food activism

This is a holiday that I take more seriously than Easter (either Pagan or Christian versions), that is more important than America Day, and yes, that has farther-reaching consequences than Groundhog Day. And not just because whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth (unfortunately my favorite Chief Seattle quote is a sham). I mean, it occurs on the 22nd of April, only a fool would dismiss it as a coincidence.

Earth Day brings together two important themes recently in my thoughts, locality and sustainability. Unsurprisingly, I spent the weekend at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where they had a sustainable living conference. The implicit theme was global warming, but a more direct step is reducing use of petroleum. The visible upshot of all this is growing food locally in a sustainable way.

First, the concrete takeaways. I bought two books at fair prices from the subversive dreadlocks at Last Word Books. Book the first was Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook and book the second was a first edition of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Plus a bottle of some industrious bacteria from Effective Microorganisms to help me start a compost pile. Second, the intangible take-home messages, which included cool topics like slow life and urban gardening on concrete. But in this post, I’ll just deliver pat quotes, glib statements, and otherwise pithy remarks about food activism, soaked in my own experiences like the tincture of vanilla beans in Bacardi 151.

Sandor Katz, of food fermentation fame, summarizes his ideas on food activism through the catchphrase “sustainability is participation,” whose best example is community-supported agriculture (CSA). (The next four paragraphs are blatantly lifted from his talk with minimal embroiderment. The citations and lace doilies are all me.) Because it is illegal in many states for farmers to sell dairy or meat directly to consumers, they must sell their stock through a distributor/processor at fixed government rates. So much for a free-market economy.

One solution is for citizens to form co-ops and purchase shares of an animal and essentially hire a farmer to raise, milk, and/or slaughter it for them. In many cases, these farmers welcome the owners of the animal to visit their farms, inspect its living conditions, and even participate in its care. This form of “experiential quality control” is not only more rewarding, it is more reliable than arbitrary USDA/FDA regulations. Would you trust meatpackers inspected once a year by overworked, underfunded government employees? Do you think restaurant kitchens are somehow safer or better than your own kitchen because they have stainless steel surfaces and charge you money?

There are several urgent reasons to support small, local farms: they are more likely to treat soil sustainably, less petroleum is used to ship the food, more robust and naturally-evolved crop strains are preserved, and employment and communities are strengthened. Large agri-businesses tend to intensify the amount of technology applied to land, subvert evolution to increase yield, and lobby for more government incentives to drive up demand on over-surplussed crops (*cough* corn *cough* soy). Technology increases the amount of food one single person can grow, but land is the bottleneck, not human labor. If land is the resource most in need of sustainable treatment, and there is a surplus of cheap human labor, why aren’t there more farmers and why aren’t they making more money?

Less than one percent of all workers in the U.S. are farmers, and the average age of a U.S. farmer in 1997 was almost 55. As existing farmers retire or go out of business, their farms are bought up by big conflomerates. Human labor may be cheap, but oil is very nearly free in today’s economy. I can only claim this by ignoring some major concerns—the cost of defending of the supply chain; the true value of a scarce, non-renewable resource; and artificial price deflation through government subsidies. Farming is a dying profession but agriculture is not a dying business. Again, to solve the puzzle we follow the money.

Seed companies, like Seminis, describes itself as “the largest developer, grower, and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world.” The words “developer” and “marketer” are important in revealing the company’s business model. Its CEO is famously quoted as saying “Seeds are software, and we have the seeds.”

As long as we’re using metaphors for the biologically-impaired: genetic traits are the software, the seed is the delivery medium, and the plant is the hardware. All the work and value of genetic traits are in its development; after development is over, it is information and costs nothing to reproduce. You can now patent seed traits, prohibit customers from reverse-engineering your seeds and competing, and lock the traits into a physical seed to create artificial scarcity. But this is ridiculous, plants produce seeds naturally. Engineering hybrid strains to be seedless is like a copy protection scheme waiting to be hacked. Seminis was bought by Monsanto, who owns the rights to seed traits which appear in over 90% of all genetically-modified crops in the world. Ninety percent is a pretty miserable monopoly compared to others you could name, but it’s not for lack of trying.

Farmers, who control the plant hardware, are at the mercy of seed software manufacturers who monopolize their input source and also fix the price at which they can sell their output crops in collusion with the government. The end goal is to drive up demand for higher-yield crops and then profit off of supplying higher-yield seed, irrespective of value, scarcity, or the human beings involved. In the high-tech industry, who twists the arm of Intel, who controls more than 90% of the desktop software market, who slides out of antitrust suits like a greased pig, who’s your daddy, who is it?

That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, a compost pile if you will, that is not yet mature and fertile in my thoughts. It suits my present purpose to suggest that if you support open source technology, it would not be inconsistent to buy local and sustainably-grown food, and vice versa. The imbalance and exploitation in agriculture angers me as much as it does in any industry, especially information technology. Being a farmer is definitely now on my short list of answers to Po Bronson’s question, “What should I do with my life?”


~ by Paul Pham on 23 April 2007.

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