Beyond the Supermarket: A Call to Future Farmers
Food. Do you ever notice how people look up when they hear that word? It can be connected to so many emotions: joy, relief, frustration, grief, love, anguish, lust, obsession, fear. It’s tied into every aspect of our lives. Bounty can bring people together, lack can tear whole countries apart. If you’re like me, you’re constantly thinking about when you’re going to get your next meal. If you’ve ever tried to do a fast or a change of diet, you know just how dependent we are to the food we’re used to eating. As we settle with full bellies after our recent feasts and give thanks for the wonderful things in life, let’s take a moment and reflect on the hardworking individuals who make our meals possible. Why, when food is such a staple in our lives, do most of us have no idea about the processes or the people involved in getting food to our tables? How are so many American citizens so blissfully unaware of the political, social, economic, and environmental flaws in our food system and the movement that is taking place in an attempt to counteract this?
To analyze food you have to go back to the source. That is, go back to the land and those who work it. I’m talking about agriculture. Farmer, which for all its importance, is a fading title. American Farms have declined from ~7million in 1935 to ~2million in 2011. The latest USDA census states that for every farmer under 35 years old , there are six over 65 years. This is due to a lack of interest in young people today and a lack of money for those who are interested. In Gary Romano’s book, Why I Farm: Risking It All for a Life on the Land, he illustrates how difficult it is for small farmers to get started.
“When you talk to educators and politicians, the buzzwords they often use are ‘buy local’ and ‘promote and recruit small farmers.’ It sounds great! Yeah… just go out, buy a piece of land, put on some overalls and a straw hat, grow some crops, and we have more small farmers! It’s not that easy.”
He illustrates the struggle of new farmers to get the amount of loans they need to kickstart their farm in a system that is set up for them to fail, in a market that is all about “Get Big or Get Out!”, in a government that only subsidizes cash crops. Not to mention how difficult it is to make it past the rules and regulations that make it impossible to compete with bigger players.
But this is the future of our food. It’s long been the attitude of the young to leave the farm and go find jobs in the city. Now it’s time for some to seriously consider going back. Because agriculture has taken some scary turns since last we checked. On top of biological concerns (consumption of non-renewable resources, air and water pollution, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, superweeds, pesticide-resistant insects, antibiotic resistant bacteria in livestock…), there are also sociological and economic problems that stem from lack of access to the food we grow or lack of education about nutrition. One big myth about food is that it’s up to us to “Feed the World.” Worldwide, we grow enough food to feed an estimated 10 billion people. Much of that food goes to waste or is allocated to other avenues. Corn in America is used primarily for ethanol production and animal feed, another huge chunk goes into the production of High Fructose Corn Syrup to go into all the processed foods and drinks that one can hardly call nutritious. Even if supply wasn’t an issue, poverty is, and in some cases even where food is present, the money to buy it is not.
On November 14, acclaimed author, Michael Pollan, and former Deputy Secretary of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, spoke at the annual Horace M. Albright lecture here at UC Berkeley. Their lecture was entitled “What’s Next in the Food Movement?” They both provided a basic layout of a few of the key highlights within food security, emphasizing the importance of consumer interest (a.k.a. YOUR interest):
“If you express an interest in the story of your food, that story will get better.”
While they followed a range of topics, from immigrant jobs to food stamps, GMOs, and trans fats, the most important points, I thought, were the ones communicating what’s next for future farmers and what can be done on a consumer level. Merrigan spoke proudly of her favorite project while working for the USDA, which was the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which brings consumers in touch with the farmers who supply their food. A big part of that initiative was to create a map of the US pinpointing all of the regional projects happening all over the country (http://www.usda.gov/maps/maps/kyfcompassmap.htm). They also touched on the latest Farm Bill (or as Pollan likes to call it “Food Bill,” because it concerns everyone who eats) that is currently being hashed out in Congress, though not much information could be given on its contents. “No game-changers,” says Merrigan. Perhaps the most important note was that this Movement is a generational fight to change the food system, and it’s just starting.
That means it’s up to our generation to keep this ball rolling. Which means a new generation of farmers, those who strive for sustainability and food justice. And a new generation of consumers, those who demand for the right to know what’s in our food and where it’s coming from. In his book, Romano proclaims the new slogan should be “Go Small or Not at All!” We need to encourage those who can get involved in a hands-on level to do so. We need more education about food and nutrition at an earlier age, and for urban gardeners to get more support from the public. We need a complete revamp of our food system.
Every decision you make in regard to food affects the future of the entire industry. It’s time to bring the sexy back to farming. It’s time to take control of our land, our health, our food.
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