Several weeks ago, I attended a remarkable presentation by Raj Patel author of Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Part of what was astounding was the number people who arrived, cramming themselves into a small bookstore -- literally from floor to ceiling, wall to wall -- to hear Patel expound on the challenges threatening the world's food supply. The audience represented every age and ethnic group. And I am not sure any were ready to hear what Patel had to say.
First, he launched into a guilt-inducing description of the process that brings us our chocolate bars. The living conditions of most of the farmers who grow the cocoa beans, and the poor wages they make for their hard work. The depletion of the soil, the profits of the middlemen, the inclusion of ingredients that "keep food fresh on our shelves for a millennium."
Believe me, there is no way to happily and innocently eat a Hershey Bar after his graphic description. And even those of us who felt superior because we only eat organically grown chocolate treats were not assuaged. Although the soil where organic beans are grown is more tenderly nurtured, and protected from pesticides and weed killers, many farmers are still on the losing end of the financial bargain and ingredients like soy lecithin are still used to smooth and preserve the candy.
In fact, soy itself, ubiquitous in so many food products, served as a prime example, for Patel, of the huge problems facing the food industry. Soy agriculture and production demonstrates "how something wonderful can be turned into a curse," by agribusiness, according to Patel.
Henry Ford, as it turns out was a soy buff. He wanted to grow cars out of soy, make suits out of soy, use soy in every facet of human life. And the soy industry Ford helped launch has insinuated itself in many aspects of our daily existence. In the process, soy agriculture has led to deforestation of the Amazon Rain Forest, drained aquifers (irrigation of soybean fields uses an inordinate amount of water) and virtually enslaved Brazilian farmers at the benefit of profiteers. Yikes.
And it is not just one particular crop, in one particular part of the world. The whole food system is sick. Control of seed banks, GMO (genetically modified) crops, the scores of steps food takes from field to table -- all have contributed to a relationship with food that is the opposite of nourishing for people on a global basis.
One of the ironies of modern agriculture and modern food processing, Patel says in his book, is that at the same time 800 million people on this planet are starving -- both for calories and nutrients -- one billion people are overweight -- which means they are getting ample calories, but not necessarily nutrients. "Global hunger and obesity are symptoms of the same problem," Patel writes in his compelling work, describing a food system that does not work for the majority of the world's population.
At the bookstore presentation, the vast majority of us in the audience had one crucial question on our collective minds: "What can we do to help, to make a difference, to help heal the food system?" Fortunately, Patel could delineate some of the key problems and possible solutions. He said several factors are currently driving the world food crisis: the price of oil; the diversion of food crops to bio-fuels; increased demand for meat (particularly in countries eager to adopt western ways of eating that are associated with increased wealth); poor harvests; and financial speculation fueled by World Bank policies in developing countries.
How can we, as well-off consumers, help change the equation? We can buy child-friendly/locust-friendly organic, shade-grown food thriving in healthy soil free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We can support fair trade, which pays farmers living wages and cuts out food system intermediaries by encouraging the purchase of food in its most unprocessed, raw state. Think farmers' markets, not frozen dinners and industrialized food products in boxes and bags.
Even though it is hard to imagine in our busy lives, he says food should not necessarily be convenient, it should be nourishing. Right now, "We are being made for our foods; rather than our foods being made for us," he told the crowd. Makes you pause, right?
One of the keys, he said is, raising children who "learn to speak up for food." Kids who feel connected to the source and value of what they eat. And just today, I witnessed the opposite of this approach. A young family -- mom, dad, and daughter -- purchased a lovely plate of French toast at the Little House CafÃƒ©. The French toast was made with healthy, organic ingredients and looked irresistible. But, as so often happens, the little girl couldn't manage to finish her breakfast.
The logical answer -- take the leftovers home for another yummy meal. Encouraging children to eat past the point of hunger is not healthy. So yay on that score. However, this family just dumped more than half the French toast in the garbage. Boo!
When I was growing up my mother told us to clean our plates because children in China were starving. Not really a good rationale; but there are children and adults around the world starving at this very moment, and we do need to teach our children to appreciate, not waste, the healthy food they have access to.
Patel told his appreciative audience that part of the answer to our food system's crisis is to raise new generations who really love food, and are willing to defend the sources and quality of our food. We need to reclaim our food culture from industry interests, so everyone on this planet can eat good, nutritious, safe, and satisfying food. Sounds good to me.
Noelle Robins is an Alameda writer.
©2008, Alameda Sun