Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Problem with Totalitarian Agriculture

My neighbors don’t eat many fruits or vegetables. They don’t want to, they’d rather eat the meat or vegetables from the dispensas (small stores with basic provisions and three vegetable staples: garlic, tomatoes, and onions, and a fourth, peppers, if we’re lucky) than what grows in their own fields and backyards. Throw away the squash, the bananas, the guavas, the avocados, the mangos, but eat beef and complain about how expensive it is.

As Peace Corps Volunteers living in Paraguay, we complain about Paraguayans’ eating habits all the time. Come to think of it though, Americans aren’t much better. We’ve perfected the art of totalitarian agriculture, or to put it in terms we’ve all heard, large-scale, mechanized, chemical-dependent farming. Modern industrial agriculture is nothing short of a miracle, producing billions of tons of food per year, allowing us to eat fruits and vegetables all year-round. Yet, it has devastated the environment, local economies, and our health. In his book The Story of B, Daniel Quinn says that “Totalitarian agriculture is more than a means of getting what you need to live, it’s the foundation for the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet.” (249) He argues that instead of feeding the world, modern agriculture is the source of famines and countless other plagues that afflict society today (for a background on “totalitarian” agriculture read this).

Modern agriculture was developed as a way of allowing humankind to control its food source, instead of relying on what God/the Creator/Nature (substitute your word of choice) decided to provide us with. Instead of eating the wealth of berries found in our own metaphorical backyards, we’d rather go to the supermarket and buy a $6 box of blackberries. God bless genetic modification!

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. First of all, there’s the miniscule concern of environmental destruction that those liberal tree huggers go on and on about (forgive the sarcasm). Modern agriculture relies heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In order to maximize yields and hence, profits, farmers can’t risk silly things like insects, weeds, or viruses getting in the way and destroying part of their crops. The problem is that over time these pestilences grow increasingly immune to the chemicals. Accordingly, farmers must apply more and more pesticides to their crops year after year. In fact, many genetically-modified seeds advertised as bug-resistant, only fulfill their promise when pesticides by the same company are applied. Then there’s the issue of chemical fertilizers. Who wants to buy a tiny, ugly organic tomato when a perfectly round, artificially huge one is available? Unlike organic compost/manure that contributes to the overall quality of the soil, chemical fertilizers – as well as intense campaigns of maximum production that doesn’t afford the soil time to rest and replenish it – erode the soil over time. As with pesticides, the farmers become increasingly dependent on the chemicals. The majority of small-scale farmers in the U.S. and in Paraguay have worked themselves into large debts buying expensive chemical inputs.

One fact that we Peace Corps Volunteers like to use when teaching environmental education in the classroom is “Human beings have increased production and the quantity of food on the planet. Nevertheless, the variety of food sources has decreased drastically: 80% of the world’s food comes from fewer than 24 plants and animals.” Human beings used to be able to nourish themselves from thousands of different plant and animal species. Due to the reliance on chemicals and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), all those food choices have disappeared. This is bad. Not because it means that I can’t eat a certain type of lettuce, but because evolution depends on diversity, hence, the term biodiversity. As Quinn puts it, “A thousand designs – one for every locale and situation – always works better than one design for all locales and situations. Birds are more likely to survive in ten thousand nest patterns than in one. Mammals are more likely to survive in ten thousand social patterns than in one.” (218) Modern agriculture is a vicious cycle that compromises the environment and renders invalid the Earth’s ability to aliment us with naturally rich and healthful fruits and vegetables.

The second problem is the damage to local economies. Most people, mistakenly, believe that poor, local farmers receive U.S. farming subsidies. The truth is that the biggest farmers, the ones that have the money to lobby Congress, are the ones that receive help from the government. Forget the image of the small-time American farmer working to make a buck and take in the reality of massive, factory-style farms either producing meat or one of the few crops the U.S. now “grows” (soy, canola, corn, etc.). MNCs dictate the terms of production, in the case of produce by controlling the supply of genetically-modified seeds and in the case of meat by controlling animal specifications (Can you imagine someone saying that a chicken has to be x” by y”?). Only 4 companies control 80% of the meat industry in the U.S. (“Food Inc.”). Meat production has become ever more unsafe for workers because of the risks of animal assembly-lines and unprofitable because of the high costs involved in setting up production facilities that comply with industry standards.

