May 2010 - Comments Off

Rebuilding a Sustainable Food Culture in America

Isabel Marlens '12

Indian farmers have been growing Basmati rice for thousands of years. They cultivate it with knowledge accumulated over the course of generations. The seeds are saved from one summer to the next. The rice adapted over centuries to thrive in the ecosystems they call home. This uniquely aromatic rice is a staple of the Indian diet -- and possesses significant cultural importance as well. One strain is used to mark a wedding, another, a funeral, a third, the birth of a child.

In September 1997, the Texas company RiceTec took out U.S. patent No. 5,663,484 on Basmati rice. Soon after, the world's largest seed corporation, Monsanto, took out a similar patent (EP 0445929 B1) on a traditional strain of Indian wheat. Scientists from the U.S. and Europe then began to genetically modify these crops in ways they claimed would promote higher yields. In reality, they undid centuries of traditional breeding by Indian farmers. The GMOs (Gentically Modified Organisms), not adapted to the unique environmental conditions of the places they are grown, are no longer able to survive without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They are subject to disease and blight. Some genetically modified seeds are even self-terminating -- meaning it is impossible to save them from one year to the next.

Genetically modified seeds infect and interbreed with crops of the same species planted in their vicinity. If farmers save seeds from their own crop -- as they have always done – the result is that they are almost certainly violating a patent. As food activist and physicist Dr. Vandana Shiva explains: "It's basically a system that criminalizes the small producer and processor." In order to plant legally, some farmers have no choice but to buy seeds from huge multinational corporations like RiceTec and Monsanto every year.

GMOs are expensive, and the seeds unreliable. These added costs, combined with new competition from foreign markets are a death knell for many small farmers trying to maintain their traditional way of life. They fall deeply in debt. Their land is taken away, and they are left with no choice but to migrate to urban slums. The desperation provoked by these corporate patents and the debt they lead to has driven 100,000 Indian farmers to suicide.

Everyone knows Italians love their cheese. Mozzarella di Bufula, Parmagiano Reggiano, Pecerino Romano. Each region of Italy has a unique culture, a unique cuisine, and at least one very unique cheese variety to its name. In Puglia, a dry but fertile southern region on the Adriatic, Caciocavallo Podolico del Gargano is the favorite. It is made from the milk of Podolico cows, a rare cattle variety that lives exclusively free-range, roaming the Lucanian Mountains to feed on rosehips, blueberries, hawthorne, and cornelian cherries. Caciocavallo translates to "cheese on horseback," which is thought to be a reference to the way the cheese is hung to age -- one ball of cheese on either end of a rope, held by a hook in the middle. But it could also stem from the days of the Roman Empire when traders and soldiers hung the cheese from their saddles as they rode the major trade route -- which runs through Puglia -- from Rome to Constantinople.

Either way, this cheese and those who produce it have a history that is lengthy and rich. Caciocavallo producers insist that the only way to age their cheese properly is to hang it for years in the caves of soft Tufo stone found in the Puglian countryside. Time spent in this cool dark environment is what gives the cheese its delicate flavor, its consistency. It’s also important that the cheese be made from raw milk. Caciocavallo producers take great pride in their history, in their product, and in their way of life. They insist that cheese made from pasteurized milk is simply not the same.

Recently, however, their caves have been scrutinized by European Union (EU) health regulators, who also argue that selling cheese made from raw milk is unsanitary and illegal. It is often prohibitively expensive for small farmers to pay for the sterile, industrial kitchen set-up the health standards require. Only corporate scale food producers can afford to compete causing a precious cheese, a precious understanding, and a precious way of life to vanish. As the "Manifesto in Defense of Raw Milk Cheese," published by Slow Food Italy, warns: "Be aware that once the knowledge, skills and commitment of this culture have been lost, they can never be regained."

