Peak Food and the Coming Agricultural Crisis: What is to be done?

We have been told that California’s food supply was better off in the hands of a global food cartel, that the only notion of food security was found in “getting big or getting out” of the farm “industry.” We were told that our most basic of societal interests, that of food security, was better looked after by global commodity-market traders than family farmers and community gardeners. We bought these lies, and for this, our nation, and the state of California in particular, stand on the precipice of an agricultural crisis. This crisis is made all the more immediate by the very real threat of a hyper-inflating dollar.

Independence, in any case, requires self-sufficiency. Economic crises in times past prove these are not mutually exclusive concepts. As the nation’s largest agricultural producer, California is most vulnerable to the whims of an erratic global market, and if food independence is to be established by the Golden State, its self-sufficiency must be reinforced by localizing food policy. A large grassroots Local Food movement is already underway in California and it is transforming the way consumers view the sources of their food and the economic importance of supporting local agriculture. 

To gain inertia, this movement will have to be a double-edged sword– it must include the producers as well as the consumers. In fact, it must (and can) convert some traditional consumers into producers themselves. It is clear that Californians will have to do more than just “vote with their forks;” they will have to restructure their laws to fundamentally change the way food is conventionally grown and how retailers stock their shelves. Such existing policy as “local and organic first” purchasing mandates initiated by San Francisco’s Department of Public Health is a good stepping stone to a more cohesive and elaborate codex to offer incentives to keep farms smaller, more productive and completely sustainable. Such incentives should focus on keeping California’s produce on California’s dinner tables by educating the public on the health benefits of buying local and the economic necessity of supporting the currently neglected little ‘e’ economies that are the only genuine hope of keeping our food system afloat. 

In recent years, a plethora of nonprofit organizations and consumer groups have come together stressing statewide food self-sufficiency, farm sustainability and local produce economies in California. The Roots of Change fund, “a collaborative of diverse leaders and institutions unified in common pursuit of achieving a sustainable food system in California by 2030,” has outlined a plan to have California food independent in one generation with measurable goals and practical policy recommendations for all levels of state government. 

Something of a political constitution has grown up around this coalition of farmers, consumers and academicians. Signed by the petitioners at the Slow Food Nation celebration on August 30, 2008 in San Francisco’s City Hall, the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture offers twelve points to challenge the status quo of industrial food production and offer “a clear statement of what kind of policy is needed now, endorsed by a broad base of organizations and individuals with a long-established commitment to a healthier food and agriculture.” The declaration was intended to act as a petition to congress when they reconsider the Farm Bill, urging the legislative body to construct a bill that, contrary to what we have now, “promotes economic structures and supports programs to nurture the development of just and sustainable regional farm and food networks.” A reallocation of the $20 to $25 billion in federal farm subsidies granted yearly (mostly to large industrial farmers) would provide great momentum for local food movements all over the nation by helping smaller farmers get on their feet and allowing larger producers to diversify, while providing both, through land grant colleges and county extension services, the educational tools necessary to grow organically and sustainably. This would be a great first step in the complete dismantling of federal subsidy programs that encourage the destruction of the family farm.  

While it seems that farmers and consumers are willing to act on these ideals, as is indicated by the rapid growth of direct farm to consumer markets in the state, it will take serious political performance at local levels to make this dream a reality. A redeemed Farm Bill is not enough. An intriguing plan provided by Christopher D. Cook, a journalist, author and outspoken opponent of the Global-Industrial-Food-Complex is a “national movement of progressive urban food bills,” which he claims, “could help galvanize and expand local efforts and create a new food infrastructure that truly sustains our health, ecologies and economies…” While the suggested use by Mr. Cook of a “Food Czar” for every city might be counter intuitive to the deregulation bent inherent in local food economics, new local agencies might be necessary to coordinate state and federal help in the short-term until federal interference can be successfully phased out. These agencies need not be anything more than the coordinated efforts of already established Community Supported Agriculture leaders. 

