FORUM – Eating Locally: What Does It Really Mean? Part One

The text of the speech the author of This Organic Life made to the Slow Food USA 2001 Congress in Bolinas, California, on Saturday, July 21

I need to begin by establishing my credentials. I have eaten at McDonalds only three times. The first time was 35 years ago, when a fellow nutrition student told me I had to go there once, at least, in order to give informed advice to all the other people who were frequenting McDonalds. The last time was in 1994, when my husband and I were trying to build a house in four months and had reached an emotional crisis trying to pick out a stove; I needed to eat or have my stomach consume itself. We went across the street from the appliance store for a chicken sandwich at McDonalds and I marveled at their ability to eliminate the chicken taste. But I have one more credential. Many years ago I said something to the New York Times that has since been reprinted on menus, calendars, and even by the butter association which took credit for it. But I said it first. I said I ate butter instead of margarine because I trusted the cows more than the chemists.

There is very little I can say tonight that you don’t already know. Patrick Martins recently acknowledged in print that the direction of the present food system is rife with ‘dire developments.’ And it is. The contamination of crops, even organic crops with GMOs, the horrors of the hog factories with their lagoons (wonderful word, reminiscent of Dorothy Lamour) of waste, the hemorraging of farmers and farmland – all these portend a future that none of us accepts. The latest figures show that for every farmer under 35 there are five farmers over 65. The fastest growing category is farmers over 70.

In losing farmers we are losing the capacity to feed ourselves. I am sure many of you are familiar with the book written a couple of years ago with the ominous title, The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, whose author Steven Blank believes that agriculture may move overseas because investing in it is just not profitable. I’ll say. On average, farmers and ranchers now get 7-8% of every dollar of food system profit. In 1999, production costs rose 20%, and commodity prices fell an average of 7%.

As for what that actually means for farmers, consider the potato. In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser explains that a few companies control most of the potato market. Fast food purveyors can now purchase frozen fries for around 30 cents a pound, reheat them in oil and sell them (with grease added) for about $6.00 a pound! On every $1.50 order of fries. a potato farmer will make 2c.
The result was reported in the New York Times a couple of months ago under the headline ‘Misery is Abundant for Potato Farmers’. Subhead: ‘Bumper Crops Turned Into Fertilizer.’ The story pointed out that it costs a potato farmer about $5.00 to produce a 100-pound sack of potatoes for which the processors pay him less than $1.00. What’s a farmer to do? Many farmers plowed their crop under. When that happened in the Great Depression, it was all over the papers. Now, it hardly makes the news.

We are losing our farmers in the east. Cranberry growers are being told to cut back because too many cranberries have driven prices too low, New York State dairymen and orchardists are going out of business every day. Two years ago, I visited a New York dairy where the farmer had earned more for one acre of gourmet potatoes than from a year of dairying. The next year, lots of upstate dairymen grew gourmet potatoes, prices dropped, and that little stream of hope died. I recently visited an apple orchard with a landscape architect friend who was buying not apples but full grown quaint-looking apple trees for a faux orchard at one of the new McMansions that spend millions on landscaping. The farmer probably earned more from selling four trees that afternoon than he made from selling apples in a month. Apple producers everywhere are now in direct competition with China.

We will continue to have food on the grocery shelves of course: there will be produce shipped from everywhere in the world because we are rich and can pay poor people to grow food for us, and there will be dazzling arrays of processed foods manufactured from a half a dozen ‘raw materials’ grown on vast acreages of a few dangerously uniform crops. And we will have novelties like the recently proposed flavored carbonated ‘milk based’ beverage in flavors like bubble gum, cookies and cream, and orange creme sickle for (and I quote) kids who are ‘bored with the current options.’ None of this is news. And I think we all believe that the solution – at least one solution – to this not-so-slow-moving catastrophe is to promote sustainable local agricultural systems that link eaters and farmers more closely.

I personally arrived at the ‘solution’ of local eating about 25 years ago, and I have recently published a book about my experience called This Organic Life. So why did I decide a quarter of a century ago that we needed to relocalize our eating? My reasons were, at the time, entirely theoretical. I recently read a comment by Alice Waters saying that she didn’t think those who started Chez Panisse were ‘motivated by any grand concept of helping to save the planet.’ I’m afraid I was. I had gone into the field of nutrition late in life, hating what I saw happening to the US. food supply, which I saw as becoming increasingly frivolous in the face of world full of hungry people. And a year or so after, I began studying nutrition, my research led me to the conclusion that food production around the world was going in an unsustainable direction, a direction that was not going to end hunger, but increase it in the long run. And we in the US were pushing ‘solutions’ that were a major part of the problem.

And so, 23 years ago, I published a book called The Feeding Web about the problems I saw facing the food system everywhere on the globe. I’m not going to talk tonight about those decades-old problems, though all of them still exist and many have gotten worse.

What I want to talk about is what my analysis led to. I recognized early that the very real problems around food production were largely invisible to most inhabitants of the US, who were usually at least two generations removed from the farm and had no idea what was going on out there where their food was grown. And when I began to understand that the whole system had to change, I realized that we had to start by changing the demand end – we had to change consumers. But I was studying nutrition education, and I knew how hard it was to bring anything to the attention of eaters who were distracted by the overwhelming abundance of the supermarkets and the blandishments of advertisers.

How on earth could the northeastern shoppers I saw be taught to change their buying and eating habits in response to the needs of farmers in California, let alone in Ethiopia or Guatemala? I concluded that unless people got reacquainted with farmers and farming – which could only happen locally – it was going to be difficult (perhaps impossible) to make them understand the need to protect farmers, as well as cropland, topsoil, water, and other agricultural necessities

Much later I realized that there was another reason for trying to relocalize our eating. If those of us who lived in the chillier parts of the nation didn’t begin to eat from closer to home, we would lose all our farmers and farmland and be helplessly dependent on importing all our food from points east, west or south. As energy prices inevitably rose, and trucking costs with them, this would leave us in a perilous position. Agriculture is the largest user of freight transport in the nation. As I argue in the last chapter of my book, energy costs both in production and transport of food are going to become a critical issue – as is western water.

Joan Dye Gussow Ed.D. is Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the recent bestseller This Organic Life.
Photo: Joan Dye Gussow

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