President-elect Obama’s choice of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to be Agriculture Secretary has drawn a collective thumbs down amongst progressive bloggers, perhaps best characterized by the headline at Eating Liberally: “Maybe Vilsack Won’t Suck?”.
Gov. Vilsack is considered by many to be too close to the agribusiness industry to be able to enable the changes needed to reshape our national nutritional and food safety priorities.
Author Michael Pollan was quoted on NPR as saying: “I was very disappointed in that news conference … not to hear Vilsack use the word ‘food’ — or ‘eaters.’ And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land.” Pollan said it seems the choice may be just “agribusiness as usual.”
The folks at Food Democracy Now have been running a very public campaign urging Obama to appoint progressives in the agriculture department, including an internet petition (signed by over 57,000 people). Although they are disappointed by Gov. Vilsack’s nomination, they are continuing the campaign, hoping for better choices at the sub-cabinet level.
Since all this has been making the news (with U-T excepted, as usual), we thought it might be a good idea to re-post this piece that’s relevant about the topic.
(The following was originally posted in August 2008)
Over the last several years there has been significant discussion about the importance of eating locally. The term “locavor” has been coined to describe people who’s commitment to sourcing local food defines their diets.
Several books, including Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle have made it to the top of the best seller lists. These books all make the case for a better life through eating primarily locally produced foods. The arguments for locavorism are solid: supporting the local economy, better taste, freshness, fighting air pollution/oil addiction, and even protecting your family from bio-terrorism.
Journalist Michael Pollan’s tome (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) concerns itself with tracing the origins of four meals, including a visit to chez mcdonalds, organic grocery store items, a pastured Virginia farm (Disclosure: I worked for Polyface in his early days) and the author’s own venture into hunting and gathering in the wilds of Northern California. It’s not an easy read for a non-foodie, but is worthwhile for its extensive documentation throughout the process. His second book (In Defense of Food) is a more accessible how-to guide that guides the reader in practical ways towards the locavore lifestyle.
Author Kingsolver’s book walks you through a year in her life as she and her family adapt to living off the land in southwestern Virginia. It brings the process of moving outside the corporate food chain to life starting with gathering wild asparagus and wrapping up by explaining (you really don’t want to know) the bizarre process of mating turkeys.
Woven throughout the logic presented in these books are bits and pieces of a larger argument: the food that you buy from local providers is somehow healthier or, conversely, food coming through the corporate feedlots is less healthy. Making health claims leads us into a confusing netherworld of published and unpublished studies, government regulations (often written at the behest of food processors) and snake oil salesmen making claims for products that promise to be marketed via a vast multi-level network of willing suckers (acai berries, anyone?) .
So I’m not going to bother with the specific health claims here. In the face of the energy crises, soaring health care costs, and a general malaise in the economy, there are plenty of persuasive arguments for looking past the selections of high fructose corn syrup infused and soy based prepared foods offered at the local grocery store.
The average food item on a grocery shelf has traveled more miles (1500) than most American go on their vacations. Each us is responsible for using up 400 gallons of oil each year via the agriculture industry’s current modes of production through our current patterns of comsumption. Eating just one locally grown meal per household each week in the United States would reduce our national oil consumption by 1.1 million barrels per week. The United States exported 1.1 million pounds of potatoes last year, while importing 1.4 million pounds. Go figure!
The US has experienced dramatic increases in obesity amongst the population in recent decades. Type two diabetes and other weight related illnesses are skyrocketing; even children are now being diagnosed with diseases that used to be limited to the older and more overweight segments of the population. Coincidentally, US farm production has increased by 700 calories per day per citizen over the last thirty years, to 3900 calories. The agri-business combines that dominate our nutritional intake have responded by “super-sizing” their products. Thirty percent of our national caloric intake now comes from junk foods. The drive for easy profits and the so-called “free trade” legislation (which gives agri-business corporations every advantage) has nutritionally bankrupted our nation’s food supply.
We’re a nation with a national eating disorder; our cultural culinary heritages have been in decline since the introduction of the TV dinner. We attempt to cure our ailments that arise from this disorder by adopting various “diet” fads and by consuming mass quantities of nutritionally enhanced “supplements” whose real value is, at best, questionable and, at worst, dangerous. Kingsolver’s book predicts that the children of today may actually be facing a decline in life expectancy as compared to their parents.
All this bad nutrition is heavily subsidized with our tax dollars, so the cheap prices that you think you’re paying in supermarkets are, in fact, not so cheap. Federal subsidies that directly benefit agri-business total $77 Billion annually, with the largest chunk ($45 billion) being spent to offset the environmental destruction that results from industrial-style farming.
