hard to change. The USDA needs to begin incentivizing biodiversity instead of monoculture commodity crops, to encourage farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables, and help end our obsession with high-fructose corn syrup and processed foods created using corn and soy surpluses. We should also move away from free trade agricultural policies, which encourage agribusinesses to buy crops from countries with poor environmental standards and labor conditions, and move more toward food sovereignty and local, domestic farmer support. These sorts of efforts would also pave the way for cafeterias at schools and other institutions to fund and provide infrastructure that would allow them to purchase food from regional food producers more often. Improving the food of young eaters would start a generation on the proper track toward health and wellness, instead of death and obesity as they currently are. Lobbying on Farm Bill work will largely fall on organizations, but those organizations need support from investors and foundations and feedback from individuals in order to their job, so ultimately we all have a role to play.
Environmentalists aren’t on the same page with each other, let alone with economists and financial experts. In just a few short months of following the different approaches to food production, I’ve heard too many varying opinions and stances on how to deal with our food system woes. For example, William McDonough asserts that our food security issues need not be battled with population control; Lester Brown sees population stabilization as the most important factor in regaining stability of our food system. Food sustainability advocates need to be on the same page in order to maintain credibility and convince skeptics. They also need to think like economists just as often as they think about making progress toward a greener world. My former professor, Terry Sankar, has invented a vertical wind axis turbine which is currently priced at about $30,000/each. His goal is to get that number down to about $10,000, because if you can make turbines cheaper, you get more people buying, you get more people on board with clean energy. You have to use economics in a way that benefits all involved, instead of in a way that produces one-sided profits. This is how we need to think. Create, invest and innovate in order to increase the feasibility of products, services, and projects that are better for the planet and humanity.
Seeds of change and planting more
Throughout the past decade, a movement has started to slowly take shape. For example, while food industry monopolies have taken hold, in some areas, small farmers like Michael Heller, owner of Clagett Farm in Virginia, have worked toward converting previous corn fields into fruit, vegetable and livestock farms. Organizers have begun to educate community members on methods of urban agriculture, and we have a lot of development in this area. Innovations include: green rooftop farms, neighborhood gardens, hydroponic window farms for tiny apartments and compost bins within homes to produce richer, more nutritious soil while cutting down on the trash sent to landfills. These are small movements in the grand scheme of things, but they are seeds of change.
However, these efforts, while important, are isolated. They need to be more sophisticated and organized in order to draw these initiatives together and be impact. Some tactics I propose include:
- Better education and more recruiting for students to agricultural, urban agriculture, and sustainable farming educations, as well as training on how to manage these businesses effectively. (More universities are beginning to offer urban sustainability and food science degrees, and I see this trend picking up more in the future.)
- Increased education within elementary and middle school about nutrition and our food system (The Farm to School program being a great example of how to connect children with producing food while also teaching about nutrition.)
- Better public relations and strategic communications campaigns that convey the benefits (health, social, longer term economic gains) of organic food, urban agriculture, and supporting local farmers–incentives drive change
There is not any one solution or method that will bring us to a sustainable system of producing our food. After all, sustainable food production is not a goal, just as sustainability is not a goal–it’s a process, which fortunately is gaining acceptance. Improving our food system is no longer an option or a would-be-nice.
We often lose sight of our common interests as humans. There are countless special interest groups, government agencies, struggling families, corporations–the list goes on–and so many conflicting opinions and politics. Most of the time I feel like I’m on the “environmentalist side”, but as the last few months have passed, I’ve come to see it shouldn’t be about sides and winning arguments, it should be about finding our similarities. Or our…
This is going to wrap up my study, but I will be taking my intellectual thoughts, etc over to a new home. I hope you keep checking back here for the occasional (weekly, I think) local recipe/restaurant review and I also hope you consider expanding your green horizons through my new blog over at Talking on Common Ground.
I’d also like to just say thanks to everyone, especially all the food/fitness bloggers, who have followed me and become my Twitter friends and left comments and feedback and told me they enjoy this blog because in all seriousness I never thought anyone would read it.
OK, now hop on over to the new site and I’ll catch you on the flip side.