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Food or Faux?

June 18, 2009

It’s dinner time, do you know what your food is? It may seem like a weird question, but think about it for a second. Food, supposedly, grows somewhere, right? Well, where did a Tofu Corn Dog grow? A Froot Loop? Where did the preservatives that are in our food come from, and how did they get there? For that matter, how much of the food that we put in our bodies – filled with chemicals, petroleum derivatives, pesticides and food coloring – would have even been considered food by our grandparents? Will we recognize what our grandchildren will be eating when they are our age? Welcome to the food of the future!

The future of food is a quagmire that is cross-pollinated with the seemingly contradictory needs of human health, a living planet, and the profit desires of the agricultural industry. Though it may be modified by legislation and market trends, this future is within our power to create. But before we can create a future that we want, we need to figure out what we need, and what we can live with.

First, however, we have to understand that the present is dominated by what originally seemed to be the great “promise” of the future, as envisioned many decades in the past. A future in which plants were resistant to all manner of blight, a future in which food could be grown with restricted soil and space.  That future is now. It is filled with genetically engineered crops that are controlled by a few major companies, and it has led to more global hunger, not less. The promise of the future, as envisioned in the past, is now looking like at riddle at best, and a serious problem at worst.

But, for the sake of argument – and our future – let’s look at the current state of affairs as an opportunity. And let’s look at the two most extreme possibilities for the future: A future run entirely by major agro-industrial corporations, and conversely, a future run entirely by small organic farms. Our real future is likely somewhere in between.

The Agro-Industrial Future

One possible future is largely dominated by agro-industrial giants like Monsanto, and brings with it genetic engineering, patents on the DNA in seeds, corporate control of the seed supply, proliferation of processed food, and very little choice.

Nowhere is the confluence of contradictory desires – between people, profit and the planet – more evident than with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and chemical agriculture. Companies like Monsanto have done incredible amounts of research and development to alter the DNA of the seeds used to grow many staple crops like corn, soy and canola. The goal was to create plants that were pest resistant and able to produce bountiful crops, even in less than ideal situations. Because their research is proprietary, they have no obligation to make those seeds available to anyone else, and can sell them in a way that dictates the behavior of farmers who plant the seeds. This is big business for them because their patents protect the seeds, and farmers are forbidden to plant the seeds that their crops produce. Instead, they are forced to buy new seeds from the corporations every year.

From the industry’s perspective that is a logical business decision – of course they want to protect the fruits of their labor. However, in defense of those patents, these agro-industrial corporations are doing great harm to farmers who use more traditional growing methods.

Thanks, ironically, to Mother Nature, GMO plants can literally colonize the crops around them. Both the pollen from the GMO crops and the chemicals used on them will drift with the wind and leech into the soil, impregnating neighboring crops. Once that happens, those crops are no longer considered organic because, through natural processes, they now contain the genetically engineered DNA. In addition to losing the natural qualities, farmers also lose their organic accreditation, which can be a tough blow in a competitive marketplace.

What’s more, just a few key players, like DuPont and Monsanto, who continue to buy up smaller seed suppliers, increasingly dominate the seed supply.  At the rate we’re going, almost all of our seed supply will be owned and controlled by a few corporations who, as a result, will control every aspect of our food supply.  While that may not seem like a big deal to many, there are a lot of ramifications of this fact.

First, if you’re not interested in eating genetically modified food, you may be out of luck, because it may be all there is – remember, bees and wind and rain will naturally cross-pollinate your organic crops with the GMO crops next door, whether you want them to or not.

Beyond that, there are complex legal issues facing small farmers. Because the DNA of these GMO plants is patented, if the pollen or seeds from those plants blow into a neighboring field and cross-breeds or just starts growing there, the corporation that designed the plant can sue the farmer for patent infringement.

It may sound both absurd and Draconian, perhaps even fictional, but it’s not. Take for example, the case of Percy Schmeiser.  In a well-publicized case, Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto for illegally planting and harvesting their patented Roundup Ready Canola seeds. The problem was that Schmeiser had never planted such seeds. Rather, due to natural forces, the Roundup Ready canola plants on the neighboring farm cross-pollinated with Schmeiser’s plants. Monsanto had a history of suing similar farmers, most of whom never fought back because the prospect of “taking on” Monsanto was more than most independent farmers thought they could handle. Schmeiser, however, did fight back.

