We are literally made of the food we eat. Our physical bodies are created directly from what we consume, and our energy levels and mental attention are highly influenced by our diet. At the same time, food is the earth. It is seed, soil, water, sunlight, microorganisms, and nutrients. Through food, we reaffirm the way in which we are the earth and the earth is us.
Those who grow our food--whether right next-door or across the world--also affect us, and vice versa. Our food choices and what we are willing to pay impacts the farmers, and how those farmers cultivate food impacts our health and well-being.
But what should we do with this truth of inter-connection? If we ignore it, we are likely to continue allowing our food systems to contribute to disease and degradation. Yet if we expand our awareness and change how we grow, consume, and share food, we have a chance to restore and revitalize the system. It's up to us.
Eating Oil, Spewing Gas
Today, virtually all the productive land on the planet has been exploited by industrialized agriculture. In order to produce more from the land we have, innovations have been developed--mostly by U.S. corporations--to kill pests (chemical insecticides), increase yields (irrigation, chemical fertilizer, hybrid plants) and till and harvest more quickly (diesel-powered farm equipment).
Our reliance on fossil fuels for chemical fertilizers and pesticides and for farm equipment and transportation has caused agriculture to be one of the highest contributors to global CO2 emissions. The livestock sector of agriculture alone generates more greenhouse gasses than driving cars. "We are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases," wrote author and food expert Michael Pollan in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article.
Through the post-World War Two "Green Revolution," the U.S. government in conjunction with chemical and food corporations brought innovations in agriculture to developing countries as a means of reducing hunger, putting to use chemicals left over from bomb production, stabilizing socialist countries, and creating new markets for chemical products.
Industrial agriculture supported population growth and seemed to promise more food for more people--between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased by 250%. But its downsides have become increasingly evident, including severe degradation of soil, heavy dependency on hydrocarbon-based fertilizers and pesticides, and loss of biodiversity to name just a few.
But it doesn't need to be this way. In Argentina, for example, on land comparable in type to the U.S. farm belt, farmers can grow food without fossil-fuel fertilizer or pesticides. Even on farms as big as 15,000 acres, farmers rotate crops and cattle grazing, which gives back to the soil the nutrients depleted through the growing seasons. It sounds simple enough--but in the U.S. the separation of cattle from crop farming is standard practice, born from ideas of efficiency that serve neither the cattle, the people who eat the cattle, nor the soil that could benefit from their presence.
The negative impacts of industrial agriculture reach far beyond the physical environment, extending through complex socio-political and economic systems that exploit many and maintain the power and wealth of a few.
Today, a Twinkie, comprised of carbohydrates and fats from corn, soybeans, and wheat, is cheaper than a fresh bunch of carrots. But that's how the U.S. agriculture system works--huge government subsidies for wheat, soy, and corn make it cheaper to produce, package, and sell high-calorie and under-nourishing cream-filled cakes than healthy vegetables. And farmers are in a bind because in order to receive the subsidies upon which they depend they must not grow anything other than these crops.
Are there alternatives to food cultivation and distribution that do not corrupt the earth's systems? And more so, that allow us to return attention and care to the food we all eat?
Power of Community
We can start by taking steps to withdraw ourselves from the social, political, economic and environmental systems that perpetuate the corruption of food and putting our dollars and sense into a different way of feeding the world.
Consumers can change eating and purchasing habits--buying local, organic produce for example--and starting their our own gardens or joining a community garden. Living in a city is no excuse--rooftop and urban gardens are growing all over the world. And Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a great way for consumers to connect to local growers by buying into seasonal harvests and receiving weekly baskets of food.
When Brahm Ahmadi moved to West Oakland, CA, he saw the interrelationships of poverty, obesity, disease, and lack of healthy food. He started the People's Grocery, which is restructuring the entire community through one simple goal--to re-connect people with food. Creating what Ahmadi calls "food justice" through community gardens and educational programs like cooking classes, the project strengthens the local economy, improves residents' health, brings people together, improves environmental conditions, and helps create social equity.
Right now in the U.S., less than 5% of food is grown locally. But it's changing: from 1994 to 2006 farmers markets increased in the U.S. from 1,755 to 4,385. In Indiana alone, the demand for local organic food has driven the small farm business (under 10 acres) to grow 70 percent from 2002 to 2007.
