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In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, author Sandor Ellix Katz (Wild Fermentation, Chelsea Green 2003) profiles grassroots activists who are taking on Big Food, creating meaningful alternatives, and challenging the way many Americans think about food. From community-supported local farmers, community gardeners, and seed saving activists, to underground distribution networks of contraband foods and food resources rescued from the waste stream, this book shows how ordinary people can resist the dominant system, revive community-based food production, and take direct responsibility for their own health and nutrition.
Convenience is great. We all love it because, by definition, it makes our lives easier: "suited to one's personal ease or comfort." Supermarkets in the middle of the night are calm, can be fun, and make us feel secure because we can satisfy any whim at any moment. And the right yummy treat, in the right place, at the right time, can be a godsend. We all know how easy it is to become accustomed to ready access to familiar foods regardless of time (season) and space (location). But at what price? What's wrong with catering to the convenience of the consumer? Why can't we just enjoy the fact that most members of our affluent society have an unprecedented range of food products to choose from, including those labeled organic, free range, grass fed, and fair trade?
Follow the money. In a traditional local food system, wealth (in the form of food) is created locally, from the land worked by the people. The money people spend on food in that context gets recirculated locally, and food production is a significant generator of economicactivity: it supports local mechanics, babysitters, craftspeople, and other local food producers. In economics, this phenomenon is called the multiplier effect. A dollar spent on a local grower's produce will continue to circulate locally and multiply its benefits through economic stimulation.
In sharp contrast to the simple and visible exchanges that characterize the path of locally produced food, globalized corporate food follows a long and largely inscrutable chain of transactions, most of which is invisible to the consumer. In this food system, only a tiny proportion of what consumers spend on food at the store goes to the people who grow it. The bulk of our food spending immediately departs from our local communities into the unfathomably huge infrastructures of the shipping and trucking, food-processing, marketing, and retailing industries. Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet, whose food activism has had tremendous influence since the 1970s, describes this phenomenon as "a colossal transfer of income and capital from producers to middlemen-to the agricultural equivalents of Wall Street arbitrageurs and bond sellers." Rather than paying for food itself, we are paying for an elaborate system for getting it to the right place, at the right time, in the right processed form, and in the right package.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) annually publishes the Agriculture Fact Book, which contains a figure of a dollar bill broken into segments to represent the allocation of each dollar we spend on food. The 2001-2002 Fact Book showed that farmers received nineteen cents per food dollar; the remaining eighty-one cents went toward everything else, subsumed under "marketing." This shocking statistic reveals the distorted values of our consumerist culture.
The Globalization of Food
The multinational corporations that drive the globalized food industry always talk in benevolent terms of feeding the world. "As the global population grows, the challenge to feed the increasing numbers becomes more difficult," begins the "Monsanto Pledge." But thinking of food in terms of feeding millions or billions of people renders it far too abstract and impersonal. Food production on such a scale is the province of experts, specialists, and people with accumulated capital-that is, capitalists. They promote the lie that without their expertise and technology, there would not be enough food for everybody. In their worldview, small-scale, low-tech farming systems may be quaint, but they are certainly inadequate and unrealistic for feeding the mass of humanity. "Very few scientists have the guts to tell activists what this game of producing food for 6.4 billion people is all about," claims Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning agronomist who is credited with exporting hybrid varieties and chemical-input agriculture to the Third World in the "Green Revolution" of the 1960s.
But is food production really a game? It is if you're thinking about it at the scale of 6.4 billion people. A roll of the dice determines global price levels, disease vulnerability, and crop failures. "I'll trade you two blight-resistant hybrid varieties for one new genetically modified crop." Power and scale make anything into a game.
Meanwhile, we must sustain ourselves, as we have always been able to do. We are all inherently capable of growing food. We do not have to be dependent on the nutritionally deficient food produced by a global corporate system that is neither stable nor sustainable. In order to eat well and live healthy lives, we must revive and encourage food production in every local community, not further abdicate it to huge economic entities that are driven by profit rather than our well-being. "For most of the history of this country our motto ... has been Think Big," writes agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. "The citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem."
The conventional wisdom in mainstream agriculture is that large-scale crops are more "efficient," yielding efficiencies of scale-more food produced by fewer people. Yet efficiency can be measured in different ways. Production per unit of labor is only one analysis. Production per unit of land is another. Fertile land is much more scarce than the people needed to work it. And actually, holistic, diversified, sustainable farming systems-"the farm organism," in the language of biodynamic agriculture-can be far more productive than conventional agribusiness models in terms of yield per unit of land.