For traditional farmers and food producers like those in India and Italy, growing food, cooking food, and sharing food have significant cultural value that has developed over hundreds or even thousands of years to fulfill social, spiritual, and ecological needs as well as the physical need to eat. Here in the United States, we have less depth to our cultural history. Since European colonization, our nation has been a cultural melting pot with few unified traditions. Today, however, a blossoming interest in gourmet cooking, a wide variety of ethnic influences, and the movement for organic, fresh, and local foods, are converging to sow the seeds of a vibrant food culture.

But for the past fifty years, the food market in the U.S. has been dominated by the same vast corporate interests now threatening rice-growers in India. These corporations have put up powerful structural opposition to movements made in the direction of localizing food economies. They have justified their dominance by presenting one argument after another for why their system benefits consumers.

Among these justifications is sanitation and health. Recently, health regulations, like those affecting the Caciocavallo makers, have been instituted all over the world in the name of public safety. While many of these regulations have a degree of validity, many more of them involve the purchase of equipment and facilities that bankrupt the small producer, while doing little to promote the health and safety of consumers. Only corporate scale operations have the capital required to follow the safety codes without falling into debt, and it is interesting to note that much of the research done in support of these new health regulations is conducted by organizations like the Stanford Center for Food and Health Research, which was founded with a three million dollar grant from corporate agricultural giant Cargill.

Much corporate enterprise has also taken place in the name of efficiency -- supported by the argument that only through industrial scale food production will we be able to feed the world's ever-increasing population of poverty-stricken hunger. The assertion is that large-scale production is by nature more efficient than small-scale production. But to corporate agribusiness, efficiency means reducing human labor to a minimum and substituting it with mechanized technology and chemical pesticides. This creates both unemployment and debt for farmers who feel they need to purchase ever more new technology in order to compete. In the United States, throughout the 20th century, much of the land once owned by small family farmers, planted with diverse edible crops, has been lost to agribusiness due to debt. It has been converted into monoculture -- space where tremendous amounts of cash crops like corn and soybeans are grown for export. Food and jobs were removed from local economies. Heavy machinery and chemical pesticides arrived in their stead. Those farmers who remained and chose to grow for agribusiness were more than ever vulnerable to global market swings and commodities price manipulation.

Today, this model is being exported to countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and traditional farmers everywhere are losing their land to agribusiness, to soybeans and corn. It has been said that by purchasing food imported from developing countries we are helping to prevent poverty and increase infrastructure. But as Vandana Shiva explains: "The idea that poverty reduction in the south relies on access to northern markets is a child of globalization. We (in India) have limited resources. There's limited land, there's limited water, there's limited energy. And if we have to use that limited land and water and energy to produce one extra lettuce head for a British household, we can be sure we are robbing Indian peasants of their rice and their wheat. We are robbing India of her water. We are in fact creating a situation where we are exporting, to the third world and the south, famine and drought."

One way in particular that globalized corporate agriculture defies efficiency is in its relation to resource use and the environment. As Zac Goldsmith, former editor of The Ecologist explains: "We often hear about efficiency of scale but the truth is we have developed a system that could not be more wasteful. We have tuna fish caught on the east coast of America, flown to Japan, processed, and flown back to America to be sold to consumers. We have English apples flown to South Africa to be waxed, then flown back again to be sold to consumers." Every year in the U.S. we import 365,350 tons of potatoes, and export 324,544 tons. In come 953,142 tons of beef, and out go 899,834. We buy 41,209 tons of coffee, and sell 42,277. Tremendous amounts of metals, plastics, and fossil fuels are required to make this system operate. It is often extolled as "free trade," the foundation of a new global community. But in reality, as Goldsmith goes on to point out, it is the farthest thing possible from free trade -- it could never exist without massive government subsidies.

