I’ve been dealing with my own food issues lately, along with body/mind stuff. I seem to be heading into a perfect storm of autoimmune issues along with the usual health-related matters I sometimes discuss here. More on that another time. I want to take a look at a bigger picture than my tough and hard-working little body.
Some food researchers say that we can feed the current population of earth right now, if we had the moral and political will. That’s nearly 7.2 billion people. We send food around the world (We who? We with the food to send.) and watch it disappear into a variety of political sinkholes. We watch corruption in the distribution of food meant for famine- and war-torn areas.
Let’s not be hasty to blame it all on political turbulence.
What about the way we bring food out of this earth?
Industrial technology thrives upon the natural world with its array of potential resource materials, in addition to human knowledge and monetary exchange.
Very early technologies – for instance, lithic technologies for hunting, basketry for gathering, and fishing equipment such as weirs and nets – were a part of the cultural commons. I make a basket, it’s for all of us. We gather honey or grow a crop, it’s for all of us.
However, once money is introduced, exchanges become unequal. Some ancient hunter-gatherer groups may have had systems of equal exchange, although colonialism and industrialism by modern Western powers have so changed the lifeways of those very few hunter-gatherer groups still remaining that we may never know for sure. These societies live so deeply embedded in the various nation states that have enclosed them that any cultural practices they may have had even a few hundred years ago have been virtually obliterated.
Monetized transactions are so deeply rooted in our economic, political, and social interactions that most of us think that the market system is inevitable and irreversible. If I collected fees from everyone who has told me to charge money for RSF farm days, I’d have something to take to the bank. I can’t do it. I need more income, sure, but most of the farm day folks have less than I do. They bring gifts and food and drink. That’s sufficient. Rather, that would be sufficient if I could bankroll the continuing farm days.
The modern world has decontextualized food production, personally and communally, keeping people with lower incomes always on the razor’s edge of hunger and starvation.
We’ve seen food riots worldwide in recent years. Hunger is increasing in the United States. Industrial food technologies, as they stand, are largely embedded in a context of social inequality.
Are all monetized exchanges inherently unequal? Polanyi said so. Thus, there really is no free market. Libertarians may say, say, say that the free market will cure all of this. Polanyi himself suspected that truly free markets have never existed. Moving beyond a barter system and into any kind of market system does make literal free markets unattainable since even under very modest circumstances people generally want to have standard weights and measures, at the least. They tend to introduce currency, means of protection from theft and raid, along with means of realizing various social and moral obligations.
A market will be structured according to the way that these processes and principles are conceived and structured. In the United States, including California, the agricultural system does not operate as any kind of free market. The system does not in any way resemble voluntary transport and trade of edible goods from an idealized family farmer to the tables of the nation. We say it does, but it doesn’t. Maybe some direct marketing situations come close to this ideal. In general, though, from seed to the farmer’s field to the table, sustenance is subsidized (most often in ways that do not benefit the smaller farmers or farmers of smaller, more specialized crops, such as organic produce) and crops are transported as massive commodities in a large industrialized system. I’d include roads and fleets of vehicles here. Also import and export crops, and crop research funding. How much of this reaches out to benefit grassroots growers or consumers, especially lower-income consumers? Smaller- and medium-scale organic producers in California, as pointed out by Guthman (2004), often engage in practices that while not as destructive of the land as large-scale, industrialized agriculture, continue to marginalize and underpay farm workers.
Let’s think about the idea of food sovereignty.
Increase in worldwide hunger and continuing environmental degradation have led to food movements that seek to do more than stabilize the global agribusiness food regime, to continually push this place or that back from the brink of complete starvation. One fairly radical analysis of food regimes is the movement for food sovereignty. Food sovereignty calls for redistributive reform of land and water use and deep transformation of the idea of markets. The movement toward food justice calls for access to safe, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods regardless of social or economic constraints. Food justice advocates tend to focus on localized production while those promoting food sovereignty concentrate on transformation of political systems to allow for more just and sustainable food systems. In most cases there are overlapping concentrations in the movements for food justice and food sovereignty (Holt-Giménez & Shattuck, 2011).
So let’s apply pressure in the center where they overlap.
Let’s call for access to good, clean, wholesome food for all people, regardless of social or economic constraints; putting control of food production into the hands of eaters and creating local jobs and small businesses centered on food production and sale; recognition and provision of culturally favored foods and making provision for people to obtain them easily and affordably; safe food production – for farm workers, food processors, and eaters; the ability for people to actively participate in the food system as citizens and local residents, not just consumers; the ability to participate in food policy-making; prioritization of both people and the environment; and finally, solidarity and community within sustainable food systems for all regions of the world. Let’s investigate deeper systemic problems that that cause the current food system to leave poor people under-served.
Come on. Food is elemental: it comprises social relationships, relationship with the land, traditional foodways , heritage crops and cuisines. People make a living embedded in their cultures, societies, and environments. Organisms + environment = networks. Networks like this are basically units of survival. Food networks (I’ll say it again) are also elemental.
Research suggests a co-evolutionary relationship between what people have traditionally hunted, gathered, and grown as food, and what they may often prefer. Social and nutritional sciences indicate close relationship between traditional foodways and peoples’ ability to digest certain foods, metabolize them, and sometimes peoples’ general health. This is not to take a deterministic view of foodways as solely related to biology. We are not entirely and only our genetic heritage. Of course.
