By Susan Sokol Blosser
We’re in the middle of a technological revolution and it’s not only changing the way we communicate but also restructuring our economy. This is global and we are now connected in ways we could not have imagined. You can play Internet Scrabble with a stranger halfway across the world; listen to music on your computer from stations you couldn’t get with ordinary receivers; look up information about anything, from a recipe for dinner to the historic name of a modern Russian city.
Globalization is revolutionizing production and distribution of our goods and services. Call centers could be anywhere and large manufacturing companies have plants all over the world. Amalgamation and centralized control seems to work for clothing and cars, for Nike and Toyota, giving us fashion and reliability.
But there is another revolution happening in which globalization is not the best solution, in which the focus is increasingly local and which has the most hope for creating jobs, building community, and improving our health. That revolution is around food: what we grow, how we grow it, how we distribute it, how we consume it. The phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally” has never been more appropriate than when we talk about food.
In sum, food is at the center of our lives in many more ways than just filling our bellies. The food trifecta: production and distribution and consumption can be seen as the intersection of the domestic crises we face today. Let’s enumerate some of these to see how they are related.
• Food safety concerns with numerous recent national recalls (peanuts, cantaloupe, sprouts, just to name a few) arise from monoculture farming on an industrial scale, and giant processing facilities.
• The heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and increasing obesity in our population. These are all directly related to diet and an overconsumption of processed foods high in salt, sugar, and fat. Heavy synthetic chemical use on farms has been linked to increased cancers. We have become a sick population. No wonder we have a health care crisis and health care costs keep soaring.
• Hunger and the increasing dependence on food banks. We face hunger issues and food deserts even in rural agricultural areas where commodity grown fresh fruits and vegetables are trucked off for export and not accessible to local residents. Strong food banks are not the answer. They are a band-aid.
• Erosion of biodiversity through monocultural farming and high chemical use. Industrial monocultural farms, with thousands of acres of just one crop have had disastrous results on several levels. Let me explain how this happens. Health in nature depends on balance — an equilibrium based on diversity. The good bugs keep the bad bugs in check. We need biodiversity to attract all the elements needed to maintain balance. This is true of humans as well as plants. If we get out of balance we get sick. Farming just one crop is an invitation to predators of that crop, with nothing to attract other predators to keep the first ones in check. Without natural biodiversity, farmers depend on heavy-duty chemicals to kill what’s eating their crop. This results in hazardous chemicals getting in our food, causes health problems for farm workers, and pollutes soil and waterways with runoff. The life cycle of insects is fast enough that within a few years, they develop resistance to the chemicals and new, stronger ones have to be used. There are also serious repercussions on the viability of the crop over time.
• Federal subsidization of corn and subsequent overproduction has led to corn being a key ingredient of most processed foods. Chemical analysis of human hair has shown that our bodies are primarily composed of corn. One biologist called Americans “corn chips with legs.”
• The current industrial food system accounts for 16% of the nation’s energy use because of its dependence on huge machinery for farming and long distance transportation. With the depletion of oil reserves and increasing costs, this has become unsustainable.
• I won’t even go into the issues created by industrial animal operations — the inhumane treatment of chickens, feedlot beef, and farmed salmon, and the amount of chemicals needed to control disease and waste when animals are forced to live in such confined quarters.
These all come together around what we grow and how we grow it; how much we process it; how we get it to people; and how we consume it.
What I have just described makes an unpleasant picture. We usually just see it in pieces. People look at the incidence of heart disease or diabetes and work towards finding cures. People tackle environmental issues of pollution and target regulations aimed at those issues. People work at filling the local food banks. People look at job loss and the aging population of farmers. But until recently, no one has put it all together with a solution that actually deals with every one of these issues in one fell swoop.
Food is at the center. Food is the answer.
Promoting local production and consumption and creating a local or regional food system deals with all the issues created by the current system. Building a stable, nutritious, equitable, humane food system will also build a vital local economy. It’s starting to happen and the new face of agriculture is here. The whole paradigm of farming is shifting and the implications are huge. What does it look like and how is it different?
• It is young, lowering the average age of farmers, which is currently close to 60.
• It is family and life style centered and owner operated, not corporate, impersonal, and based solely on the bottom line. Farmers treat what they grow, whether plant or animal, with respect and compassion.
• It is small and diversified; multi-crop rather than huge acreage of monoculture that leads to pest and disease pressure.
• It is values based, with an emphasis on stewardship of the land. Farming is sustainable, often certified organic or biodynamic.
• Farms are branding their products and are selling directly to the market (restaurants, farmers markets, CSAs) rather than as a bulk commodity to a broker who looks for the best deal. Many restaurants today list the farms by name that they buy from.
• It is profitable, and not subsidized, as is much of commodity agriculture.
The new face of farming is the antithesis of conventional industrial commodity agriculture and consequently has different needs. There are many issues that need to be addressed: land use, farm to school programs, food distribution, food education, community gardens. And there is a large economic development component.
Value-added agriculture, based on natural resource assets, can be a driver of economic development, creating jobs as local farms and businesses multiply. Witness the impact of the wine industry, which is based on agriculture, but has created business for barrel makers, stainless steel manufacturers, label printers, architects, contractors, graphic designers, the hospitality industry, as well as made Oregon a tourist destination.
We need to identify our natural resource assets and encourage processing and retail around them.
We need to encourage collaboration (the pavilion concept with multiple small entrepreneurs sharing processing, commercial kitchen, and/or retail space) and agri-tourism around local farms (examples include summer lavender tour by community growers; wine country half marathon; Audubon bird-watching trips to Grand Island).
These are just a few ideas of the challenges and the opportunities ahead. It’s exciting to think about. Creating new jobs, better flavor and better health, more vibrant communities — sounds good, doesn’t it? How can we make this happen?
Because we all eat, the issues I’ve described touch us multiple times a day. Each one of us, through our buying and consuming habits, has the power to influence the food trifecta. We know that building a robust local food system will create jobs, build our communities, and have health benefits that go far beyond the simple act of eating. The leadership for change has to come from us, the people who want better tasting food, better health, and more vibrant communities.
We are on the cusp of the role local food can play in community health and economic development, a revolution that has wonderful potential for all of us. This is a non-violent revolution, done with forks, not pitchforks.
One of Oregon’s wine pioneers, Susan Sokol Blosser stepped back from the presidency of Sokol Blosser Winery in 2008, turning the leadership over to the second generation. She started a nonprofit, the Yamhill Enrichment Society (YES), to innovate and collaborate on local issues in arts and education, food and agriculture, history and community.
Bounty of the County, a current YES project, showcases Yamhill County’s unique confluence of celebrated chefs, young farms and famous wines. The event is on Sunday, Sept. 9, at Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee. Reservations are required and can be purchased through the YES website.