There’s a lot of talk going on these days in political circles about making our food systems more sustainable. But is there any action? As usual, I’ve been observing the scene and had some thoughts about it on this week’s edition of Food Matters.
Quite frankly, thinking about sustainable food systems gets me kind of depressed. Take the massive kill-offs of honeybees that we’ve been hearing about. Yesterday I read about a new study from the University of Maryland that reveals commercial honey bees are exposed to a wide variety of agricultural chemicals that impair the bees’ ability to fight off parasites. The bottom line is that bee kill-offs could be the result of many factors all acting in concert. So how quickly can you get regulatory agencies to respond to these studies that would better protect the health of bees? No bees, no pollination, no crops. So that gets me depressed, but then I think we need a little doom and gloom to make things work.
I started thinking more about the macro nature of sustainable food systems after I attended a keynote address by Dr. Patricia Allen, the Chair of the Department of Food System and Society at Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon. Her talk about building sustainable food systems was subtitled Dancing With (Not Around) the Elephants in the Room. So first she told her audience what those elephants are before giving them some more hopeful outlooks on dancing with them.
Signs of elephants: These are some of the issues out there that merely indicate the major problems. One biggie is that policy makers just try to fix food systems by making marginal improvements to policies instead of seeking out entirely new ways of doing things. Here’s another big indicator: food related health problems. Obesity, hypertension, heart disease. At the other end of that scale, hunger and food insecurity. And something we hear about all the time, consolidation in the food industry and the distancing of the consumer from the area that their food is produced.
You would think that there is lots going on these days to combat some of these ‘symptoms’, I guess you would call them, but this is where Dr. Allen really sent me for a loop, because she believes that a lot of the programs and practices that we see as getting back to sustainable food systems are merely ‘covering the tracks’ of the elephants in the room. She includes in this list farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, fair trade programs, food policy councils, even organic farming and urban agriculture!
But you say, ‘that’s a list of things most of us really do associate with changing our food systems, what’s wrong with them?’ Patricia Allen says if you look under the surface of these programs and ideas, they don’t equally help all members of society. She says a truly sustainable food system would enhance equity amongst its members, would be fair to all in the distribution of benefits and give everyone a chance to participate. So some examples of what she means: Organic farmers in California lobbied against a movement that eventually banned the use of a tool called a shorthandled hoe, a tool that created all kinds of ergonomic problems for workers. Then there are the low participation rates of low-income consumers in farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture, and Farm to School programs relying mostly on flexible labour which doesn’t provide enough hands-on care to make the programs work in the long run.
The elephants that she finally revealed to her audience really are big. Exploitation. Oppression, and Privilege versus Powerlessness. She took us through some examples…in Exploitation, you find unequal distribution of wealth and income, concentrated ownership in the hands of the wealthy, who also control the surplus of any commodities. With Oppression, you find not only gender discrimination but racio-ethnic discrimination and marginalization as well. Privilege and Powerlessness? If you want to be a farmer, how do you get land? Maybe you inherited it, or you come from an already wealthy family, you’re not going to be able to afford it, so she says we need to talk about land tenures.
So how do we fix things, is it a matter of going back and doing things ‘the good old-fashioned’ way? Dr. Allen says there really isn’t a great system to go back to. Those kind of original systems, especially in the United States, gave us imported slaves used to export sugar. Her prescription is to first of all bring the oppression into view. Let’s reveal the terrible working condition for a lot of people in the food industry. Farmers markets are certainly going to continue, but use them to educate people about the state of the industry. Get people to look at themselves, she says we want to be fair but we don’t necessarily act on it. Everybody eats, and they think about food every day, whether they have food or don’t have food, and Dr. Allen says that’s a key…get that thinking power going and act on it together, because, as she notes, ‘no one group, no one person, can imagine the scale of change that is needed to stay the degradation of our ecology. And that leads us back to those bees being killed by so many different factors. It’s going to take a lot of people from many different disciplines working together to save our bees.