As Helena Norburg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture explains: "Because of hidden subsidies and regulations, we have a situation where food from the other side of the world often costs less than food from a mile away." Those who run corporate agribusiness have enormous amounts of money at their disposal, and they use it to wield considerable political power through congressional lobbying, campaign contributions, and the placement of former agribusiness executives in key government posts. The end result is that the U.S. tax payer winds up subsidizing the giant corporations that grow the food, pump the oil, and manufacture the transport required to keep the industrial agricultural system running smoothly. With these government subsidies giving agribusiness an increasing competitive advantage, it grows ever harder for the small farmer to compete.

"We're living in a country and in an environment where we don't value food," says Barclay Daranyi, co-owner -- with her husband Tony -- of Indian Ridge Farm and Bakery, a small, diversified organic farm operation in Norwood, Colorado. "We're used to food being one of the cheaper things in our budgets. We're used to the high price of gas, we're used to the high price of energy -- there are even people who won't blink an eye when they pay five dollars for a latte. Yet, you consistently hear people complaining about the high cost of organic food. People go to the farmer's market and say this is ridiculous, it's so expensive -- but I think what they're looking at is the actual cost of what it takes to grow the food. People aren't used to paying that." Barclay Daranyi acknowledges that as a small farmer -- especially considering the expense of land, which is usually priced for development or industrial agriculture -- it can be difficult to make ends meet. But then she adds, laughing, "people don't usually go into organic farming because they are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme."

When asked why she did choose a farmer's life, Barclay says simply: "It seemed like the most direct form of action I could take … I think a lot of the world's ills stem from exploitation of our resources whether it be environmental resources, human labor, air, water, soil, the spirits of people. If you do something in a very sustainable and conscientious manner, you will be doing your small part to right some of those ills."

Barclay is one of many hoping to end the domination of agribusiness and rebuild a more sustainable food culture here in America.

She had the good fortune to grow up on the famous (in the organic farming world, at least) Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her parents, Sam and Elizabeth Smith, were pioneers in the organic farming movement, and they ran one of the nation's first CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs). She began learning to run a farm from a very young age, and she acknowledges that this was a big help when starting one of her own. Yet, she did not always intend to be a farmer herself. Barclay attended Yale University, where she majored in art and thought of becoming a painter. Her husband Tony earned an MBA at Northwestern, and the two met in the small ski town of Telluride, CO. They bought their farm in nearby Norwood several years later. Some may express confusion that such well educated people with access to a world of opportunities would choose to spend their lives farming. But as Barclay says: "It's hard to separate out how much I farm because I think it's important, and how much I do it because it's my passion … It sustains me spiritually, physically."

The Daranyis are frustrated by the fact that farming is often painted as an undesirable occupation because it involves physical labor -- a notion prevalent in the U.S. and currently being spread to sustainable farmers all over the world, who, for the first time, are feeling ashamed of their traditional ways. This is explained by Eliana Espillico, founder of PRATEC, an organization which strives to maintain the ancient farming traditions of the native people in Peru. Native Peruvians have farmed sustainably for thousands of years, and, although they have very little money, their knowledge of the land allows them to enjoy a very high quality of life – certainly higher than that enjoyed by those who have lost their land and live in the slums of vast, third world cities. But now, Eliana explains: "Our children learn to reject their own culture in school.Why? Because the teachers tell them 'if you don't learn multiplication, you'll go feed the pigs. If you don't learn multiplication, you'll go farm like your father.' As if to farm would be an offense or a crime or something bad!"

Any time spent on a farm like the Daranyis' will likely convince one otherwise. At Indian Ridge, it is easy to see the beauty of living simply, sustainably, and the act of being in touch with one's surrounding environment. From the graceful comfort of the straw bale home they built themselves, to the soft clucking of the chickens and the garden rows stretched out beneath the bright mountain sun, it all feels somehow right. "I've always loved Little House on the Prairie," Barclay explains."I've been enamored with a more subsistence way of life. I don't see it as archaic or primitive. I see it as really interesting and fun."

