In a recent article on Grist, food editor and farmer/cook Tom Philpott draws parallels between danger signs of the financial collapse in this New Yorker article and the potentially disastrous problems facing us today in industrial food production and its effect on the environment and the global food supply.
I hate to cut and paste Philpott's excellent essay because you really should read the whole thing, but here's an idea of what he writes:
"Like the financial sector, the food system has dramatically globalized over the past generation, even as it has become increasingly concentrated (PDF). Just as traders in New York, Tokyo, and London-often employed by the same mega-banks-can make, say, the Argentine peso plunge or soar with a few keystrokes, global food commodity markets have become tightly intertwined.
. . . . Companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Tyson have built globe-spanning empires by taking vast amounts of cheap, monocropped corn and soy and turning it into everything from sweetener to meat to car fuel. Mega-processors like Kraft and fast-food chains like McDonald's and Wendy's suck in these inputs and churn out cheap, ready-made meals.
These giant entities behave as if soil is an easily renewable resource, that the climate can absorb endless amounts of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (a synthetic fertilizer byproduct), and that communities and the biosphere can endlessly bear the toxic footprint of industrial meat production." - Grist
[Editor's note: the documentary Food Inc. takes a look at these issues...]
The good news, Philpott points out, is that not only are the number of farmers markets, CSAs, and nonprofits like Growing Power increasing here in the U.S. (even if they still only comprise less than 3%), but local governments are starting to incorporate the ideas of nurturing and protecting community food systems into policy. It's a logical step, and one that pairs nicely with progressive urban planning and smart growth.
I don't study agribusiness; I don't farm; and I don't produce or distribute food for profit, so I can't solve this country's food puzzle. I don't even know all the problems, although I've written about some of them before. However, I do recognize that in order to move environmentally and socially conscious American food production beyond that 3%, more people need to feel a sense of urgency about giving up industrially produced food and give their dollars to local and independent producers instead.
Eat Wild and LocalHarvest are two hugely influential websites that promote healthy eating and sustainable food purchasing and production. Beyond those are an enormous number of farm blogs, local and national organic associations, food politics sites, vegetarian and vegan communities, and many, many more. Organic and chemical-free lobby groups like the Organic Trade Association and the Cornucopia Institute exist as well, but they don't wield nearly the amount of power that Big Ag does. While Obama's appointment of Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary of agriculture this year demonstrates the wheels of government are slowly turning in a better food direction, most people who follow this news and visit these websites are people who already care about farm-to-table politics. In fact, even my writing this article feels like preaching to the sustainable food choir.
Have you, for example, seen any mass-market national ad campaigns for organic food? Something similar to, say, those "Got Milk" ads?
Yeah, me neither.
Non-industrial farmers need more political clout as well. One group trying to address that need is Food Democracy Now. Started by Dave Murphy in Iowa, the website was instrumental in clamoring for someone like Merrigan at the USDA and is working to help these farmers on the Washington level:
"This is the role Murphy is trying to fill, and he comes armed with facts. For example, he pointed to a survey from the Organic Trade Association that showed that the U.S. sales of organic food grew nearly 16 percent between 2007 and 2008 to reach $22.9 billion. Organic foods now account for about 3.5 percent of all U.S. food sales.
For Murphy, sustainable farming is about more than the food.
He sees it as returning to a model of production that is better for the environment and one in which farmers can start without taking on deep debt to finance heavy equipment.
He said the agricultural policies today are stacked against farmers of small- to mid-sized farms in favor of larger operations." - The Des Moines Register
To increase the visibility and power of those farmers following sustainable practices, both in the eyes of the average American consumer and in government, food could use a patron.
The opportunity for changes in the U.S. food system through venture philanthropy seems enormous. Venture philanthropy applies business and investing strategies to nonprofit goals, and billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet are the two biggest names practicing this type of wide-scale giving in recent years.
And consider what Sir Richard Branson is doing for climate change:
"The Virgin Earth Challenge is a prize of $25m for whoever can demonstrate to the judges' satisfaction a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases so as to contribute materially to the stability of Earth's climate." - Virgin Earth Challenge
Multiple celebrities and/or some of the world's wealthiest people are leveraging their fame and money to tackle some of the biggest problems around the world. Here's a link to the Forbes list of the world's billionaires for 2009. Wouldn't you love to see one of them take on food?
Kathleen Merrigan: Towards a Better U.S. Food Policy
Wicked Cool World of Organics Edition 8
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