With the food industry now turning its attention to increasing consumer interest in “organic” products, it’s important to understand that the locavore movement goes past simply raising foods without using pesticides. The government’s “organic” farming and packaging regulations present prohibitive barriers for many small producers. Loopholes in those regulations have made the term “organic” as suspect as “all natural”. At least, back in the day, the industry’s term “Better Living Thru Chemistry” was upfront about what their intentions were.
The ultimate price that we’re paying as a culture for agri-industrialization is a decline in the diversity of species in our farmlands. Countless varieties of fruits and vegetables that used to be produced have disappeared in the quest for standardization and transportability. Over the course of our civilization, we humans have utilized over 80,000 different species of plants for nutritional survival; now three fourths of all food consumed comes from just eight species. The four thousand varieties of potatoes that were once farmed in Peru have been reduced to a few dozen in the face of the drive to homogenize the food supply.
The grass roots and decentralized nature of the movement to eat local is best documented by looking at the growth of Farmer’s Markets over the last three decades. In 1976 there were 350 farmers markets around the country; that number has grown tenfold. San Diego now boasts over two dozen markets and a quarterly magazine (www.ediblesandiego.com) about their activities. (The OB Farmer’s Market is on Wednesdays, 4pm until dusk on Newport between Cable & Bacon. Call 619.279.0032 for more information.)
On a national level, the locavore movement is being lead by organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange, a national network with 8000 members promoting the planting of heirloom fruits and vegetables. On the culinary front, leadership is being provided Slow Food International, which seeks to combat “the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” Founded in Italy over two decades ago, Slow Food now boasts chapters in 32 countries, with 85,000 members. Locally they can be reached via www.slowfoodsandiego.org .
A national Slow Food conference held in San Francisco recently produced a seminal document entitled a Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture to help accelerate the transformation of the present industrialized agricultural system in the US. The document reads as follows:
We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half-century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity.
These realities call for a radically different approach to food and agriculture. We believe that the food system must be reorganized on a foundation of health: for our communities, for people, for animals, and for the natural world. The quality of food, and not just its quantity, ought to guide our agriculture. The ways we grow, distribute, and prepare food should celebrate our various cultures and our shared humanity, providing not only sustenance, but justice, beauty and pleasure.
Governments have a duty to protect people from malnutrition, unsafe food, and exploitation, and to protect the land and water on which we depend from degradation. Individuals, producers, and organizations have a duty to create regional systems that can provide healthy food for their communities. We all have a duty to respect and honor the laborers of the land without whom we could not survive. The changes we call for here have begun, but the time has come to accelerate the transformation of our food and agriculture and make its benefits available to all.
We believe that the following twelve principles should frame food and agriculture policy, to ensure that it will contribute to the health and wealth of the nation and the world. A healthy food and agriculture policy:
1. Forms the foundation of secure and prosperous societies, healthy communities, and healthy people.
2. Provides access to affordable, nutritious food to everyone.
3. Prevents the exploitation of farmers, workers, and natural resources; the domination of genomes and markets; and the cruel treatment of animals, by any nation, corporation or individual.
4. Upholds the dignity, safety, and quality of life for all who work to feed us.
5. Commits resources to teach children the skills and knowledge essential to food production, preparation, nutrition, and enjoyment.
6. Protects the finite resources of productive soils, fresh water, and biological diversity.
7. Strives to remove fossil fuel from every link in the food chain and replace it with renewable resources and energy.
8. Originates from a biological rather than an industrial framework.
9. Fosters diversity in all its relevant forms: diversity of domestic and wild species; diversity of foods, flavors and traditions; diversity of ownership.
10. Requires a national dialog concerning technologies used in production, and allows regions to adopt their own respective guidelines on such matters.
11. Enforces transparency so that citizens know how their food is produced, where it comes from, and what it contains.
12. Promotes economic structures and supports programs to nurture the development of just and sustainable regional farm and food networks.
Our pursuit of healthy food and agriculture unites us as people and as communities, across geographic boundaries, and social and economic lines. We pledge our votes, our purchases, our creativity, and our energies to this urgent cause.
On the local scene, there is also www.sandiegoroots.org, a sustainable food project that is sponsoring ongoing events designed to raise public consciousness on these issues. Their Food for Thought film series is being sponsored by the O.B. Peoples Organic Food Coop www.obpeoplesfood.coop . And, just in case you didn’t know it, our local coop now boasts over 10,000 members.
Jay Porter (no relation to this blogger), frontman of The Linkery (www.thelinkery.com) in North Park has also been at the forefront of the local food movement, operating a very successful restaurant that showcases its local connections throughout the menu. Many restaurants now boast of their local connections; it’s wise to ask a few questions before taking their word on it. The Linkery is the real deal.
Part social movement, culinary trend and the choice of many who seek to improve their health, the locavore movement is here to stay.