Small farms and gardens can be planted densely, producing food on many levels-underground, on the ground, and in the air-simultaneously. Typical large-scale farms, in contrast, grow fields of just one crop at a time ("monocropping"), using the land far less intensively. If the true objective were to maximize total agricultural production from limited land resources, then small, dense, diversified farms could certainly produce more food than huge monocrop farms. More people would be required to grow the food, and it wouldn't be as uniform, as easy to amass for global marketing, or as cheap.
In our consumer culture, we expect food to be extremely cheap. The average proportion of household income that Americans spend on food is under 10 percent, half what it was fifty years ago. This is often trumpeted as a triumph of the American economic miracle. The front page of our local newspaper recently reported that the Tennessee Farm Bureau had declared January 29 to February 5, the fifth week of the year, as "Food Checkout Week" because "in just five weeks, the average American will have earned enough disposable income to pay for his or her food supply for the entire year." This less than 10 percent compares to more than 70 percent of household income spent on food in Tanzania, 55 percent in the Philippines, and 20 percent in Japan. I love a bargain as much as anyone, and I'm sure glad I don't need to spend 70 percent of my income on food, but where we direct our resources reflects what we value. Food is this cheap in our country because the people whose labor is involved are paid virtually nothing, and many of food's true costs are hidden.
Hidden costs include fuel for transportation-subsidized in the United States-as well as the military and political costs of maintaining control of the land, sea, and sky, and labor and energy supplies. Then there are the environmental costs of chemical agriculture, including every kind of pollution, groundwater and ozone depletion, global warming, soil erosion, mineral depletion, and species extinctions-as well as the health-care costs for treating the diseases created by the pollution and chemical residues in food. Many of these "externalized" costs are too huge for us to fully comprehend and impossible to calculate. But we need to acknowledge them and start finding ways to factor them in. "It's like a bad TV ad," observes the anticonsumerism magazine Adbusters. "Price does not include the $1 billion spent yearly by the U.S. military to secure Mideast shipping lanes; the $1 billion spent on air-pollution-related illness in Ontario, the $1.8 billion the UK will spend to 'adapt' to global warming, the $15 billion cleanup for every record-breaking hurricane that spins out of the changing climate."
As the system of international trade of globalized food commodities grows, the average food item travels farther between producer and consumer than ever before. This means more transportation energy is embedded in the food and greater time elapses between harvest and consumption, during which nutrients are diminished. One often-cited Iowa State University analysis created a hypothetical shopping cart containing only foods grown within the state. It calculated the distances from local growers to the university and found that the local food traveled an average of 56 miles. It then "sourced" the same foods through conventional institutional systems and, by investigating the sources of each item, found that the food had traveled an average of 1,494 miles, nearly twenty-seven times farther.
Of course, the limitation of this study is that it focused just on raw agricultural produce that can be locally grown, in season. The true average distance from farm to plate is actually much greater than 1,500 miles, because only a miniscule proportion of the food Americans buy is unprocessed agricultural products. Most food-70 percent of U.S. agricultural production-is industrially processed, often at multiple locations. Also, much of it is imported. Until recently, the United States always exported far more food than it imported; now for the first time we are teetering at the edge of an agricultural trade deficit.
In some of its details, food shipping can be downright ridiculous. My friend Les, who is a trucker, had a job driving between Idaho and Maine, back and forth, hauling frozen Idaho potato products to Maine and frozen Maine potato products to Idaho. Go figure. It must make business sense for whoever is paying to have it moved. I came across a news report that a Seattle-based salmon marketer is shipping Alaskan salmon and crab to China for labor-intensive processing, then shipping it back to the United States, a total of 8,000 miles. "Something that would cost us one dollar per pound labor here, they get it done for twenty cents in China," says Charles Bundrant, founder of Trident Seafoods. This is the logic of global capital, and it is shortsighted because it ignores, or externalizes, the depletion of nonrenewable resources and the grave environmental costs of all these extraneous food miles. Barbara Kingsolver calls this "the energy crime of food transportation." It is truly decadent.