Amongst the more shocking assertions on behalf of Monsanto was that it didn’t matter whether or not Schmeiser intended to grow their seeds. All that mattered was that they were growing on his property. “Whether Mr. Schmeiser knew of the matter or not matters not at all,” said Roger Hughes, a Monsanto attorney quoted by The Western Producer, a Canadian agriculture magazine. Monsanto testified, essentially, that whether Percy meant to plant their patented seeds was not relevant. However it happened – naturally or otherwise – the seeds were patented and as such, his crops were their property.

Shockingly to many, Schmeiser initially lost the lawsuit. It was a complicated case that has been widely studied, as the ramifications are monumental. But the long and the short of it remains that the courts decreed that when a seed is patented, it doesn’t matter how it got into a farmers crops – by wind, rain or bee – that farmer is responsible for paying all fees due to the owner of the patent.

Although Monsanto technically won the trial, along with the right to defend their patents, Schmeiser’s case was ultimately something of a draw, because he was not forced to pay Monsanto any fees. Schmeiser however, was not content with that and continued to fight for the rights of independent farmers. In 2008, a further settlement was reached between Schmeiser and Monsanto. According to Schmeiser’s web site

“In an out of court settlement finalized on March 19, 2008, Percy Schmeiser has settled his lawsuit with Monsanto. Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.”

Although this was just one case, it is clear that the impact of these GMO seeds extends well beyond the seed themselves. Indeed, whoever controls the seeds controls the food – and maybe even the whole food supply. We do not really have freedom to choose if all of our choices are controlled by one or two companies.

The Small Organic Future

Of course there is a different potential future, one characterized largely by locally grown organic food, lots of good food choices and the security that comes from having countless small farms around the world providing food in their own communities. The huge proliferation of farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups and increasing organic choices is evidence that the potential for that future is already growing across our country.

Additionally, the successful growth of chains like Whole Foods indicates that there is a hungry – and relatively mainstream – market ready and waiting for these changes to take root. That’s good for us and good for business.

These “new” developments in the food market are in fact as old as agriculture itself, and as old as cities. Ironically, the ability to grow food is what enabled us to grow permanent communities. When we were able to stop hunting and gathering, and began growing our food instead, we stayed put. It was then, through development of agricultural techniques, that we were able to build permanent cities, in which generations of people were raised and began to specialize their own trades. The farmers grew food, the builders built structures and so on. But of central importance in these emerging agrarian societies was the growing of food in harmony with the natural resources. Crops were planted that thrived in that climate – it is unlikely that hundreds of years ago people were eating mangoes in Norway, which they can do now!

Inherent in all of that ancient wisdom was a knowledge of things like crop rotation and complimentary planting. Farmers knew – without the Internet to teach them or industry to sell them fertilizer – that soil remains stronger when a variety of plants are rotated through it, as they each deplete and impart different nutrients in the soil. Farmers also knew that some plants literally helped other plants grow – whether through cross-pollination of by attracting insects that eat the predators of another plant.

Once grown, farmers would sell their produce, meat, cheeses and other products directly to members of their local communities. Whether for cash or barter, this direct commerce became not only the food lifeline of cities, but the very foundation of local economies. Each member of the community getting their needs met and making a living based directly on their ability to buy, sell and barter goods and services with other people.

As simple as it seems, these things have worked for centuries all across the planet. However, with the advent of industrial agriculture, we left these methods behind, and began paying attention to the promises of a future that simply contained no pests and in which soil was little more than something for us to stand on. Food, suddenly, was being shipped across the state, country and even across the planet. While it may seem fabulous that a kid in Arkansas can eat strawberries from Chile in the middle of a deep February chill, it has not been without consequence. That ability is tied directly to a tremendous expenditure of fossil fuels – from the farm machinery to the shipping to even the fertilizers.  It’s one thing to say that it isn’t “natural.” It’s a different thing altogether to acknowledge that it isn’t healthy for us or our planet. All those fossil fuels harm our soil and our air, the fertilizers and pesticides harm our bodies, and the absence of local commerce creates a hefty imbalance in the economies of food.

