Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Food Justice (Part 1)

Hail to the farmer-in-chief; he's done it again! In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, Michael Pollan tackles the rise of the food movement, fragmented though it may seem. True journalist that he is, Pollan traces the roots of the current movement back to the 1970s when critics of industrial ag began to vocalize their discontent with the future of food. At the same time as Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz changed U.S. farm policy to subsidize commodity crops (hello corn and soy!), small pockets of dissenters began to rally. Forty years later their voices are finally being heard in the form of various advocates - those interested in sustainable agriculture, humane treatment of animals, environmental concerns, organic farming, slow food, local food, school lunch programs, public health and nutrition - each focus may be slightly different but their message is ultimately the same: our food system is broken.

You may have read earlier works like The Omnivore's Dilemma, in which Pollan examined farm policy in the U.S. Or if books aren't your thing, films like King Corn, The Future of Food and Food, Inc. all drove home the message that commodity crops have caused us more harm than good. Sure they afforded us food that was cheap and easy, but the dark side that has slowly emerged is what is fueling the movement today. As he notes,
"Perhaps the food movement's strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system."
And here he touches on a key point: that the rise of obesity and chronic disease has only become a major concern because of its economic toll. Finally we have some insight into the consequences of our food system, and that is why the food movement is finally gaining some ground speed.

There are many lessons we can learn from looking back at what led to this downward spiral, and in the next few days I hope to explore them further. But it's interesting to briefly take a look at another country concerned with its food future. In the past few months the world's eyes and hearts have turned to Haiti, already impoverished and now devastated by natural disaster. In effort to help farmers rebuild, Monsanto pledged a donation of $4 million in seeds. Haitian peasant farmers, however, are refusing this handout, recognizing that it jeopardizes any future they may have for food sovereignty. Similarly, it's been proposed that, if not properly specified, a U.S. bill offering $2.8 billion in emergency funding to Haiti may be counterproductive. I mention these current events because I think they're signs we're headed in the right direction. Just as foodies are shunning what is cheap and easy by encouraging a return to slower, more methodical methods of cooking and eating, the questions around aid to Haiti show foresight and a concern with measured approaches toward food, agriculture and sustainability so that forty years from now we don't have to look back and learn such painful lessons.