Saturday, September 24, 2011

Of Sustainable Farming and Decent Food

Saturday farmers market in my hometown of Heredia, Costa Rica.

The fact that I’m writing these words from the USA makes this title seem somewhat oxymoronic. Well, not at all. While this country is infamous for its plutocracy of unscrupulous agribusiness and fast food giants that have created a culture of processed foods, there is an interesting food revolution going on here. From locavorism and an organic farming craze to the mounting urban farming movement where rooftops become farms for vegetable growing, chicken raising and apiculture in the big cities. There is, undeniably, a growing appetite for fresh, good quality, decent, and real food here in America.

While in the rest of the world the norm has been enjoying nice food prepared with fresh and seasonal ingredients by using traditional methods --often bequeathed by granma. Here in the U.S., corporate giants, bought out nutritional scientists, and FDA officials (also bought out) have been teaching people how to eat highly processed, ‘safe’ and packaged food. The result has been a food catastrophe that has affected the essential relationship between people and food, not only in this country but also in the rest of the world where this system has been exported. Not to mention the bleak public health issues that it has created… For an outstanding reference on this topic, I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto, simply a tour de force.

Naturally, this system has produced many opponents that are trying to bring back decency to that essential relationship between people and food. People that want to bring back the good all natural food. Farmers markets, sustainable agriculture, Community Supported Agriculture and a demand for local produce are mushrooming far and wide. Even entire stores and supermarkets are selling groceries produced sustainably and with the health of the consumer in mind. Actually, the number of small, local and organic farmers has increased in the U.S. in the last decade and with it the number of farmer markets. The big problem: organic products are more expensive, and will be for a while. Only a momentous change in the economics that surround food could change this.

In Costa Rica I have seen the sad and gradual change from a culture of farmers markets to a culture of supermarkets, or as people there say, the “super”. People think that getting your vegetables wrapped in plastic and a styrofoam container is the right way. The damnation of globalization! Fortunately there are still a lot of people that prefer to head out to the streets on Saturday morning with their grocery bags looking for fresher produce, and the interaction with the farmers, the way it should be. Something I’ve learned from my parents.

Saturday farmers market, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The craze for sustainable agriculture and socially conscious foods has benefitted small farmers from around the world too. From the cocoa and coffee growers of Central America to the tea growers of India and Southeast Asia. The methods used in these agricultural production systems employ eco-friendly practices and also result in livelihood benefits for small farmers. These are pertinent steps towards a real culture of sustainability that is desperately needed in this era of booming world population, natural resources depletion, climate change and inequality. Small farmers are key players to boost this culture of sustainability. It is clear that the conventional intensive farming methods have been one of the main causes of environmental destruction in the world. This kind of farming has been very speedy at jeopardizing vital natural resources such as soil and water, which ultimately result in declines in productivity, something we don’t really need under the current context of human population growth. So, it’s clear that farming as usual is not doing the job; in fact it is causing more trouble.

We need a change of paradigm in the way we produce our food, but most importantly in the way we relate to food. The culture of egregious food and the McDonaldization of the world have only brought environmental and socio-economic woes and epidemics. We need to produce food sustainably by using a combination of traditional and innovative farming practices with a conservation approach that result in a smaller carbon footprint and better livelihoods for all. We need to integrate agroecosystems and natural systems in the landscape, reuse, recycle, use energy wisely, use soil conservation practices, manage agricultural runoff, expand agroforestry systems, organic agriculture, and so forth. This can only be achieved with sustainable agriculture and sustainable intensification of crop production, that’s the only choice.