All of which is nourishing the burgeoning move back to sustainable farming methods, farmers markets, seasonal food and even growing our own vegetable gardens!

This evolving environment of “food activism” is bringing the old-fashioned idea of local farming to the forefront of the future.  Ironically, the economic downturn may be good for us as well, as people seem to be returning to both their gardens and their kitchens – growing and preparing their own food – and that is good for our bodies and our planet! And we ought to give a nod to Michelle Obama for making home gardens our favorite of her legendary fashion statements.

This is a future in which people have much more control over their food supply – both by growing their own food and by directly supporting local farmers who use sustainable methods. Further, this future grows community, as farmers develop a more direct relationship with their customers, and vice versa, through direct commerce.

Lest we think that the idea of locally grown food is simply “charming,” it’s worth noting that when our food supply is tied into things like the international supply of petroleum and its byproducts, not to mention our status on the international stage, it puts us in a very precarious position.

As J. Scott Angle, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences points out in recent testimony to House Agricultural Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management, April 1, 2009:

For this reason, no one wants our food production shipped overseas. We have seen clearly with imported energy supplies how easily we can be at the mercy of others who may not always like us. It’s bad to be dependent on imported fuel. It would be disastrous if we depended on other nations for our food. Remember, we have only an 11-day food supply in our food chain. If that chain is broken, critical problems arise almost immediately.

The promise of a future in which food is locally grown, and with it our connection to the planet and each other also grows, is very idyllic indeed. And if we understand the role that industrial farming, regulation and other market forces are playing in manipulating the system, that future is not so far-fetched, really. After all, only if we understand it, can we change it.

­­Back To The Present

There are a lot of very busy people on this planet, many of whom have neither the time nor the money – much less the access – to buy beautiful organic food at Whole Foods. As such, the idea of a readily available supply of cheap food makes sense. Government support of that food supply even makes sense. And there already is a system in place for doing just that – but it is not doing what we think it is doing, and certainly not what it set out to do.

First of all, cheap food has a cost to the environment and to our health – and the reason it is cheap is that it’s subsidized. Our taxes make it cheap. Some of the largest farm subsidies supported by our tax dollars go to grow massive amounts of things like corn and soy, which become heavily processed and turned into something else entirely. The vast amounts of corn that are grown, for instance, are rarely consumed as corn, but rather as corn syrup and other unhealthy food additives. Not only is the process itself harmful to our planet, there is increasing evidence that the food it creates is not good for us. Moreover, it makes it even harder for those small local farms to survive against the big commodity farmers who have the support of both government and industry.

However, the most harmful effects of these practices are seen years later in the form of things like obesity, diabetes, food allergies and all kinds of ailments that are occurring in epidemic proportions now. As long ago as 2002, the US Department of Health and Human Services was saying that health conditions related to obesity were costing the country $117 billion annually. The individual health impacts, they stated, were roughly the same as aging 20 years. The overall cost to our nation exceeds that of dealing with the health problems of cigarette smoking. But, the industrial processing of food is deeply entrenched in our political and economic systems, and at this point, in our edible ethos.

This subsidized food is cheap when we buy it, but it costs us a fortune in health care later.

The specious success of such subsidy systems is having an international impact as well.  We are facing a global food crisis, even in places that have always been able to grow their own food.  Although climate change and human destruction of natural resources is certainly a factor, many experts believe that global hunger is largely a failure in policy. There is more food available per person now than ever before, but international trends towards commoditizing and subsidizing food seems to be causing hunger for millions.

The push towards globalization of our food supply in the 1980s and 1990s may have done more harm than good. The thinking, on behalf of both political and industrial leaders, was that global markets would earn more for the commodity exporters while ensuring a steady supply of food staples through the use of world markets. Structural programs, like those in the UN and World Bank, pushed this view in their policy recommendations.  Unfortunately, it now appears that the result has been a big increase in the dependency on food imports by many of the world’s poorest countries – some of which previously had been relatively self-sufficient. The world market has proved unreliable too, so not only have local agricultural jobs been lost, but hunger has increased when fluctuating exchange rates, or higher world grain prices, push poorer consumers (and countries) out of the market. Meaning that they not only have less food, but also become more dependent on both financial and food-aid from wealthier nations.