Forget your health in today’s world of modern industrial agriculture. It doesn’t stand a chance! We are no longer conscious of what goes into making our food. Meat in the grocery store doesn’t have bones. Each processed food item in the aisles lists a horde of chemicals. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver observes that so-called “natural” oatmeal lists 20+ ingredients. The all-natural oatmeal that she eats has one ingredient, rolled oats. Looking at my “natural” granola, I realized that it too belonged to the category of foods composed of chemicals that I can’t even pronounce. We produce more corn in the U.S. than anyone could ever possibly want to eat. For that reason the cancer-causing corn syrup is in everything. Candy bars, ketchup, cereal, light bulbs…you get the point.

What can I do?

1. Buy organic and buy from farmers’ markets. It’s not as expensive as you think it is if you cook and buy produce in season. Also consider that we are all spending hundreds of dollars each year subsidizing large corporations and giant farms. Investing in small-time farmers increases our food sustainability by insuring that communities continue to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. Paraguay lacks farmer markets. Paraguayan farmers would benefit from selling their produce locally. Even more importantly, they should practice auto-consumo (self-sustenance). As my Paraguayan host dad always told me, “Why should I buy meat every day from the store when eggs and tomatoes from my farm will just as easily fill my stomach?” We always had a salad of lettuce and tomatoes with our meals (My host dad didn’t grow lettuce but his neighbor did. He traded tomatoes for lettuce and other greens).

2. Start a garden. I have the opposite of a “green thumb.” Hardly anything that I plant grows. In view of that, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine how thrilled I was when I had a garden full of vegetables last year. And let me tell you, carrots never tasted so good (and I don’t even like carrots)!

3. Cook. As a former follower of the “Easy Mac” philosophy, I understand that it’s easy to rely on processed foods. In the U.S., more than in Paraguay, we have little time during our days and weeks to cook. Make time! Cook on the weekends and eat the leftovers during the week. Make simple dishes. It doesn’t take as long as you think. To paraphrase George Carlin, “I made instant oatmeal. I then spent the next 45 minutes doing nothing.” Out of fear of sounding too domestic I’d never admit it, but now I am, cooking is a joy, it’s a reward in itself. When I need a day to hide from the world here, I often spend it in my house cooking up a storm. Try it, you might actually like it.

A New Interpretation of the Fall

In Ishmael and The Story of B, Daniel Quinn proposes that the solution to our generation’s cultural collapse lies not within our culture itself, but outside of it. What is our culture? He calls East and West, “modern” society, one culture because of its shared belief in salvation and human conquest: “The world was made for Man, and Man was made to conquer and rule it.” (188) In other words, what we refer to as globalization or “McDonaldization” is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it has its origins in the not-so-recent past, 10,000 years ago, when a single culture decided that its survival hinged on “devouring all cultures on this planet and turning them into a single culture, our own.” (85) At that point in time, the “Great Forgetting” occurred. What did we forget? We forgot that before the advent of this single, all-powerful culture, “before the advent of agriculture and village life, humans had lived in a profoundly different way.” (245)

Humankind dates back millions of years, yet, its history commences just ten thousand years ago. Everything before that receives the label prehistory. What changed between the periods of history and prehistory? Minds. With the emergence of modern – what Quinn refers to as “totalitarian” – agriculture came “a new mind-set, a mind-set that made us out to be as wise as the gods, that made the world out to be a piece of human property, that gave us the power of life and death over the world. They thought this new mindset would be the death of Adam – and events are proving them right.” (97) That’s right ladies and gentlemen, the Fall of humankind. I’d prefer not get into a religious debate about this new interpretation of the Fall. Rather, let us delve into the argument about agriculture.

