Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Transition To Organic And Sustainable Agriculture

How can we lower our exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals in food? Should we resign ourselves to their presence? Hoping their impact on health and the environment is minimal, or at least worth the cost? Alternatives may be few right now, but as resource management (Where will the water come from? What will we do with wastes?) becomes increasingly important in the food production equation, the transition to organic and sustainable agriculture has never been more attainable.


Industrial agriculture has yet to embrace organic and sustainable farming. (Is industrial organic an oxymoron?) Less than 1% of crops and livestock in the US are produced organically, and the cost of organic food is prohibitive for most. If we are among the few who can access organic food, there's no guarantee that our children will eat organic food at school, our parents will eat organic food in care facilities, or that organic food can be had while traveling.

Food we grow ourselves can supplement commercial production but cannot replace it - not today, not tomorrow, not next year. Not until we turn these trends around will the majority of us be able to acquire the bulk of our diets from local farms and pastures:

When smaller, more numerous organic farms replace larger, centralized ones, the benefits of economies of scale are lost. Maintaining, let alone increasing output is another challenge. (Agricultural exports have more than quadrupled in the last half century.)1 Is the answer a parallel farming structure, one organic and one conventional? Do we have the resources for that?

Choosing homegrown discriminates against those without the time, labor, and resources to invest in food production. In the future, given the social and political will, and the logistics, networks of community and regional organic farms may sustain more people. For now, window-box tomatoes do not a diet make.

The Promise Of Slow Food

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, was in attendance at the Slow Food movement's first national event, Slow Food Nation, in 2008. It was one of the largest food events in US history, attracting more than 50,000 people to San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. It celebrated all things sustainable, local, and organic.

Of the event, Schlosser wrote:
"The first Slow Food Nation partly fulfilled [Alice] Waters' broad agenda. It earned high marks for the good and the clean but next time could do a hell of a lot better with the fair.* At the moment, the majority of Americans--ordinary working people, the poor, people of color--do not have a seat at this table. The movement for sustainable agriculture has to reckon with the simple fact that it will never be sustainable without these people. Indeed, without them it runs the risk of degenerating into a hedonistic narcissism for the few."
- Slow Food For Thought, The Nation, 2008
I think he has the answer. Slow Food must enlist the power of the many. It needs their numbers, their voice, their vote. Social and political will requires a majority. When most Americans are eating organic, locally grown, affordable meals, when ordinary grocery store shelves are stocked with organic, locally grown, affordable products, the goal of "good, clean, and fair" food will be realized.

* "Good, clean, and fair" is the Slow Food movement's credo. Says Schlosser: "The "good" refers to taste; the "clean," to local, organic, sustainable means of production; and "fair," to a system committed to social justice."
1 USDA, Charts and Maps: The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy


Sara said...

Really well written Bix! I think that the quote from Schlosser is poignant and very true. I hope that the work of Will Allen and Luc Mougeot will revolutionize the way we look at food and agriculture, and I dare to believe it is slowly happening...

E. Stone said...

The appearance of herbicide resistant weeds in the farm belt isn't helping matters.

Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds

Robo said...

The Slow Food movement really doesn't care about social justice, at least not in the US. Read what Raj Patel wrote about them:

"Though talking heads inside—and in favor of—the organization have grown tired of the knee-jerk charge of elitism, a nuanced critic like Raj Patel, a visiting scholar at the Center for African Studies at UC Berkeley, is hard to ignore. As he describes in his book Stuffed and Starved, Slow Food in the States has chosen mostly to ignore the social-justice component of Petrini’s message, essentially becoming an exclusive dining club—at the same time protesting that it’s anything but."


Bix said...

I didn't know the Slow Food movement even had a social justice component. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. With unemployment at 10% and more people depending on food stamps, maybe their next Nation get-together can concentrate on how to eat well on food from a grocery store or corner market instead of a farmers market.

I just checked out Slow Food Philadelphia. It does seem to cater to a wealthier clientele. The poverty rate here is about 25%. There's an awful lot of people not being represented. Agriculture "will never be sustainable without these people."

Bix said...

Just finished reading that article, Robo. Interesting that the origins of Slow Food were rooted in living wages and social equality.

Another point that author made ... that a movement like Slow Food may have to involve the money and influence of the elite for it to succeed. Doesn't it always come down to alliances, a la the UK's Cameron and Clegg.