Re-localizing food production is critical for reducing our carbon footprint and surviving the expected future shortages of fossil fuels upon which industrialized agriculture is dependent. And it's part of a much more comprehensive re-structuring of society that bring many of our systems --money, water, food, governance--closer to home.
We don't need to wait for government programs to fulfill this restructuring--it's within our power as citizens, if we commit to it. "This transition could succeed with grassroots participation alone," says Dale Allen Pfeiffer, author of Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture.
When things are up close, we almost always treat them differently than when they are out of sight and out of mind. When we grow our own food we put ourselves in the right relationship to the earth by relating to it with care and humbly acknowledging its power to provide for us. When we cook food we have grown, we are more caring and less wasteful. When we buy food from a farmer's market, we put our money and our trust in our neighbors, and we look into the eyes and shake the hands of those who have worked to keep us healthy. These simple things change our lives from the ground up, and we shouldn't underestimate their power.
Programs are springing up all around the world that reflect our renewed commitment to real nourishment. Like Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley where public school kids learn to grow and prepare food on a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom. Or like Jamie Oliver who has developed a number of programs to better feed school kids in Britain. And "social farming" or "care farming," a movement gaining momentum throughout Europe and Canada, which helps people heal from a variety of mental, physical, and social disabilities through residential programs on organic farms.
One of humanity's deepest needs is to feel connected to and in harmony with the natural world. The systems that have separated us from nature are slowly being replaced by attitudes and efforts that are reconnecting us to the earth and each other in more balanced and nourishing ways.
Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer who developed a method of natural farming that can grow crops with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, noted the connection between our dissociation from nature and our drive to return to more natural farming methods in a 1989 interview:
"You see, to the extent that men and women separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the unchanging, unmoving center of reality. At the same time a centripetal effect asserts itself, causing a desire to return to nature--that true center--even as they move away from it. I believe that natural farming arises from that unchanging, unmoving center of life."
In this "unmoving center" we do not feel isolated; we do not feel lonely. So many of us use food to fill an inner loneliness, but through changing our attitudes about food and the natural world, that loneliness disappears. Restructuring our food production and our attitudes toward nature is at the same time a necessity for a healthy future, and a way back to a wellspring of nourishment at the center of life.
Industrial Agriculture's Global Impact
- Soil degradation from chemical fertilizer use
- Depletion of groundwater from irrigation
- Poisoning of the environment with pesticides and chemical fertilizers
- Extinction of plant and animal species from pesticide use
- Loss of plant diversity from the use of hybrid crops
- Increase in greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels used in production and transportation
- Unsustainability due to fossil fuel use
- Dependency of developing countries on outside sources for seeds, pesticides, fertilizer and equipment
- Decrease in agriculture diversity and wild biodiversity
- Increase in deadly strains of bacteria from overuse of antibiotics in factory farming
- Decrease in foods produced for humans in relation to foods produced to feed farm animals and used in bio-fuels
- In 1994, the equivalent of 400 gallons of gas was used annually to feed each U.S. citizen.
- U.S. per-person barrels of oil equivalent - 10 for food production, 9 for cars, 7 for houses.
- The Green Revolution increased the energy flow into agriculture by an average of 50 times its traditional energy input. In some places, more than 100.
- In the U.S., agriculture consumes 85% of all fresh water resources, drawing groundwater from aquifers and rivers, and compromising water quality.
SOURCE: Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the coming crisis in Agriculture, Dale Allen Pfeiffer
32.7% of Americans are overweight and 34% of Americans are obese.
At the same time - Over 1 billion people in the world are undernourished and despite progress made in past decades, global hunger is on the rise, with an increase of 40 million more undernourished people in 2008 than the year before.
Slow Food International has created a catalog of foods that are threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage.
Did you know?
- 75% of European food product diversity has been lost since 1900
- 93% of American food product diversity has been lost in the same time period
- 33% of livestock varieties have disappeared or are near disappearing
- 30,000 vegetable varieties have become extinct in the last century, and one more is lost every six hours
Wall Of Drums - Chris Jordan
Apples - monkeyc.net - flickr