People are evolutionary omnivores, yet cultural preferences are significant. Food researchers and growers benefit from looking at the picture holistically – considering cultural preferences, appreciating cultural food diversities, learning from one another to appreciate a wide range of foods, particularly when such foods might be grown ecologically in any given region.
I’ve heard talk recently about the world population climbing to (optimistically) 9 billion by 2050. Not so optimistically, and maybe more realistically, 10 billion. Researchers who were hopeful a dozen years ago that we could, in fact, feed the world are less optimistic than ever. Part of this has to do with global climate chaos, part has to do with utter loss of arable land. Many say food production will drop off severely. Climate changes, watersheds being dried up, desertification, all kinds of environmental degradation, increasing urban sprawl, decreasing arable land, soil depletion, erosion ruining farmlands and polluting watersheds, chemical hazards endangering farmers, farm workers and consumers. If these aren’t enough we have decreasing water supplies, poor quality water where we still have supplies, and overdraft of underground aquifers. I suppose we could wait around for the next Ice Age and replenish out aquifers. And then there is the failure of GMO crops, relative to initial hopes for them. Weeds, insects, and plant diseases have become resistant to the genetically designed food organisms. That’s just the tip of that particular iceberg, but I don’t want to get into the rest of it right now.
California’s Central Valley
Oh, and in the last few years there have been reports of rock phosphate, a mineral that farmers use in food production, being depleted. Some say that natural supplies will run out in 100 years unless more is discovered. Sufficient soil phosphorus is needed for optimal crop yields, whether you are farming small acreage organically or 4,000 acres with industrial methods. For the micro- or smalller-scale farmer this doesn’t have to be devastating. After all, composted or vermicomposted manure can be used. In fact, it is a helpful addition to certain alkaline soils like some of the soil at RSF. Someone once gifted me with nearly a ton of horse manure. He drove it right into my back yard, next to the orchard and I went to work finding ways to compost it. It’s in my soil now.
Large-scale industrialized agriculture, our current “food regime,” is currently associated with inequities in food distribution worldwide, food-related illnesses and deaths due to hunger and malnutrition. Or, if you prefer, over-consumption of foods that produce obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and any number of other serious health issues.
This is a tiny slice of our planetary food crisis mixed in with my usual rants about global climate crises. I wonder why I have to try to slip this into various college anthropology courses I teach. Why aren’t they teaching this and teaching it strongly to teens in high school and even children?
I guess we’re afraid we might make them afraid. It is scary. But children are resilient. And they are creative. They find solutions. Why not open the book for them and see how they react? Why not give them insight into the world we are leaving to them? The more time they have to work alongside us, the better. Best they comprehend that agribusiness as usual is profoundly sick and dysfunctional.
Almost everyone has heard the statement by Jiddu Krishnamurti :
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
How can we not despair? Of course our children will be concerned. It’s what we do once we look our despair in the face that might make a difference. More to the point: How can we do anything if we don’t understand our situation?
These planetary crises I can’t let go of; I chew over them like my son’s dog chews his rawhide bones. These are radical situations, these planetary emergencies; they call for radical solutions.
Radical cutbacks in consumption? Are we afraid we can’t do this reasonably?
Radical changes in the way we do government? Radical de-coupling of governments and the global food regime? You know, those vast, global industrial agrifood monopolies like Monsanto, Cargill, and ADM. And their partners in food crimes who want to monopolize, monetize, and privatize the earth’s water resources. It’s happening.
True story, if you haven’t heard it:
The Mojave Desert is not currently productive agriculturally, as it is not suited to California-style, large-scale agriculture. Still, the Mojave Desert contains groundwater greatly desired by private interests like the Cadiz Corporation, who purchased Sun World International, California’s second largest citrus producer next to Sunkist.
This persistent corporation has endeavored to gather rents and other profits from groundwater storage beneath properties it owns in California and in Egypt. The Cadiz Land Company has attempted to buy up tracts of land in the Mojave Desert to get at the underground reserves of fossil water, relict water supplies from the Pleistocene epoch. This is a clever business tactic since surface and groundwater reserves are rapidly disappearing everywhere in the world and privatizing then selling fossil water could yield unimaginable riches.
Privatizing (enclosing and monetizing) any of the commons that are left, gross depletion of natural resources remains a given, global monopolies of food remain, while local food systems are plainly destroyed.
We need radical changes in the way we produce food. And radical changes in the way we perceive it.
Can we think about cultivating, in small household environments, diverse and native food plants that would please anyone? Even foods that grow in similar climates and altitudes in other parts of the world. That’s a start. Mesquite flour breads and even cookies (yay cookies!). From Asian semi-arid highlands, jujubes. They take a while to produce here, but our jujube trees are finally beginning to produce fruit. Permaculture-based drylands growing systems. It may not sound radical until you try it. Then you realize the challenges. As the world climate system folds into chaos and natural resources continue to be depleted, radical food production may be simpler than you’d initially think. Tune in to the environment and give it a try.
Jujube tree in the fall.
One of my dear mentors, Eugene Anderson, once told me an old proverb: “While almost everyone is saying that something is impossible, someone is quietly doing it.” Maybe that’s all we can do. Maybe, in the end, it will be sufficient. I hope so. What do you think?
You might want to look at these:
Guthman, Julie. (2004). Agrarian dreams: The paradox of organic farming in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Holt-Giménez, Eric & Shattuck, Annie. (2011). Food crises, food regimes and food movements: Rumblings of reform or tides of transformation? Journal of Peasant Studies, 38: (1), 109 – 144.
Smil, Vaclav. (2001). Feeding the world: A challenge for the twenty-first century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.