Recent gossip around the food sphere has been littered with proposals for who should be Obama’s secretary of agriculture (oddly enough, no one seems to care about McCain…a question for another day: Do we think he’s losing or that he won’t listen to us?). My favorite is the head of the Analyzing Agriculture from Afar program at Urban University, followed by Jim Hightower, and then John Ikerd.
Jim Hightower is a strongly opinionated Texan who would insult lots of people and possibly get a few things done. John Ikerd, on the other hand, is a fascinating philosopher academic, with experience working at the USDA on sustainable production, who might be an effective advocate for sustainable agriculture. I’ve even heard that he is charming and likable, which makes him a more realistic candidate than Hightower.
John Ikerd is a strong writer with a background in agricultural economics, and accessible to non-policy wonks like us. A great many of his essays are available online. From the basics of what is sustainable agriculture to what values should underlie rural development, Ikerd’s writing is a readable and inspiring philosophical (and somewhat applicable) primer. Go. Pick one. Read it. Post a few thoughts. Or read my ramblings.
One of Ikerd’s strongest contributions to sustainable ag thinking has been his emphasis on the necessity of approaching sustainability from all aspects: not just snazzy healthy soil, air, and water, and clean milk for the babies; but also functioning vibrant communities and healthy bank accounts for producers and independent processors. Too often, the New York Times approach to local food is all about the crunchy—use less petroleum, with a dash of meet the awesome farmer. And yes, meeting your farmer can help build that vibrant community around your market, the town square, and so on. But the farmer in Montana who produces the wheat that goes into your bakery bread also deserves a lively community where kids have decent schools, churches still have congregations, and the town’s coffee shop stays in business. Same deal for the pecan farmer in Georgia and the coffee grower in Ecuador. Rethinking our food system requires that we also rethink our urban and rural ways of life, from transportation, waste disposal, and energy production to consumption, education, communication, and senior citizen services. (Down with the ex/sub-urbs taking over perfectly nice farmland! Unless you’re growing lots of things and commuting on your bike.
Local is great, don’t get me wrong. I am more committed my CSA than I have ever been in any relationship. Passing on my NYC CSA share was one of the greatest gestures of love I have ever made. OK, that might be slight hyperbole. Recreating community food systems from the bottom up is a fantastic way to begin subverting the industrial system’s impact on individuals and society, so well described by John Ikerd:
We are just beginning to realize that we are destroying the social fabric of our society in the process of trying to make our food system more efficient. We are destroying opportunities for people to lead productive, successful lives. We are turning thinking people, innovative, creative people into order takers. Farmers are being displaced by contract tractor drivers and hog house janitors just as independent entrepreneurs in food processing and retailing are being displaced by corporate franchise operators. There can be dignity in all work, but all people should have opportunities to express their full human potential. Consolidation of decision-making concentrates opportunities among the privileged few while leaving many without hope for a rewarding future. Industrial specialization also tends to separate people within families, within communities, and within nations. We are just beginning to realize that industrialization destroys the human relationships needed to support a civilized society. Does it make sense to destroy the social and cultural fabric of other countries as well—in our quest for cheaper food? (from Reinventing the Food Chain)
Somewhere among Confucius’s reputed sayings is one that says you must fix your own house before you can correct your neighbor, and so on, until you can correct the kingdom. So after you’ve fixed your own house, it’s time to try to subvert the greater national and international systems that pull decision making and fair labor standards away from all of the participants in the food system. Today it is virtually impossible to live a relatively mainstream life and be unaffected by the industrial concentration Ikerd describes so well. And, no, buying organic probably won’t save you because the most readily available organic brands (Arrowhead Mills, Cascadian Farms, Newman’s Own, etc.) are owned by the same folks who own Kraft, Nabisco, Dannon, and so on. Sorry. More action is required than eating yummy yummy strawberries to reconstruct a food system that respects its participants, or we will continue to destroy the social and cultural ways that tie other societies together.
Make your decisions consciously. Support others who also do so. Think about expanding your efforts into a little bit of politics. Write Obama about the importance of a sustainably focused secretary of agriculture, or grow something rebelliously. Most important, enjoy your food. I’m going to go enjoy my leftover spinach/feta/white bean stuffed sourdough tart. And yes, the spinach is local. And perhaps I’ll finish my equally local quart of strawberries for dessert…