A recent report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “Addressing the Global Food Crisis,” cites that the price of cereal grains – basic staples of the human diet – have risen so drastically in the last 3 years that:

…the cereal import bill of low-income food-deficit countries increased in 2007-2008 (as compared to 2002- 2003) from $6.5 billion to $14.6 billion in Africa, from $7.0 billion to $15.4 billion in Asia and from $0.3 billion to $0.7 billion in Latin America and Caribbean. Thus, in five years, the cereal imports of these countries more than doubled in value. The food price rises, translated into higher import food bills, have placed a heavy burden on these countries, as the relative proportions of food imports to GDP are generally higher for developing countries as compared to other countries…

All of which begs the question: why aren’t they growing their own food in the way that has been working for centuries? Not surprisingly, there are a lot of complicated reasons for that – even beyond the global commoditization of food markets.

Is That Oil In Your Food?

It seems obvious that there is a natural battle between major agro-industrial giants and small family farms. But what few people seem to be paying attention to is the relationship between industrial agriculture and oil corporations. Industrial agriculture is totally dependent on oil for everything from pesticides and fertilizer, to fueling and maintaining farm equipment, to the global shipping network. We know that oil is a finite and expensive resource, so it’s a bit puzzling that farmers around the world are encouraged to give up their traditional farming methods, and embrace the pesticide, fertilizer and oil-guzzling farm machinery that is the hallmark of our own unhealthy agro-industrial revolution.

Recent research has revealed that in spite of all the hype about these new technologies – the ones like genetic engineering, commoditized food supplies and artificial fertilizers – the reality is very different. The UN/World Bank recently released a five-year study concluding that genetic engineering will have no impact in fighting world hunger, as traditional methods work just as well. That idea is confirmed up by a University of Michigan study illustrating that organic agriculture can feed the world.  In fact, in developing nations, organic farming produced higher yields than modern chemical techniques. Not only are chemical practices not yielding more food, numerous studies have revealed that the byproducts of industrial farming are killing our planet. Rivers and oceans are crippled by the immense amounts of greenhouse gases released, and chemicals leaching through the soil – not only carbon dioxide but nitrous oxide and methane as well.  And by now we are all well versed in the impacts of ozone depletion from industrial carbon emissions, to which our agricultural industry is a major contributor.

Back To The Future

So what, then, is the future of food? The good news is that the future is one that we will create, and we will do it in our gardens, our communities, our courthouses, our grocery stores and everywhere that we buy or consume food.

By paying careful attention to what our politicians are doing, and by voting with our wallets, we have the chance to shape the future of food into a future that we want to be part of – and take a bite of.

Let’s not make this an unnecessary friend or foe dilemma. The simple truth is that we need food, and a lot of it. J. Scott Angle pointed out in his testimony that, “rising population and growing nutritional demands will require food production to double by 2050. Where the increase in food production will occur depends upon geopolitics, climate or climate changes and environmental considerations.” And therein lies our opportunity.

Major agricultural businesses are not going to go away, but there’s no reason why they can’t adopt practices that are more sustainable. Moreover, these industries employ millions of people, wishing them harm does us more harm than good, but they can certainly change their ways. International commodities markets are not going to go away, but there is no reason why they need to be oppressive. Fast foods and convenient snacks are not going away, but there’s no reason why they have to be so processed and so filled with stuff that simply is not food. And that’s up to us. From how we shop to how we vote, we must get involved.

We have the opportunity to create a future in which most of what we eat comes from sources we actually know, from people who treat the land and their communities well because they are an integral part of that community. A future in which we can easily support local farmers, as well as small food producing companies. In that future, we will be consuming healthy food, supporting sustainable practices and feeding our local economies with our own direct dollars.

We are facing our future now. More accurately, we are facing a fork in the road that could lead us to one future or another. What we put on our plates and in our bodies has the potential to shape the food markets of the future. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that where markets grow, business blooms. That gives us the power to change the food market – and with it, our health, our planet, and our future.

______

This was the cover story for the June / July issue of JUST CAUSE Magazine. You can find the whole issue, and subscribe, online.

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