Quinn discusses how during prehistoric times existed several different styles of agriculture. Totalitarian agriculture differed from these earlier styles by its “subordinate[ion of] all life-forms to the relentless, single-minded production of human food.” (247-248) Biology necessitates competition, but within other species (and ancient humans) that means fighting competing groups or species, not destroying them. Only within the culture of modern humans has competition come to mean elimination of the enemy. Quinn gives the example of farmers killing coyotes to save their chickens. Ancient humans would have hunted the animals that entered their farms, not wiped out the entire population of coyotes in a given area (Reston, VA is a case in point). He posits that “It is the policy of totalitarian agriculture to wipe out unwanted species.” (257) Why adopt such a brutal strategy?

Totalitarian agriculture was not adopted in our culture out of sheer meanness. It was adopted because, by its very nature, it’s more productive than any other style…Many styles of agriculture…produce food surpluses. But, not surprisingly, totalitarian agriculture produces larger surpluses than any other style…You simply can’t outproduce a system designed to convert all the food in the world into human food. (260)

“So?” you might ask, “What’s the big deal?” Population spikes, war, crime, corruption, slavery, revolt, famine and plague, economic chaos, drugs, species extinction, exploitation, poverty, genocide, and finally cultural collapse. From 5000 B.C.E. to 2000 A.D., the population grew from 50 million to 6 billion. During the same period emerged a whole horde of problems that had never before existed on such a large scale in human history. For millions of years the number of humans increased by an infinitesimally small annual growth rate. Since the emergence of modern agriculture, the population has doubled 7 times!

Ever heard of the story of the king and the wise old man? The king decides to grant the old man one boon, to which the latter asks for one thing: a chess board’s worth of grains of rice. On square one the king should place 1 grain of rice; the quantity must then be doubled for each of the 64 squares of the board. That means that on square two he has to place 2 grains, on square three 4 grains, on square four 8 grains, and so on. The power of the square, 264. Try calculating that sum. A calculator can’t do it. Now square our population. It took 2000 years – 5000 and 3000 B.C.E. – for our population to increase from 25 million people to 50 million. It only took 40 years – from 1960 to 2000 – for our population to double from 3 billion to 6 billion people! That’s scary!

Population increases as a result of an increased food supply. That’s a fact. So why do we continue increasing the food supply? Quinn gives the example of a box of 100 mice. Give them enough food to sustain 200 mice and they will reproduce until they have a population of 200 mice (or at the very least a population that fluctuates between 190 and 210 mice). Produce enough food for 6 billion people and the population will stabilize around 6 billion. Why continue to pursue a strategy of totalitarian agriculture that produces food for more and more people year after year when it only results in a population increase year after year? Think about it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Welcome to My Blog!

“Eaters must understand, how we eat determines how the world is used.” – Barbara Kingsolver

Eating. It’s such a routine part of our daily lives that we don’t stop to consider its importance. We can eat whatever we want, whenever we want. All we have to do is go to the grocery store to find all the foods of the world at our disposal. Rarely do we stop to consider where those fruits, vegetables, and spices came from. A group of people was once asked what they perceived to be the biggest difference between 1900 and 2000. If a man from the year 1900 time traveled one hundred years into the future, what would most astonish him about today? The usual answers cropped up: cars, computers, television, microwave ovens, the Internet. One person, however, had a different response. He said food. Did you know that black pepper only grows in India? Yet, all over the world, every dining table has a salt-and-pepper shaker. A hundred years ago, having imported produce on the dinner table indicated great wealth. Only the richest families could afford Today, the ordinary middle-class American kitchen contains produce from all four corners of the world.

This blog is about what we eat, the origins of our food, and its impact on our environment and our lives. It’s a place to share recipes and food-inspired musings. While I do not claim to be an expert on sustainable agriculture/living, it’s a topic that has increasingly consumed my time, my thoughts, and my library here in Paraguay. Many of these blogs will be reactions to books I’ve read or documentaries I’ve watched pertaining to food. My aims are to make more accessible the statistics, the information, and most importantly the ramifications discussed by the experts. If you find yourself wondering about the origin of those bananas you bought at the supermarket or the ingredients in your favorite brand of cereal or asking what exactly maltodextrin is, then I’ll know that I’ve put you on the right track. My hope is to create a world of conscientious eaters.