Food Is Power and the Powerful Are Poisoning Us

Our most potent political weapon is food.
If we take back our agriculture, if we buy and raise produce locally,
we can begin to break the grip of corporations that control a food
system as fragile, unsafe and destined for collapse as our financial
system. If we continue to allow corporations to determine what we eat,
as well as how food is harvested and distributed, then we will become
captive to rising prices and shortages and increasingly dependent on
cheap, mass-produced food filled with sugar and fat. Food, along with
energy, will be the most pressing issue of our age. And if we do not
build alternative food networks soon, the social and political
ramifications of shortages and hunger will be devastating.

The effects of climate change, especially
with widespread droughts in Australia, Africa, California and the
Midwest, coupled with the rising cost of fossil fuels, have already
blighted the environments of millions. The poor can often no longer
afford a balanced diet. Global food prices increased an average of 43
percent since 2007, according to the International Monetary Fund. These
increases have been horrific for the approximately 1 billion
people-one-sixth of the world's population-who subsist on less than $1
per day. And 162 million of these people survive on less than 50 cents
per day. The global poor spend as much as 60 percent of their income on
food, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

There have been food riots in many parts
of the world, including Austria, Hungary, Mexico, Namibia, Zimbabwe,
Morocco, Yemen, Mauritania, Senegal and Uzbekistan. Russia and Pakistan
have introduced food rationing. Pakistani troops guard imported wheat.
India has banned the export of rice, except for high-end basmati. And
the shortages and price increases are being felt in the industrialized
world as we continue to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs and food
prices climb. There are 33.2 million Americans, or one in nine, who
depend on food stamps. And in 20 states as many as one in eight are on
the food stamp program, according to the Food Research Center. The
average monthly benefit was $113.87 per person, leaving many, even with
government assistance, without adequate food. The USDA says 36.2
million Americans, or 11 percent of households, struggle to get enough
food, and one-third of them have to sometimes skip or cut back on
meals. Congress allocated some $54 billion for food stamps this fiscal
year, up from $39 billion last year. In the new fiscal year beginning
Oct. 1, costs will be $60 billion, according to estimates.

Food shortages have been tinder for social
upheaval throughout history. But this time around, because we have lost
the skills to feed and clothe ourselves, it will be much harder for
most of us to become self-sustaining. The large agro-businesses have
largely wiped out small farmers. They have poisoned our soil with
pesticides and contaminated animals in filthy and overcrowded
stockyards with high doses of antibiotics and steroids. They have
pumped nutrients and phosphorus into water systems, causing algae bloom
and fish die-off in our rivers and streams. Crop yields, under the
onslaught of changing weather patterns and chemical pollution, are
declining in the Northeast, where a blight has nearly wiped out the
tomato crop. The draconian Food Modernization Safety Act, another gift
from our governing elite to corporations, means small farms will only
continue to dwindle in number. Sites such as La Via Campesina do a good job of tracking these disturbing global trends.

"The entire economy built around food is unsafe and unethical," activist Henry Harris of the Food Security Roundtable told me. The group builds distribution systems between independent farmers and city residents.

"Food is the greatest place for
communities to start taking back power," he said. "The national food
system is collapsing by degrees. More than 50 percent of what we eat
comes from the Central Valley of California. What happens when gasoline
becomes $5 a gallon or drought sweeps across the cropland? The
monolithic system of food production is highly unstable. It has to be
replaced very soon with small, diverse sources that provide greater
food security."

Cornell University recently did a study to
determine whether New York state could feed itself. The research is
described in two articles published in 2006 and 2008 by the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.
If all agricultural land were in use, and food distribution were
optimized to minimize the total distance that food travels, New York
state could, the researchers found, have 34 percent of its food needs
met from within its boundaries. This is not encouraging news to those
who live in New York City. New York once relied on New Jersey, still
known as the Garden State, instead of having food shipped from across
the country. But New Jersey farms have largely given way to soulless
housing developments. Farming communities upstate, their downtowns
boarded up and desolate, have been gutted by industrial farming.

The ties most Americans had to rural
communities during the Great Depression kept many alive. A barter
economy replaced the formal economy. Families could grow food or had
relatives to feed them. But in a world where we do not know where our
food comes from, or how to produce it, we have become vulnerable. And
many will be forced, as food prices continue to rise, to shift to a
diet of cheap, fatty, mass-produced foods, already a staple of the
nation's poor. Junk food, a major factor in obesity, diabetes and heart
disease, is often the only food those in the inner city can buy because
supermarkets and nutritious food are geographically and financially
beyond reach. As the economy continues to deteriorate, the middle class
will soon join them.

"It is clear to anyone who looks carefully
at any crowd that we are wasting our bodies exactly as we are wasting
our land," Wendell Berry observed in "The Unsettling of America." "Our
bodies are fat, weak, joyless, sickly, ugly, the virtual prey of the
manufacturers of medicine and cosmetics. Our bodies have become
marginal; they are growing useless like our 'marginal land' because we
have less and less use for them. After the games and idle flourishes of
modern youth, we use them only as shipping cartons to transport our
brains and our few employable muscles back and forth to work."

Berry, who lives on a farm in Kentucky
where his family has farmed for generations, argues that local farming
is fundamental to sustaining communities. Industrial farming, he says,
has estranged us from the land. It has rendered us powerless to provide
for ourselves. It has left us complicit in the corporate destruction of
the ecosystem. Its moral cost, Berry argues, has been as devastating as
its physical cost.

"The people will eat what the corporations
decide for them to eat," writes Berry. "They will be detached and
remote from the sources of their life, joined to them only by corporate
tolerance. They will have become consumers purely-consumptive
machines-which is to say, the slaves of producers. What ... model farms
very powerfully suggest, then, is that the concept of total control may
be impossible to confine within the boundaries of the specialist
enterprise-that it is impossible to mechanize production without
mechanizing consumption, impossible to make machines of soil, plants,
and animals without making machines also of people."

The nascent effort by communities to
reclaim local food production is the first step toward reclaiming lives
severed and fragmented by corporate culture. It is more than a return
to local food production. It is a return to community. It brings us
back to the values that sustain community. It is a return to the
recognition of the fragility, interconnectedness and sacredness of all
living systems and our dependence on each other. It turns back to an
ethic that can save us.

"[The commercial] revolution ... , " writes
Berry, "did not stop with the subjugation of the Indians, but went on
to impose substantially the same catastrophe upon the small farms and
the farm communities, upon the shops of small local tradesmen of all
sorts, upon the workshops of independent craftsmen, and upon the
households of citizens. It is a revolution that is still going on. The
economy is still substantially that of the fur trade, still based on
the same general kinds of commercial items: technology, weapons,
ornaments, novelties, and drugs. The one great difference is that by
now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any
independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food,
even water. Air remains the only necessity that the average user can
still get for himself, and the revolution has imposed a heavy tax on
that by way of pollution. Commercial conquest is far more thorough and
final than military defeat.

"The inevitable result of such an
economy," Berry adds, "is that no farm or any other usable property can
safely be regarded by anyone as a home, no home is ultimately worthy of
our loyalty, nothing is ultimately worth doing, and no place or task or
person is worth a lifetime's devotion. 'Waste,' in such an economy,
must eventually include several categories of humans-the unborn, the
old, 'disinvested' farmers, the unemployed, the 'unemployable.' Indeed,
once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a resource, we are all
sliding downward toward the ash heap or the dump."

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