Food and Farms Emerge as Key Movement of Our Era

May 30, 2009

foodpolitics1If all politics is personal, as is widely held, then ultimately not much is more political than our food, and the farms which produce it. Everyone must eat, thus everyone has a vested interest in food.

Just now, early in the 21st Century, foods and farms are emerging as a leading-edge political movement. Thousands of college students are awake to the crucial importance of food and farms, and more are awakening.

With food poisoning scares, the ongoing onslaught of genetically modified food products being surreptitiously introduced to our diets, and the mounting evidence of the health and environmental consequences of large-scale, chemically dependent industrial agriculture, the list of reasons is growing for people to become active and take a direct part in ensuring food quality and food supply.

According to a May 23 story in The New York Times, a new wave of students is heading to farms this summer, in search of both work as interns, and social change. The interest in summer farm work among college students has never been as high, concurs the growing organization Organic Volunteers.

According to the Times, the students come armed with little more than soft hands and dog-eared copies of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. They are acutely aware of the gross environmental problems caused by mass-scale industrial agriculture; they want to help bring about change, and to know they are doing something to better the world.

Meanwhile, the dietary forces impelling people to recognize foods and farms as a key political issue are mounting in strength and credibility. According to stories in both Time Magazine and Mother Earth News, we now have solid, scientific evidence that industrial farming is giving us less healthy  food. Produce in the  U.S. not only tastes worse than it did in our grandparents’ days, the evidence shows it also contains fewer nutrients.

Both articles cite a February, 2009 study entitled “Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition,” by Dr. Donald R. Davis published in the journal HortScience, 2009.

Davis reports that the average vegetable found in today’s supermarket is anywhere from 5% to 40% lower in minerals than those harvested just 50 years ago.

Because of widely used chemical fertilizers and pesticides, modern crops are harvested faster than ever before. But quick and early harvests mean the produce has less time to absorb nutrients either from synthesis or the soil. Meanwhile, monoculture – another hallmark of the Big Ag industry – has also led to soil-mineral depletion, which, in turn, affects the nutrient content of crops.

What can we do? Follow the examples of the new agrarians of the 21st Century. They continue to respond intelligently, creatively, and innovatively in backyards, neighborhoods, and with community gardens and farms across the land.

Changing economic conditions represent yet a third force making it likely many more people will be looking for the practical and political pathways being trailblazed by the new agrarians.  For example, a May 24 story in The Hartford Courant told of how – in the face of drastically changing economics – local growers have begun offering CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares as a survival strategy to keep their farms alive..

CSA describes an emerging agrarian form that has swept the country since the first two CSA farms were established in 1978. The number of CSA farms is barely keeping up with demand. As reported elsewhere on this blog, CSA farms have increased dramatically in recent years, with more than 13,000 now operating in the USA according to a census taken by the US Department of Agriculture.

We can expect to see more in the times ahead as, of necessity, food and farms come to the forefront of public awareness.

Do What Needs to Be Done: Restore the Earth.

May 20, 2009

“At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. “

I really like that quote. It comes from a commencement address that Paul Hawken delivered to the 2009 graduating class at Oregon’s Portland State University on May 3.

Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken

Hawken has a long track record of healing enterprise. He opened the first natural food store in America, and built it into Erewhon, a national supplier of natural-foods.  After that he founded Smith & Hawken, selling high quality garden tools. Then he wrote Natural Capital, following that with The Ecology of Commerce. These books evolved into the Natural Capital Institute.

“There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive,” Hawken told the graduates. “In case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are brilliant, and the Earth is hiring…

“… here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.”

Hawken pointed out that the next industrial revolution, like the first one, will be a response to changing patterns of scarcity. It will create upheaval, but it will also create opportunity. Hawken has set up an online community called Wiser Earth, sort of a Wikipedia listing and interconnecting thousands of environmental and social justice movements and putting them into historical context.

The 21st Century agrarians who are cited on this blog, and in The Call of the Land, are people and organizations who see the necessity and the benefit of those opportunities, and who are responding creatively.  Their restorative projects are cited throughout this blog, and on the Links page, and serve as models.

In closing his commencement address, Hawken reminded the graduates: “There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true.”   21st Century agrarians are busy planting trees, and vegetables, and then checking the facts.

Hawken’s most recent book is Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (2008). The text of his May, 2009 commencement address is here.

Food Shortages and the Fate of Our Civilization

May 14, 2009

cover_2009-05The May 2009 edition of Scientific American has published a notable article by Lester R. Brown entitled “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization.” The founder of both the Worldwatch Institute (1974) and the Earth Policy Institute (2001), Brown has authored or co-authored 50 books; his most recent is Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

His words represent an eloquent and informed call of the land – a call to take action now.

“For many years I have studied global agricultural, population, environmental and economic trends and their interactions,” Brown writes. “The combined effects of those trends and the political tensions they generate point to the breakdown of governments and societies. Yet I, too, have resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization.

Lester Brown

Lester Brown

“I can no longer ignore that risk. Our continuing failure to deal with the environmental declines that are undermining the world food economy—most important, falling water tables, eroding soils and rising temperatures—forces me to conclude that such a collapse is possible.

“Even a cursory look at the vital signs of our current world order lends unwelcome support to my conclusions…No country is immune to the effects of tightening food supplies, not even the U.S.A.”

Brown’s full Scientific American article is available online, and is well worth reading.

