Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Food systems course: week two

The second week of my Comparative Food Systems class has readings in Anna Lappé's book, Diet for a Hot Planet, going over Hamm's seven principles for a healthy food system, reading an article by Jack Kloppenburg and others on the foodshed, an article on rural Alaska food systems by my professor, Craig Gerlach, and researching definitions of "food system." In the meantime, I've been working on the Alaska Food Policy Council's introductory paper on food policy and the Alaska food system, so these two projects dovetail quite nicely. It adds up to a lot of reading—interesting, definitely, but a lot of pages.

So, to start: Lappé makes the argument that not only is small-scale, diversified organic farming that caters to a local market sustainable and good for communities, this type of agriculture is climate-friendly because it: produces fewer comparative greenhouse gas emissions than industrial farming; requires less energy inputs from fossil fuels; improves the soil; and actually sequesters carbon in the soil rather than releasing it. Her description of the energy-intensiveness of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is horrific—and never mind the inherent cruelty of them, she hasn't even gotten into that so far. She does talk about the unhealthiness of the modern diet in terms of the amount of processing food undergoes: highly processed foods, like Pringles or Pop-Tarts, use a huge amount of energy and resources—and they're just not that good for you.

Lappé describes seven principles of a climate-friendly diet:
  1. Reach for real food (food that has fewer ingredients and isn't processed or transmogrified a lot is likelier to be less climate-destructive)
  2. Put plants on your plate (eat less meat—most modern meat is grain-fed, which is energy-intensive; if you eat meat, eat meat that is raised humanely and sustainably, because these practices, like grass-fed beef, produce less greenhouse gas emissions—grain-fed cattle produce more methane than grass-fed cattle!)
  3. Don't panic, go organic (industrial chemicals require large energy inputs; nitrogen fertilizer produced through the Haber-Bosch process, for example—and then there's all those petrochemicals used for pesticides)
  4. Lean toward local (less shipping, for one)
  5. Finish your peas…the ice caps are melting (food waste is a waste of energy resources; institutional composting makes use of food waste and reduces land-fill emissions)
  6. Send packaging packing (the throwaway society wastes humongous amounts of resources; I think we should institute a law like that in Germany, where the producer or seller of packing must take it back from whoever they sell it to. For example, the customer buys a box of chocolate, but returns the box to the store—the store has to take the box, no charge. Then the store can return their collected boxes to the supplier of the chocolate—and the supplier can't charge them. The cost to the retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers has reduced extra packaging dramatically in Germany. Lappé has not mentioned this law so far in my reading.)
  7. DIY food (grow and cook your own food: better for you and lots less processing—and therefore lots less energy intensive)
Hamm's article, assigned last week, was also interesting but a bit less easy reading than Lappé's book. (My editorial eye kept twitching—he'd have had red ink all over his paper had I gotten to it before publication.) His operating principles for a healthy food system are that it would:
  1. insure community food security for all residents
  2. be community based
  3. be locally integrated
  4. be reasonably seasonal in nature
  5. present primarily opportunities rather than problems
  6. connect health across the layers of the system
  7. be diverse
This is, of course, not at all what our current food system looks like. Our current food system is highly energy-intensive, unseasonal, deters connectivity between the different layers of the food system, is almost completely disassociated with local communities, is rarely distributed or minimally distributed within a community, and is rife with pseudo-diversity and ultra-processed crud disguised as foodoid items.

You can tell where I'm coming from, can't you?

A concise definition of "food system" comes from the San Francisco Food Alliance's 2005 San Francisco Collaborative Food System Assessment (PDF), which says
A food system describes the cycle of growing, distributing, eating and recycling our food, and all the factors that affect it.
Short and sweet! It's "all the factors" that are the hairy part, however: natural resources and environmental systems, social and cultural systems, political systems, economic systems, technology, research, education, etc. That encompasses a lot of things: disease, hunger, political will, costs, food safety, commodities trading, water rights, the Green Revolution, agribusiness, organic certification, heirloom seeds, and so on. This in turn brings up ideas like food democracy and equity, food sovereignty, fair trade, self-reliance, guerilla gardening, etc.

Kloppenberg's article, "Coming in to the Foodshed," takes the metaphor of the watershed and applies it to food. How does food move through the landscape, the community? One quote from it struck me:
Provided with an apparent cornucopia of continuously available foods, few consumers have much knowledge of the biological, social, or technical parameters and implications of food production in the global village.

Of course, much of the power of agribusiness ultimately depends on farmers and consumers not knowing. If we do not know, we do not act. And even if we do know, the physical and social distancing characteristics of the global food system may constrain our willingness to act when the locus of the needed action is distant or when we have no real sense of connection to the land or those on whose behalf we ought to act. Ultimately, distancing disempowers. Control passes to those who can act and are accustomed to act at a distance: the Philip Morrises, Monsantos, and ConAgras of the world.
(My emphasis added.) In short, it pays the big guys for the public to be uniformed or misinformed.

The thing that I am discovering about an examination of food systems and sustainable farming: food is political, and food politics are radical—because the nexus of the issue is about self-determination, freedom.

Kloppenberg, Hendrickson, and Stevenson go on (and bear in mind that this article was published 15 years ago) to talk about "foodshed work." They describe it so (again, my emphasis):
  • A foodshed will be embedded in a moral economy that envelopes [sic] and conditions market forces. The global food system now operates according to allegedly "natural" rules of efficiency, utility maximization, competitiveness, and calculated self-interest. The historical extension of market relations has deeply eroded the obligations of mutuality, reciprocity, and equity that ought to characterize all elements of human interaction. Food production today is organized largely with the objective of producing a profit rather than with the purpose of feeding people. But human society has been and should remain more than a marketplace.
  • Community Supported Agriculture also serves as an illustration of our expectation that the moral economy of a foodshed will be shaped and expressed principally through communities.…We imagine foodsheds as commensal communities that encompass sustainable relationships both between people (those who eat together) and between people and the land (obtaining food without damage). …[B]uilding the commensal community means establishment or recovery of social linkages beyond atomistic market relationships through the production, exchange, processing, and consumption of food. …Finally, the standards of a commensal community require respect and affection for the land and for other species. It is through food that humanity's most intimate and essential connections to the earth and to other creatures are expressed and consummated.
  • The dominant dynamics of the global food system actively erode both moral economy and community. We agree with those who believe that this destructiveness is an inherent property of the system, and that what is needed is fundamental transformation rather than simple reform.
All this makes having a garden at home look like a revolutionary act. And maybe it is.

More later on Gerlach's article, "Rural Alaskan Food Systems: Problems, Prospects, and Policy Considerations," written for the Alaska Food Policy Council in August 2010.
—Deirdre Helfferich

Note: posts in this series are the personal reflections and observations of Deirdre Helfferich about the class.

Cross posted at the Ester Republic blog.

See previous posts on this course:

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