Heirloom peach tomatoes - photo by Casey
I grow food. I shop for food. I cook food for me and my family. And, like most of us, I want food that is safe, healthy and fresh. I want it at a price I can afford, but I am willing to pay more for quality and to keep farmers I trust in business. So why don't I have more of a voice in how food is produced and regulated?
For many years, "organic" was the holy grail of food reform. The term evoked romantic images of small farmers lovingly tending their crops, without the use of massive machinery and poisonous chemicals. The farm animals in that picture, if there were any, were treated humanely, and their manure was prized as part of the cycle that enriched the soils and the crops grown on them.
Early proponents such as England's Lady Eve Balfour, who wrote "The Living Soil" in 1943, set forth a vision of farming methods that work in harmony with nature as means of producing healthy, nutritious local food. Appreciation for organic food in this country took root among Baby Boomers in the Seventies, growing over the succeeding decades into a mainstream movement to the point where even traditional supermarkets now feature numerous organic selections.
Flash forward to today, and we see the word "organic" rapidly degenerating into a legal and marketing term, narrowly defined and enforced by U.S. Department of Agriculture. The excesses allowed under its rubric would no doubt make people who think like Lady Eve cringe.
While there are thousands of wonderful organic growers nationwide trying to live up to those early ideals, today's USDA regulations not only allow but often encourage huge California mono-crop fruit and vegetable farms, watered by open-ditch irrigation. And the loopholes in the rules for animals are even worse. Organic meat, milk and eggs often come from animals jammed together as long as they are fed organic grain. "Free range" means only that there's a small strip of land outside a small door open a few hours a day (weather permitting).
As a reality check, small farmer Makenna Goodman, whose chickens thrive on the grass and food scraps she feeds them as they roam her land, is not certifiable as an organic egg producer because the relatively small amount of supplemental grain she feeds her birds isn't certified organic feed. (Organic feed costs twice as much, and she's frugal.) I also know a number of local growers whose practices I endorse who refuse to become certified because of the cost of the federal filing fee and the paperwork burden required.
Worrisome as well is that being certified organic does not mean that the farm-workers who tend and harvest those crops receive a living wage. A recent article in AlterNet called "The Ugly Truth Behind Organic Food" noted that most of the organic fruits and vegetables grown in California are picked by non-unionized workers, many of whom do not make enough to feed their own families well.
According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, roughly 30% of farm-worker families survive on less than $10,000 a year, and 70% of the state's farm-workers have no health insurance. Yet it should be noted that the workers on organic farms tend to do better. An institute survey of 300 growers showed that those who have half or more of their land in organic production pay their workers an average $8.54 an hour, compared to the overall farm-worker average of $7.37 an hour. As the report concluded, "While still not a living wage, this difference can translate to an additional $2,000 per year, or approximately 20% of a typical farm-worker’s annual income."
This is not the picture in my mind when I think organic. My vision begins with small farmers giving their crops personalized care, always on the lookout for new and better ways to produce food in harmony with the environment. And my vision ends with people from all walks of life enjoying healthy, fresh, local organic foodstuffs, not with shoppers at Whole Foods filling their carts with overpriced products marketed by corporations completely disconnected from any real commitment to environmentalism and social justice.
How did this happen? How did the term "organic" get bastardized? And how did certification evolve into a program that farmers I trust often avoid?
The problem, of course, is that large growers, industrial agribusinesses and giant food industry corporations have both the wallet and the will to ensure that new federal and state regulations are written they way they want them. And what they want are rules that make it easy for them to deal with a handful of large-scale corporate producers who will give them uniform product year-round at the cheapest possible price. Environmentalism and social justice are either irrelevant or counterproductive to blackening the corporate bottom line.
Politicians on federal and state agriculture committees who find themselves at the tender mercies of this relentless cabal often fail to see the devil lurking in the details, farmers and consumers be damned. Or they find it easy to parrot the self-serving corporate talking points as long as the corporate campaign donation is large enough.
And the sad reality is that the corporate corruption of the term organic has implications beyond our borders. As this article in EcoWorld suggests, farmers in India have long embraced organic practices, if only because few can afford expensive chemical inputs. But as the international community adopts certification standards based on the U.S. model, many Indian farmers are finding that they cannot afford to become certified, which robs them of the premium that such crops often command.
Sustainable? Localvore? What's next?
Many of us who began as champions of organic farming have found ourselves casting about for a better term to describe what we mean. We want a progressive system that allows small family farmers not only to survive but thrive. And we want them to embrace practices that support the long-term health of our planet and the people in our society. So how about switching to the term "sustainable"?
Sad but true, the move toward codifying what sustainable agriculture stands for is now bogged down in debates about whether or not to allow sustainable farmers to grow GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Proponents argue that GMO crops are a panacea that will save the world from the threat of starvation. Critics like me who are old enough to remember the disastrous Green Revolution that also promised better living through chemistry argue that these Frankenfoods pose more of a risk than a benefit. And Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute notes that GMOs have never lived up to their promise of doubling or tripling yields, as the now-discredited Green Revolution did decades earlier.
OK, so is it better not to define our terms, so that we don't find that new regulations certify practices that make us shudder? But then what does it mean to be a localvore? Imagine my horror when I discovered that the Frito-Lay Corporation has now embraced the term "local" for a new marketing campaign for its potato chips.
As the New York Times' article explains, local is such a hot term among consumers that major food corporations are jumping on the localvore bandwagon. And, hey, as long as there are no regulations about what you can and cannot call "local," virtually everything other than a few spices from China can be marketed as qualifying as part of this hot new food marketing trend.
