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Stirring the Pot: Is “Organic” Only for the Elite?

October 5, 2014
by Nancy Romer From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents Organic THERE IS A SNARKY ATTITUDE in much of the mass media about organic and locally sourced food, a tendency to portray it as a “lifestyle” fad of the liberal elite. Even within that subculture, in fact, the rising visibility of organic food at first was taken as hype to get folks to pay more for groceries. In truth, however, it is the system of factory farming, with its heavy inputs of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, genetically-engineered seeds, monocrop production, concentrated animal feeding, and massive transportation and distribution networks, that is “costing us” by creating an environmental crisis. According to Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet (2010), the industrialized food sector now accounts for a full third of all greenhouse gases! Yet few American consumers have any idea how the food on market shelves is produced by “agribusiness” and its spin-off, the food “processing” industry — and just as few realize how agribusiness, overall, has created a health, environmental, and social crisis. Begin with health: As Michael Moss notes in Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (2013), in the United States, the development and promoting of processed food loaded with sugar, salt, and fat is giving today’s youngsters a life expectancy shorter than their parents’ and a vulnerability to obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. One third of kids and one half of adults in the U.S. are today overweight or obese, with poor people suffering most from this. Move on to the environment: Traditional (“agro-ecological”) systems of farming return carbon-based organic matter to the soil through manuring, rotating crops, allowing some fields to stand fallow, and composting. These methods sequester carbon in the soil, while the plants that grow from these carbon-enriched soils produce oxygen. A reliance on chemical fertilizers ends this productive cycle. Crops can be generated quickly and, for a few years, steadily, but the soil ceases to contain and therefore sequester carbon. As the soil is impoverished, more and more fertilizer is needed, and more carbon escapes into the air. While farms reliant on fertilizers start up quickly, they generally start failing by year seven or eight. Agro-ecological farms, by contrast, take three to five years to come into full production, but then, if they continue the cycle of soil enrichment, can keep going forever. In addition to fertilizers, chemical pesticides used by agribusiness play a terrible environmental role. Whereas agro-ecological methods use intercropping (growing several different types of plants together) and crop rotation to minimize the impact of insect pests, factory-style farms seek the economies of scale by growing vast acreage of a single plant. This at-tracts vast numbers of pests specific to that crop, requiring pesticides and encouraging the development of seeds with pesticides built into their DNA. But the pests adapt, requiring greater quantities and yet stronger pesticides. (Of course, monocrops are also heavily fertilized, to keep them growing in the same place year after year.) Pesticides infuse the plants with poisons, kill beneficial insects, and harm animals that eat insects. The energy costs of producing and transporting pesticides and fertilizers are monumental. On top of all that, using a huge portion of available agricultural land to grow a single crop of a single varietal type opens the door to catastrophic crop failures. ResourcesMOVE ON TO THE SOCIAL CRISIS: Influenced by the demands of the corporations that constitute this system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture delivers enormous subsidies to support it, while the federal government spreads it to other countries through coercive trade agreements. Here at home, subsidies put medium- and small-scale farmers at a severe competitive disadvantage (even farmers who don’t buy genetically modified products have to pay for them if they are carried into fields by birds or the wind). In other countries, corporate subsidies and trade agreements allow agribusiness to compete unfairly with local traditional farmers, and to take over land and water for which local farmers hold no deeds but have been using communally by mutual agreement. Agribusiness also forces the growth of export crops, which endangers local food supplies, destroys local and regional food distribution systems, and turns crop failures into international crises. “Food sovereignty,” i.e., the capacity of local communities to control the agricultural practices they use, the foods they grow, and the way they distribute food, is lost. Farmers are reduced to the status of hired laborers or are driven off the land into cities, where they become the lowest paid and most exploited workers. While industrialized agriculture was originally thought of as a way to feed the world, it is now understood to have many detrimental side effects, including the need for extensive irrigation in drought-ridden areas, expensive and soil-destroying “inputs” (pesticides and fertilizers) that impoverish small-scale farmers (who are the vast majority of farmers in the world), and, most importantly, the centralization of control and distribution, which disempowers local communities and makes them dependent upon distant corporations, which often value profits over local people’s needs. SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS? First, we need to take these issues seriously and not marginalize the call for healthy, locally produced food as a mere “lifestyle choice.” The food system is highly political. It affects all of us, but has particularly negative impact on the health and working lives of poor people. Food production is especially a political battleground in the Southern Hemisphere, where powerful farmers’ movements have sprung up that focus on food sovereignty. About two billion people worldwide work in the food sector, including agriculture, processing and distribution. In nations in which farmers still constitute over 50 percent of the working population, these issues are at the center of popular struggle. La Via Campesina (International Peasants Movement), for example, is a global organization with more than 250 million members belonging to 164 organizations in seventy-three countries. Their website shows the broad range of international organizing they have undertaken to advance the idea of food sovereignty and to “define the specific human rights applicable” to the crises faced by “peasants, agricultural workers, nomads and pastoralists, fishers, indigenous peoples, [and] landless workers...” In the U.S., where our farming population is down to less than 2 percent of the general population, small-and medium-scale farmers have an important influence but don’t dominate the food movement, which is oriented towards “food justice” and comprises urban gardeners and farmers, health advocates, parents, anti-hunger activists, food access advocates (including promoters of farmers’ markets, responsible retail providers, food coops, and healthy and local school food), environmentalists, and food workers. OUR FOOD JUSTICE MOVEMENT is just beginning to define itself, enriched by thoughtful and well-researched literature. Some organizations focus on a particular aspect of the system because they want to see change occur soon, even if on a very small scale. Others critique and protest the system as a whole. What we can expect in the near future are municipal, statewide, and national organizations that create campaigns to end the marketing of unhealthy food to kids; to label and ultimately outlaw genetically engineered foods; to end subsidies to factory farms; to provide safe working conditions and decent wages to food workers; to end trade treaties that hold corporate profits above the rights of nations to institute environmental and labor standards, and above the rights of local farmers to grow what best suits their communities’ needs; and to require government agencies to buy locally and seasonally available products in order to minimize the environmental costs of food production and distribution and to promote local food economies and people’s health. Accomplishing even this short list will require not just local action (though that is vital) but direct challenge to the producers of fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified plants and seeds, agribusiness growers and distributors, and producers of the processed foods that make us sick — and also to the government agencies that actively support them. As a kid, I often dined on TV Dinners and convenience foods — a relief from my working mother’s boil-and-broil fare. Later, recognizing my genetic predisposition to heart disease, I tried to choose foods relatively low in fat, salt and calories — but whatever chemicals were added were fine with me. Finally, however, I read extensively about the food industry, and I traveled to Central and South America and South Asia, visiting people in farmers’ movements in those lands. Then I began participating in the food justice movement in New York. When I tell people today that I am a food justice activist, those who know my history of lifelong work with the labor, anti-war, feminist and environmental movements are usually surprised. To me, however, there is an obvious continuity within all of this: I am seeking to get people to act in their own interests and the interests of the planet by creating alliances with one another. Nancy Romer is co-founder of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, which works to ensure healthy, affordable food for all, sustainable food systems, and good jobs in the food industry. She is professor of psychology at Brooklyn College and executive director of its Community Partnership, serving over 1,500 Brooklyn teens each year. Romer has published in the fields of developmental psychology, higher education, and most recently on grassroots movements in Latin America. Recipe