Just like Ma and Pa Ingalls, the Daranyis have taken care to insure that they run a diversified operation which can satisfy a significant percentage of their basic needs. They grow many varieties of organic vegetables and raise pastured poultry for eggs and meat, goats for milk and cheese, and pigs for meat as well. They bake and sell organic bread, pizza crusts, and granola. This is done in part to insure that, should one area of their operation suddenly fail -- say due to a drought, or a disease affecting chickens -- they would still be able to rely on the others for income. In addition, a diversified farm, unlike a farm planted in monoculture, functions in some ways like a diverse natural ecosystem. Certain plants and animals, when kept in balance with one another, play beneficial roles by maintaining soil nutrients, keeping pests away, and regulating disease. This lessens the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and leads to healthier plants, animals, and human beings.

The sense of community is also important to the health of humans, which is something Americans often have difficulty finding. The Daranyis feel that this problem is one that CSAs are able to address. Barclay explains: "Running a CSA really connects me with a community-- the people I feed off my farm. Families with children will come, they bring their grandparents. We have harvest days and members volunteer. Their kids come and pick flowers, and maybe ride the pony. People have connections to each other and to the places they live, and these connections are strengthened through food, and sharing food."

CSAs are also crucial to the survival of small farmers like the Daranyis says Barclay: "There are many variables in farming that are out of your control. There is weather, and if you are a commercial farmer, markets, price fluctuations. Your own health is a big variable too." CSA members give a degree of security to farmers by paying at the start of the growing season, accepting that some years they may receive more produce for their money than others as Barclay says, "A CSA is a close relationship between a consumer and a farmer -- it's the consumer saying, God forbid you have a terrible year, I'm going to support you. We will support you as our farmer because we want you to be around next year and the year after that and the year after that."

The Daranyis are just one example of a worldwide movement toward living and eating in a more sustainable fashion. Organizations like Slow Food (originally founded in Italy, now global) and Terra Madre, which strive to protect the unique and varied food traditions of cultures all over the world, are gaining victories against the forces of corporate agriculture. Basmati rice is no longer under a U.S. patent and, after presenting their manifesto signed by 20,000 thousand traditional cheese producers, Slow Food has convinced the EU to legalize the sale of raw milk cheese. The living heirs of these ancient food traditions see them as something worth fighting for.

Those of us attempting to build a new food culture here in the New World melting pot may not have ancient traditions to inspire us, but we do have one valuable example to follow. In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the economy of Cuba and its industrialized agricultural system threatened to collapse as well. With the U.S. determined to maintain its embargo, Cuban oil imports were cut by more than half, food imports by more than eighty percent. But the Cubans, relying on the traditional knowledge of the nation's older generation, were able to work together to save their people from starving. They stopped growing for the export economy and converted all the land once used for industrial agriculture into land that would produce food for local consumption, for example American housewives planted Victory Gardens during WWII (gardens planted in vacant city lots and on the rooftops of apartment buildings). Communities worked together to find a way to live local and sustainable lives that did not require fossil fuels -- and to rebuild a healthier culture surrounding food. Which is what people like the Daranyis are trying to do.

One lesson Barclay Daranyi says she learned from her parents is this: It is the responsibility of small farm operations like Indian Ridge to be classrooms for the farmers of tomorrow. "I think farming is one of those professions where you truly, truly have to learn by doing it," Barclay explains. She says she sees increasing numbers of young people becoming interested in learning to farm --in returning to a simpler, more rooted way of life. Many schools throughout the U.S. and the world are incorporating garden education into their curricula and placing added focus on sustainability, community, and the creation of a local food culture. Professor Keibo Oiwa of Japan, author of the book Slow is Beautiful, says of the young people he teaches: "They are desperately looking for contact with nature. It's important to learn traditional farming, but at the same time just being in the mud, having fun, working like this, they are learning what it means to live."

Published by: in Prose, Volume 66, Volume 66: Issue 2

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