Cook envisions local food bills that mandate organic and local-first food-purchasing policies. Much like the above mentioned San Francisco plan, these would require all city agencies, local schools, county jails, and hospitals to buy from local farms when possible. As governments create demand for local and organic produce, various incentives arise for non-organic farmers to transition to sustainable practices. 

City-sponsored education campaigns would be the crux of the Urban Food Bill. How about a readily accessible directory of stores featuring regional and local farm products? Or, how about the California Department of Agriculture devises its own “Regional Food Guide” akin to the USDA’s Food Pyramid? The purpose would be to educate consumers on the seasonality of foods in their particular region and accustom them to a sustainable diet. A good example of this technique is the Northeast Regional Food Guide provided by Cornell University Cooperative Extension. These tools can be utilized in California grade schools as part of an expanded health and nutrition curriculum. 

Municipalities could promote farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture exchange programs where large groups of people combine their purchasing power to make use of economies of scale. There could be tax incentives to private sector companies who sponsor their own CSAs for their employees. By partnering with other companies, the combined purchasing power of these large CSAs would help subsidize the transition of conventional growers to sustainable farming. Public institutions can explore similar arrangements.

Localizing food economies provides great opportunities to curb malnutrition and undernourishment in California’s population centers. Numerous studies show a widening gap in the quality-of-calories provided for lower income urban populations and their wealthier counterparts. Giant “healthy-food-deserts” exist throughout the state where inner-city populations have only fast food chains and liquor stores to call providers of “sustenance.” Any food bill would have to keep these people in mind by providing targeted grants and tax incentives to businesses and farmers markets that sell locally and organically grown produce within these designated areas.

If only city leaders are willing to pursue the ideals of self-sufficiency aimed at here, their returns will be exponential: better public health, reduced pollution, increased economic stability with the rise in food security, increased local capital as money is spent close to home, and the hope for a country for our children to inherit. To quote Cook once more, “American cities have agencies and budgets for everything from trash collection and waste water treatment, to public health and the environment – yet few dedicate serious planning and money toward ensuring that its residents eat well.” He’s got us there.

All of this being said, laudable strides have been taken by the city of San Francisco to become food-secure. Mayor Newsom partnered with the Roots of Change Fund in September of 2008, and in the summer of last year announced key initiatives that expand the role of the most critical component of urban food security, the community garden. Working closely with the ROCF, city officials are taking seriously policy recommendations of the San Francisco Urban-Rural Roundtable, an advisory group of key urban and rural agricultural figures. Their suggestions on community garden development are compelling considering the prolific history of community garden programs in this country and the amazing opportunities they afford to the unemployed and indigent peoples of California’s urban areas, not to mention the myriad of socially cohesive and economically stimulating effects such urban farms would provide. By transforming all empty city lots into thriving communal gardens, California can exhibit a level of prosperity never dreamed of, even in America. (This is a subject I will explore in a future article).  

The Local Food movement must not be written off as a cultural fad, common to a negative phase of an economic cycle. The motivating force is a revolutionary one. People want to take responsibility for their own lives and want to be accountable for their own economic security. There is a great hope that with proper political allowances and fiscal incentives, community minded farmers will keep prices low and supply a cornucopia of healthy foods in a sustainable way to all California citizens. If the past few years have taught our country anything it is that no real change ever comes from the top, down. Security is predicated on sustainability, and sustainability is built from the bottom up on a solid foundation of individual entrepreneurship and filial devotion not just to the betterment of one’s family, but the prosperity of one’s community. It is up to localities to lead the way to a more economically stable and food secure future by cultivating the Local Food movement.

This article is the final piece in the Peak Food series. In Part I, California’s leading role in creating local food markets is discussed. Part II and Part III discuss the flawed agricultural policy of the country as a whole and how, historically, we came to be food-insecure as a nation. Part IV examines the need, socially and economically, for sustainability in our food system.