Thursday, July 24, 2008

Feeding Ourselves in the Future

In 1977, Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins published a book called Food First. One of the points of the title was that while there are many issues to consider, food is a priority. After air and water, food may be the next most important thing for our survival.

If the peakniks are right, if industrial civilization collapses, making sure that people will be fed will be a major issue. And, even if the peakniks are wrong, if we are going to try to create some sort of alternative system, we will still have to feed people.

Some parts of an alternative food system are actually in place now. Like farmers. We don't need agribusiness--megafarms and the Green Revolution aren't going to help us come the collapse or the revolution. What we want are small-scale farmers, family farmers.

So how can we support them now? And how can we get as many of them as possible to grow their food organically? Not because it's cool and groovy, but because it's better for us and because when oil gets too pricy, farmers won't be able to afford the pesticides and fertilizers.

One way to support small farms is farmer's markets. Most cities have them these days. The Local Harvest website has a farmer's market locator. One way to support your local farmers is to support your local farmer's market. Shop there.

Another way to support farmers is Community Supported Agriculture, also known as CSAs. CSAs are a European creation that came to the US in the 1980s. With CSAs, individuals and families can become "shareholders" in a farm, by paying a yearly membership fee, and in return receive an often weekly (during the growing season) share of what the farm is harvesting. The members get fresh food and help support the farm and the farmers can focus on growing the food and not have to worry about marketing and financial concerns. The USDA has a website devoted to CSAs with much more information and there is also a CSA locator on the Local Harvest website.

The farmers themselves can form producer co-operatives. While some agricultural cooperatives, such as Land O'Lakes, Ocean Spray, Sun-Maid, and Sunkist, have become agribusinesses unto themselves, often forgetting their local roots in an effort to gain a market share, others, such as Organic Valley and Cabot Creamery Cooperative, are proud of their 'farmer-owners' and co-operative structure.

The 'Eat Local' movement (aka locovores, locavores, localvores, or 'local heros') has been a strong supporter of small, local farms. These groups often advocate eating produce grown anywhere from 50 to 200 miles away. There is a 100 Mile Diet website that advocates their 'Diet' as a local-eating experiment. Noted author Barbara Kingsolver co-wrote a book with her husband and their daughter about their year of eating locally. Animal, Vegetable,
Miracle (website) has popularized the notion of eating locally, as has Michael Pollen's The Omnivore's Dilemma (website) which looks at the food industry and the difference between organic food from Whole Foods (some originating in Argentina) and organic foods grown at a local farm.

Beyond supporting local farmer, it's worth supporting local vendors. If you go to the store, do you want to go to megafoods supermarket (and you may have no choice) or do you go to a little family run store--or your local food co-op? Megafoods is owned by a major corporation (possibly based on a different continent) and run by a corporate directorate. You can meet the owners of the family run market when you walk in the market. Or you can be one of the owners of the food co-op--most food co-ops are consumer co-operatives, owned and run by the people who shop there.

And then there's the possibility of growing some of your own food. There are literally hundreds of books on growing food from Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening to Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening--not to mention all the literature on permaculture (see my last post).

But what if you live in the city and don't have any land? There's always container gardening (Ohio State University , Texas A & M, and North Carolina State University all offer online resources). More importantly, there are community gardens where you can garden with your neighbors. In the US, the American Community Garden Association has a website where you can locate community gardens near you.

I'm fortunate to be living in Boston where there are lots of these types of resources, including one organization, the Food Project that teaches young people (often urban youth) to farm, helps local residents by providing raised beds for gardening and giving workshops on garden maintenance, has a CSA and contributes to Farmer's Markets, and has created a guide to local farms and farmer's markets. They see their mission as building a sustainable food system.

In essence, I think the long term goal is to build a sustainable food system. We need to find ways of networking small-scale farms, farmers markets, CSAs, producer co-ops, consumer co-ops, small family-run stores, community gardens, and the local food movement, to create lots of alternative food systems that are sustainable and can sustain us without agribusiness and when cheap fuel is not available.

Note: I was going to call this post 'Feeding the Future'--then I discovered that there is already a book by that name full of what looks like intriguing essays. (I know, I know, there was a 2006 Minnesota conference called 'Feeding Ourselves in the Future'--but I had to call this post something...)

Quote of the day: "Family farms are the engines for economic vitality, in both rural communities as well as urban areas that benefit from jobs created by vibrant local and regional food systems. ... The more we keep farming local, the stronger the community." -Willie Nelson
Word (or phrase) of the day: Pansexual
Hero(es) of the day: Starhawk

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