By ignoring the principles of sustainability, our current industrial-farming model is destined to collapse. To understand the need for sustainability in our food policy is to make the first, crucial step toward renewal of our farm system.
To change the way Californians grow, process, distribute and buy their food, it will take a groundswell of consumer support to make the paradigm shift to local food economies. This change in mindset can only come through educational campaigns before it comes through economic necessity. If every Californian understood the concept of sustainable agriculture, its importance and implications, there would not be much need for new laws, as such information would surely invigorate sweeping change in consumer and producer habits from the bottom up. That said, it is important to reaffirm the costs, both plain and hidden, that we as consumers pay to a global food cartel that is currently endangering our chances of survival as a species. To aim away from these things, as a society, toward sustainability in the broadest sense of the word – vitality over an extended period of time – is to immediately protest the status quo.
The conventional farming model used throughout the industrialized world relies heavily on petrochemical externalities and is not applicable to natural systems, at least for any reassuring duration of time. And good farming, as thousands of years of human husbandry bears testimony, is reliant on a natural model. Such natural systems operate very differently than our conventional, exploitive approach. The condition of sustainability is never asked of in a natural setting, it is demanded. Sustainability requires return of organic materials to the earth, the maintenance of a balance between forest and pasture so the water table is accessible to agricultural pursuits, local and intimate knowledge of land and its terrain so as best to retain its naturally occurring biodiversity, and so much nuanced knowledge of particular locations and their climates that it requires a rejection of the blanket-approach strategy of industrial Ag and its supporting policies of food production.
The current model degrades the nutritional content of the food we eat by relying on “toxic rescue chemistry” to supplant the natural processes of living soil. Millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides stifle the work of beneficial microorganisms that dwell in and sustain the fertility of the soil. Heavy machine dependent operations further exacerbate topsoil depletion, placing future generations at greater risk of famine. This model also degrades the people involved in agriculture by subjugating farm owners and farm laborers to feudalistic commodity price controls and thus diminishing returns under increasing global competition. It disperses rural communities as can be seen in the eschewing of millions of small farmers and their family’s from the land into congested cities since the mid-twentieth century. Coinciding with this record setting forced migration was the dramatic consolidation of these lands into the hands of fewer individuals and corporations.
dangers of this corporate concentration of power over our food
system, Christopher D. Cook, author of
Diet for a Dead Planet, summarizes the quantifiable “hidden costs” of global agribusiness:
Food in America seems at first glance bountiful and, for most, fairly inexpensive. But behind the grocery receipt, the costs of today’s corporate-controlled food supply are staggering. Foodborne illnesses cost more than $30 billion a year in treatment and lost work time. We spend $78 billion annually in medical expenses for diseases associated with diet and physical inactivity — now the second-leading cause of preventable deaths; two thirds of all Americans are overweight, 30% are medically defined as obese. Nearly $20?billion in public money goes to farm subsidy payments, two thirds of which go to the top 10% of growers. Untold millions more are spent covering emergency room costs for uninsured food-industry workers, tens of thousands of whom are injured on the job each year; and cleaning up massive animal-waste spills from factory farms, which have become the top polluter of America’s waterways.
These “taxes” are fleecing Americans at a crucial time in our history. The only way to right the ship and ensure that people can afford to eat is to return to sound policy. This means incentives for producers to grow sustainably (i.e. scaled down), sell locally and have the price setting power that only the supranational commodity traders posses at this time.
What this really entails is dispossessing federal agencies and their agribusiness allies of centralized power over our food supply by instituting local food policies that offer incentives for the creation of more small farms and streamlined local food distribution channels that undercut the current international infrastructure. California, with its already diverse yield of agricultural products and its burgeoning local food movement, is in the best possible position to make these policies an everyday reality and create a model Farm Bill of its own; only, one that invigorates the countryside and keeps its participants in good health. The result would be the economic reunion of rural California with its suburban and urban counterparts. The goal in facilitating such beneficial marketplace relationships is complete food independence for California and the best model of food policy for the rest of the nation.
In my next installment, I will discuss policies that can be put into place immediately to effectively establish a food system that is California’s very own.