The thought that a calorie-laden junk food is marketed to health-conscious consumers as "local" makes me want to bite someone. One of Frito-Lay's commercials shows farmer Brian Kirschenmann standing in his field proudly displaying a bag of Frito-Lay chips made from his potatoes. A fifth generation potato farmer in Bakersfield who sits on the U.S. Potato Board, Kirschenmann grows potatoes on 4,500 non-organic acres. Is that the friendly local farmer you had in mind?
As sustainable food activist and author Michael Pollan says, "The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me. They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food. You’ve got to hand it to them.”
Yet I find myself more outraged than amused. I grow increasingly weary of putting my energies and enthusiasm into reforms that end up co-opted by corporations whose legal obligation is limited to doing everything they can, within the law, to generate profits for their stockholders.
A recent email from India announced that a new group, Women Action for Ecology, has formed in Punjab with the goal of promoting "natural" agriculture. I am not sure if their choice of the word "natural" reflects acknowledgment that we have lost the battle in defining organic, sustainable and local, but the philosophy underlying their goals for natural foods is based on:
- "Organising debates, dialogues, exhibitions, campaigns to create awareness about the effects of pesticides on our health and the contamination of the food chain.
- Raising questions on the safety of GM foods and preparing material in local language and idiom.
- Reclaiming our food heritage and campaign for safe food.
- Promoting millet based foods with maximum food diversity, health drinks and recipes derived from traditional wisdom.
- Promoting kitchen gardening for maximizing women action for safe and nutritious food.
- Planning for systematic adoption of kitchen gardening.
- Retrieving the folk songs, sayings and idioms associated with agriculture, foods, seasons and nature.
- Create opinion pieces and articles in Punjabi/Hindi/English on women.
Those wonderfully wise Punjabi women remind me that my frustration is echoed around the world. Like Potter Stewart (who said, when asked to define pornography, "I know it when I see it"), I know sound food policy when I see it. In some ways, I don't want government to define terms such as organic, sustainable and local, because the moment they do, corporations will hunt for loopholes to turn the rules to their advantage (and away from my ideals). But I also know that failing to define such terms allows corporations to market food as "local" even if the farm is 600 miles away.
A line in the sand
So what I propose is a new commitment by those of us who grow, buy, prepare and consume food to demand rules and regulations that include our chorus of voices from Punjab to Pomona. At the grassroots level, I want city ordinances that allow urban residents the opportunity to grow their own food and keep a few chickens. At the state level, I want those new GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) and GAAMP (Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices) rules and regulations to either exempt small producers or make sure that these regulations truly reflect their lifestyle and our needs.
For example, new rules proposed in North Carolina would prevent farmers from taking their dogs with them when they walk the fields. The argument is that this is necessary because of growing concerns about food safety. The reality, of course, is that absentee corporate farmers would never take a dog along while visiting their fields, but family farmers often do. And many of us suspect that the real threat to food safety isn't Rover in the back 40, but the corporatization of our entire food industry so that we end up with bacteria-laden food products so complex we cannot even tell where the pathogens come from.
At the federal level, one of the first changes that I want to see is that "commodity" farmers (those who grow grains such as corn and soybeans) would no longer lose their farm subsidies if they also grow "specialty" crops (fruits and vegetables - what the rest of us simply call "food"). If the profits were good enough and there was no penalty, the brothers who farm the land that surrounds mine might well start growing some fruits and vegetables for sale to our community. And I think they'd learn a lot from us, and I from them.
Like many commodity growers, these farmers use every pesticide and herbicide known to man, as well as massive quantities of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. Last year, I saw a tanker filled with sewage pumping sludge into my neighbors' cornfield less than a half-mile uphill from my well. And each fall, they either scrape the land clean, contributing to wind erosion of our previous Midwestern topsoil, or they leave the stubble, which requires dousing the fields with even more herbicides to plant their crops the next year.
I just checked the Farm Subsidy Database, and these guys rank second in our county in the amount of taxpayer money they receive ($1.6 million from 1995 through 2006). If USDA would change the rules, so that these farmers could also raise fruits and vegetables without losing that subsidy, I might have a fighting chance of talking to them face to face about what I think it means to be good stewards of the land.
To move toward a sustainable food system not only requires changing the economic incentives but the hearts and minds of traditional growers. I know from my years with Michigan Farmer magazine decades ago that many traditional farmers are insulated and isolated from consumers who want them to embrace sustainable practices, and that the opportunities for dialogue are few.
Farm organizations such as Farm Bureau reinforce the disconnect between farmers and the people they feed. A quick visit to the American Farm Bureau website shows that they have commissioned articles that deny man's role in global warming. The Farm Bureau legislative action center currently urges farmers to oppose legislation that would (1) restrict the use of antibiotics in farm animals and (2) Senator Russ Feingold's efforts to extend clean water regulations to farmland. All too often farm organizations reinforce the knee-jerk conservatism that ignores the farmer's crucial role in promoting practices that protect the environment.
The bottom line is that consumers must band together to demand changes in our food systems that promote long-term sustainability on OUR terms. Women in particular need to join forces with groups such as the women in Punjab to speak up about what we value in food production and food policy.
I know many women still find political activism distasteful. At my talk on global warming and food at an Earth Day meeting in Rochester, Michigan, a woman came up afterward to say, "I want to see all these changes made but I want to stay away from politics." That's like saying you want to divert the river as long as you don't have to get wet.
Bottom line is that we all make political decisions with the dollars we spend. Buying food from local growers through farmers' markets and CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture) sends a message to Big Farma that they must change or die. But we must find the time and energy to push for progressive policy changes at the local, state and federal levels. When it is time to draw bright lines about what does and does not qualify as organic, sustainable and local, those of us who have the responsibility for feeding our families must stand up for food we can believe in.