I spent last week at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture http://www.pasafarming.org/ (PASA) annual meeting in College Station, Pa, with over 2,000 others interested in sustainable agriculture in the U.S. and it was amazing!
I was most impressed with speeches given to launch the conference that really articulated a struggle that's going on right now in this country between the factory farming ag industry and a new wave of small producers. These small producers are looking to recreate a sustainable, healthier alternative to factory farming much as that which was predominant in this country prior to WWII.
These small producers are trying to rebuild a sustainable, local, environmentally-friendly form of agriculture much as it has existed for 10,000 years of human history before the invention of 'modern agriculture'. 50 years of an agricultural policy that emphasizes cheap food (at any price) has had disasterous and unexpected effects on human and environmental health. Who doesn't want cheap food after all?
In the early 1900's, we spent about 18% of our household budget on food and it was seasonal, local, and sustainable. Regional food specialties were common and arose in response to unique qualities of soil and community that produced the vidalia onion and vermont maple syrup.
We now spend about 8% of our household expenses on 'food', but much of it would be unrecognizable by our ancestors because it is so highly processed and has so little flavor. We have substituted the subtleties of real food for 'food products' that are either salty, sweet or spicy.
On the contrary, we now have companies like Montsanto, who are trying to portray themselves as purveyors of an improved agricultural system. Currently, the USDA is taking comments on Monsanto's plans to introduce a genetically-modified form of alfalfa into the U.S. agricultural system. This, after the disasterous affects of GMO corn when it was introduced and quickly found its way into the genetics of non-GMO products and subsequently, into our food chain.
Attempts to label food as containing GMO contents have been stymied by the powerful ag industrial lobby and currently, there is no way to know when you go to the supermarket if what you are buying has genetically-modified components in it or not. Europe has banned GMO products as unnecessary and unproven, with potentially dangerous consequences to the environment and human health.
GMO products have also allowed ag corporations to copyright their products and then go after farmers when 'blow over' from conjoining fields causes copyrighted genetics to mix with non-GMO genetics. Suddenly farmers are being punished for stealing copyrighted genetic material because they cannot control the blowing of the wind.
Food Inc. http://www.foodincmovie.com/showed some of the current trends in modern industrial agriculture and it is frightening.
On the other hand, people like Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin have been sounding the alarm about the loss of real food and its disasterous effect on the health of the environment and on human health.
We now have a massively centralized food distribution system which maximizes the potential for disruption and contamination, and makes us exceedingly vulnerable to terrorism, bacterial contamination, and relies heavily on the exploitation of workers in inhuman and inhumane work environments. Morbid obesity, diabetes, premature sexual development in children, heart disease, and cancer are rampant and we spend our middle ages working to buy drugs from the pharmaceutical giants in a futile effort to restore and maintain our health in the face of this onslaught of 'healthy food'.
Low-fat, no-fat, no-trans, low-trans - we struggle in an attempt to find something to eat that won't make us fatter and sicker. How is it that our great-grandparents had relatively good health without the benefits of modern medicine and all this 'healthy' cheap food?
Small farmers from all walks of life have heeded the call to resurrect American agriculture and now represent the fastest growing sector of the agricultural industry in this country. And yet, small farmers are disregarded and relegated to the back of the bus by government and corporate entities that cannot see the unsustainable direction in which we are headed.
I recently had the experience of rejoining the Farm Bureau after quitting several years ago over the issue of raw milk. I was told that the FB recognizes the importance of small producers, organic production and sustainability as the only truly viable long-term models for agriculture. Sounds good, right?
Then I was asked to be on a committee that represented this extremely important sector of the ag economy. That would be the 'specialty crops' committee of the FB!
Specialty crops...as if this is not the most important agricultural trend of our generation and its relegated to an out-of-the-way committee, clearly labeling it as 'not important', 'not serious', and not to be taken seriously.
In the middle, you have the American public who are left confused by the conflicting information they are getting.
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix for this problem. If you rely on the information you get from the media, government and commercial food producers, you will be sorely misled.
Unfortunately, the only solution is to educate oneself and act based on that education. No one can spoon feed this one and I'm afraid Americans have become too complacent, happy to buy their super cheap food without asking questions.
The next time you're in Costco or Walmart and you see a bag of whatever at an impossibly low price, ask yourself how is this possible? What are the possible and likely consequences of producing something at such a low price? At what cost to the environment? The workers who produce it? My local community when I turn my back on local producers?
You will quickly come to realize that this is a crisis of huge proportions that if not corrected, will have serious and long-lasting affects. Many of our agricultural traditions have been lost, but they can still be saved. We need to relearn how to really appreciate food and how it was raised, where it came from, who raised it and how it came to our table.