Monday, January 31, 2005

Better and better every day?

One of the themes of Bitter Greens Gazette will be to debunk the idea that the industrial food system is crumbling under the weight of a sustainable food movement--that small-scale local ag might, sometime soon, overwhelm or transform Big Food.

The argument goes like this: Everywhere I go, I have more chances to buy organic. Not only are Whole Foods outlets sprouting like mung beans in suburban strip malls, but my locally dominant massive supermarket chain has a whole section that's organic. Why, just the other day, I was in Sam's Club, and I found some organic milk! And my favorite local "gourmet" restaurant features local vegetables. Our side is winning!

By indulging in a bitter laugh at such effusions, we'll certainly be accused of pessimism, of not "thinking positive," a self-help platitude that's taken on near-religious status over the past decade or so. But let us nod to Herbert Marcuse and test the "power of negative thinking." By doing so, we might get a clearer picture of what's happening globally and right around us with food production and consumption. And that might help us come up with a more rigorous response to the disaster of the current food system.

Have a look at this article from today's Wall Street Journal, detailing the top 10 "trends in U.S. agriculture."

Optimists will find much comfort here. "Sales of organic food are growing about 18% a year, with meat and fish experiencing the fastest growth, according to figures from the Organic Trade Association. The amount of U.S. certified organic cropland for corn, soybeans, and other major crops doubled from 1997 to 2001, according to the USDA."

But organic hardly means local, or even sustainable. Organic produce gets a 30 percent premium to conventional in the wholesale market, but converting to organic can cost as much as $10,000 per acre. The cost requirement, as well as mass amounts of paperwork required for certification, are better suited to large industrial farms than small ones. The organic apple of bunch of kale you buy at Whole Foods was likely trucked crosscountry from California after being grown on a huge farm, almost certainly worked by exploited migrant labor. In other words, many of the industrial practices and social relations have been preserved.

I talked to an excellent small-scale farmer from the Chapel Hill area recently. He's been certified organic for nearly 30 years, and reports that certification has become more of a headache than it's worth, and that many of his peers continue to farm with organic methods but have dropped certification. He says Whole Foods, who he used to sell to, is willing to buy local--if you can beat the price offered by industrial-organic California farms.

While optimists are cheering the organic trends, we negative thinkers are getting a cold chill from the news, much detailed in this blog, about genetically modified (GMO) crops. Here is our WSJ correspondent:
"After sweeping across the American Farm Belt, genetically modified crops are making inroads overseas -- despite resistance in some nations where critics contend they could pose unknown risks to the food supply. Modified crops can tolerate weed-killing chemicals and resist damaging pests, saving farmers money in labor and lost crops.
Eighteen countries now grow biotech crops, with Argentina, China, Canada and Brazil leading biotech growth outside the U.S. An additional 45 are researching and developing their use, according to a study by C. Ford Runge, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy." (Bold not in original).

(Note to self: Research the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy, which is funded by Cargill Foundation, Archer Daniels Midland Company, and John Cowles, Jr.)

Finally, the title of the WSJ article--"What's for Dinner? Imports"--tells a grim story. Trend #1: "Thanks to cheap land and labor, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, China and other countries are emerging as powerful agricultural producers," i.e., importers into the U.S. market. Those amazing organic strawberries you found at Whole Foods last week were likely shipped in from Chile. And that box of organic soymilk could well have been made with Brazilian soybeans--which could have been contaminated by GMO beans.


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