Thursday, March 19, 2009

Food Politics

For some time, since well before the current financial crisis, I've been painfully aware that I don't actually know how to do anything fundamental--such as, crucially, grow my own food or build things or repair things around the house (minor exceptions notwithstanding). Having skills of this kind, or being in close community with others who have them and are willing and able to share, seems to me to be of vital importance, either for attempting to lessen dependence on the capitalist system, or for long-run survival, in the likely event of that system's collapse, partial or otherwise (in which case, we would be forced to make do on our own).

Naturally, this sounds no doubt unduly alarmist to many. So be it. But I'll be returning to this theme again and again. Access to food is perhaps the major long-term problem facing us, along with the related problem of access to water. On that front, I want to direct you to this great piece by DeAnander at Feral Scholar. In it, she discusses the destructiveness and inefficiency and unviability of the monocrop industrial agricultural model, the importance and sustainability and diversity of local polyculture farming, and the concept of food as a basic human right. Here are some excerpts, but you should read the whole thing:
Not only does industrial monoculture produce less food per hectare, it produces its inefficient results at very high (and unaccounted-for) “external” costs. North American industrial farming has been estimated to consume 10 calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food produced; estimates of topsoil loss vary from 2 to 6 bushels for every bushel of industrial corn harvested. Water usage for industrial farming is similarly alarming: in North America, the ancient Oglalla Aquifer is being drained dry by the enormous water demands of huge acreages of unnatural monoculture. Meanwhile, runoff from artificially-fertilised fields is creating large “dead zones” in coastal waters, destroying fisheries; and pesticides are implicated not only in human health risks, but in the destruction of beneficial insect populations including essential pollinators. Clearly, the inefficiencies of industrial agriculture go far beyond how many bushels of corn or soy can be extracted from each hectare of land in each season; if non-renewable resources are being consumed, or other sources of food (such as oceans and rivers) are being damaged, then our food-producing capacities are being impaired by the way in which we are producing food — in which case we are on a downward escalator of diminishing returns and negative feedback, and there is no future in the present paradigm.


In seeking local food security, then, we may be quite confident that the encouragement of diverse smallholdings — backyard gardens, SPIN farms, family farms — practising polyculture rather than monoculture, is a sound, practical, and realistic strategy. It is not sentimental dreaming, nor the charming but useless hobby of a handful of food snobs; the myths we were taught in school are just that — myths. It is industrial monoculture that is unsound, impractical, inefficient, and unrealistic. We can — and sooner than we think, perhaps, we must be prepared to — feed the world with small-to-medium-scale organic/sustainable farming.

It is not the productivity of land that prevents us from eliminating hunger. It is not the lack of new, improved, ever more phantasmagorical high-tech toys and techniques. What prevents us from eliminating hunger is our failure to return to, and adhere to, a moral code that recognises healthy food as a human right. As F M Lappé notes in a recent article, such a moral code is nearly universal among the people we call “primitive”; early humans, in striking contrast to many other animals, seem to have an innate tendency to share food — even with others not directly related to themselves. Allowing people in our tribe, village, or city to starve is a violation of our primeval human nature. When we muster the political will to continue our ancient food-sharing behaviour in modern dress, the results are astonishing: astonishingly simple, astonishingly easy, astonishingly efficient.
Recall, also, DeAnander's important essay from last year, co-authored with Stan Goff, "Politics is Food is Politics" (which I previously linked to last summer).

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