Global Farm Grab Vs. Our Native Need for Food

May 7, 2009

6101891-lgIn a disquieting rush to secure food supplies, financial speculators around the world are gobbling up farmland in developing nations and causing land prices to soar. Some call it the new colonialism, but most just call it an old-fashioned land grab.

Land grabbing and food speculation are not just overseas phenomena; they are also happening in North America. Mammoth investment funds have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial markets for commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans, establishing higher prices for consumers and fatter profits for themselves. Other private investors have made bolder, longer-term speculative bets that the world’s inescapable need for food will soon intensify; they are grabbing ownership not just of farmland, but also of fertilizer supplies, grain elevators, and shipping equipment.

This global grab of farmland and supplies raises fundamental questions, for it arises in the context of a worldwide recession born of a crisis in faith (the credit markets), a crisis in shelter (housing), unstable fuel cost, and widespread hunger. Now there are ominous signs of worsening food crisis in the making this year, spurred in part by the ongoing credit crunch that has made it difficult for farmers to get loans, and severe drought in many agricultural zones.

Thus, this week the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is holding a conference in Washington provocatively called “Land Grab: The Race for the World’s Farmlands.

The Oklahoma land grab of 1889

A old-fashioned grab: the Oklahoma land rush of 1889

Note well that the soaring price of rice and wheat over the past two years has sparked riots in more than 30 countries from India to Haiti. Those riots were an initial motivator for the land grab, but it really took off at the end of last year when many big food-exporting nations introduced export controls to ensure that food stayed close to home where it was needed.

Meanwhile, the land-food picture is further challenged by the privatization of water by multinational corporations, and by the specter of drought, which continues to loom over many of Earth’s most productive agricultural regions, including California, Texas, Argentina and China.

All these developments have drawn avid attention in commodity markets, where analysts warn bluntly that substantial price hikes for food are coming. When speculators see an opportunity to make money, historically they have acted out of self-interest and driven prices even higher to increase their profit margin.

The average family in North America does not fully see or feel these titanic changes yet,  but they will — inevitably, and likely before the year ends. Our need for food, water, and clean air are fundamental, foundational, inescapable.

Yet in the midst of change, in the midst of rampant consolidation for profit, we have before us other pathways – pathways that lead to better places.

How to respond? Many models and pathways of healthy, sustainable response are already established and available as models. Dozens of them are mentioned in this blog and in particular on the Links page.

Immediate, swift, well-planned and sustained action from citizens can establish clean, healthy, local food systems at the level of individual household, neighborhood, community, city, and region. With high technology, all of these individual, local nodes can be networked, streamlined, and maintained to yield clean food and fields for all the people, rather than manipulating land and food as collateral to produce monetary profits for a few.

As expressed by Eduardo Galeano in an earlier post on this blog, the tendency of the industrial world has been to regard a fundamental element of our native heritage — sharing of the land and resources — as somehow deficient or wrongheaded because it involves no self-interested profit incentive. But free-will cooperation and sharing can help us to establish working systems of food production and food preparation, while also establishing networks of agrarian oases that radiate good environmental health in the towns and cities where we live.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Also Leopold

The philosophical foundation for the cultural values that existed in many native cultures is that nobody owns the land. It belongs to all. You have the right to use the land. If you have energy, motivation, and ability to work this earth and to take care of it as a steward — bearing in mind and expressing through action respect for the next seven generations of children to be born — then you have a right to use it.

As Trauger Groh and I posited when we wrote Farms of Tomorrow, every human being has a legitimate, native interest, and a basic, unavoidable need to draw sustenance from the land. Thus, we must raise questions and work toward an equitable basis for our legal relationship with the land, because upon this foundation depend our lives, our health, and the character of our relationships with other human beings.

How will we relate to the land? As conquerors, subjugators, and profiteers? Or as stewards who recognize our absolute dependence upon the land for life and growth, who accept our need to be fair and honest with one another, and who act accordingly.

Over many decades the practice of using land as collateral for debt — placing farmland under the burden of a bank mortgage to obtain cash to run the farm — has caused profound difficulty for farmers, and vast suffering. Under this system banks must be paid every month and every year, no matter the weather or the market conditions faced by the farmers. As a consequence, over time – thousands upon thousands of people have been driven from the caretaking of the Earth by the onus of debt. The land grab taking place right now around our globe, driving land, fertilizer, storage, and shipping costs higher, is poised to become an overwhelmingly dominant factor in all of our lives.

Because land is the basis of our physical existence, we need new thinking and new approaches in the way we hold and steward the land.

One possibility, which has been steadily gaining ground, is to gradually protect land suitable for agriculture by purchasing it for the last time and protecting the land for agricultural use through legal, free-will institutions such as land trusts.

To do this, farmland has to be purchased for the final time, and then, out of the free initiative of local people, be placed into forms of trust that protect it from ever again being mortgaged or sold for the sake of private profit. Those non-profit land trusts can then make the land available to qualified people who want to farm the land to provide clean, local food for people (for more information see the Land Trust Alliance, and the American Farmland Trust). Landowners themselves can form such land trusts, or groups of citizens, or churches, or other creative constellations of free men and women, can cooperate locally to buy available land for ecologically sound farming.

This cooperative approach to the land is something that clearly cannot be legislated or otherwise imposed in any way upon humanity. To be acceptable to the diverse populations that share the land, to succeed, every step of progress will have to arise out of the insight, the choice, and the free, honest initiative of people who recognize what is happening to our land and who also recognize the opportunity to take action and follow another pathway forward.

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