I don't want to come across as holier-than-thou. I love pineapples (by some calculations, the single most energy-guzzling food) and coconuts and tea and chocolate and lychees and many other food commodities that are available to me only by the grace of the global transportation system. I do not categorically reject foreign trade. It broadens our horizons and potentially enables everybody to enjoy treats from faraway places. But it also increases everyone's dependence on huge economic players, the only ones with the resources to move mass cargo. The scandal of our contemporary food system is that not just a few exotic luxuries but virtually everything-including the most basic and mundane staples-is transported such vast distances, traveling thousands of miles from producers to consumers.
In my explorations I came across a fascinating book called Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail, by educator and activist Deborah Barndt. Barndt investigates the people and places, and traces the complex web of power relations, along the transcontinental route of tomatoes from Mexican fields, across the United States, and into Canadian supermarkets and fast-food outlets. She removes the tomato from the realm of abstraction ("imported tomato") and breaks the journey down into discrete steps performed by specific individuals with personal details. Products that travel thousands of miles have stories to tell, few of them pretty.
The tomato trail begins in the historical context of five hundred years of tangled roots: the brutal Spanish conquest of Central America, the Spanish "discovery" of this new fruit, and struggles for control of land. In the Mexican tomato fields, Barndt finds that many of the pickers are women and their children, not uncommonly breast-feeding mothers with babies on their backs. "In breast-feeding her child, Reyna [a tomato picker] passed the pesticides from the plants to her hands, which then got into his mouth, and almost poisoned him," reports one of the tomato pickers she interviewed. "Indigenous women and children are clearly in the most precarious position of all who bring us the corporate tomato," observes Barndt. The long-distance truckers who haul the tomatoes across the continent are also part of the story behind those imported tomatoes, as are the families from whom they are separated most of the time and the people who work as cashiers in supermarkets and fast-food joints where the tomatoes end their journey. Each step along the tomato trail is performed by underpaid wage slaves who are desperate for jobs in order to feed themselves and their families. The convenient and alluring out-of-season tomato, like many other foods, is cheap at the expense of the people "on the ground" who bring it to us.
Another part of the reason why food is so cheap is that in the United States the major agricultural commodities are heavily subsidized through a byzantine and hypocritical system that favors monocropping and larger-scale operations. Between 1995 and 2004, the U.S. government paid $144 billion in agricultural subsidies. Seventy-two percent of these subsidies were granted to just 10 percent of U.S. farms, which means big industrial farms received far more money than the smaller operations.
The U.S. farm subsidy program is as confusing as the tax code: indecipherable to most lay generalists, it is designed for and understood primarily by its major beneficiaries. Among the subsidies is the U.S. Milk Income Loss Contract program. To encourage surplus production and make large-scale dairy farming profitable, the federal government guarantees a minimum price for milk. If the market price is at or above that level, then market forces reign; but if the price dips below the set minimum, the USDA compensates the farmer a portion of the difference.
For all the rhetoric about "free trade," milk prices in the United States are set by government technocrats. This news report from Denver in 2005 sounds like it could have come from the Soviet Politburo Central Planning Office: "The price of a gallon of milk is likely to rise by at least seventy cents in Colorado and other states between now and May 1 as the government adjusts prices to reflect a worldwide shortage of dairy products."
What makes this system so grossly unfair and hypocritical is that the U.S. government then dumps surplus milk (as well as other food commodities) into poorer nations, underselling local production. Compliance with the regulations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and other international financial institutions doesn't allow these nations to levy tariffs on the imported milk or to subsidize their own food-production industries. They are not free to similarly guarantee a price to their dairy farmers (who cannot compete with the cheap American surplus milk powder), so local production capacity suffers.
Double standards like these make a mockery of "free trade." What's so free about it if the world's richest and most powerful governments can subsidize their favorite food industries, but the less powerful cannot? The United States is not alone in subsidizing milk; a typical cow in the European Union is subsidized to the tune of US$2.20 per day, more than what many of the world's poorest people live on. The hypocrisy of rules forcing poor nations to abandon subsidies and tariffs is far from free trade-it's forced trade. "Free trade is the protectionism of the powerful," says Indian food activist Vandana Shiva.
Free is just a word, like natural or even organic, used to legitimize and glorify the business practices of huge, profit-driven, amoral, transnational corporate entities that would rather see all six billion of us dependent on them than able to feed ourselves and each other. "The international trading system is not a force of nature beyond human control," writes the international antipoverty agency Oxfam. "The way in which it operates, the way in which it distributes costs and benefits, and the opportunities that it provides or destroys are the consequences of political choices."
Excerpted from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Ellix Katz Copyright © 2006 by Sandor Ellix Katz. Excerpted by permission.
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