What’s Wrong with Our Food System?

It’s a question my colleagues and I are concerned about every day and happily are finding solutions for in our own way.  (BTW if you’re interested in being part of the solution-building, I encourage you to join us at our first Food Systems Summit this June.)

GOOD’s and Oxfam Australia’s infographic points out two shameful statistics:

  • 1 in 7 people go to bed hungry – 1 billion people worldwide.
  • 80% of the world’s hungry are directly involved in food production.

It begs the question: how is this seeming incongruity a reality?

Yes, we all agree that climate change, food prices, waste and cuts in hunger aid are culpable here, but frankly I am tired of pointing fingers without thinking about our own involvement.

This is where my inspiration, Wendell Berry, comes in and once again speaks eloquently about the problems in our food systems in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He reminds us that there are more insidious factors at play – our cultural realities have become so ingrained in our American way of thinking, that in order to change they must be completely upended.

Here’s what he explains in 6 simple bullets:

We have taken the farmer out of the farm. Berry uses the very personal example of his grandfather, who lost an economic battle with the American Tobacco Company owned by James Duke, to illustrate that large agribusiness forgets the farmer.  When agriculture is turned only into something that generates profit – as in efficiency at all cost to grow the bottom line – it doesn’t allow for a “stable, reasonably thriving population of farmers and…the continuing fertility of their farms.” People make food systems work and we have lost sight of that.

We have divorced ourselves from our land. “If farmers come under adversity from high costs and low prices, then they must either increase demands upon the land or decrease their care for it, or they must sell out and move to town, and this is supposed to involve no ecological or economic or social cost. Or if there are such costs, then they are rated as ‘the price of progress’ or ‘creative destruction.’’ There is always a “cost”, perhaps not always visible at the time, when farmers have to leave their land. Clearly, when we look around us today, these costs are too much to bear – with serious implications for our economy, environment, communities, and health.

We think in silos, versus systemically. Why must the environment be sacrificed at the cost of the economy? Why must we risk public health for economic gain? To paraphrase Berry, we never ask: “why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage ‘to strengthen the economy?’” It does not have to be either-or. When we stop believing only in the economic silo and look at the whole, where we include the environment, our health, and the happiness of our community, we can start to see different answers to our problems.

We confuse ownership with the right to degradation. Flooding, pollution, disease, soil erosion. In large part, corporate land ownership has led to land destruction. More dangerous, corporate land-owners have assumed the “right to destroy.” What happens to communities when this right is acted upon?

We have lost our sense of scale. Berry says: “When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all. A large failure is worse than a small one, and this has the sound of an axiom, but how many believe it?” Consolidation and conglomeration have created a Big Food world that is so pervasive and so powerful. When it fails, the results are tragic and epidemic.

We are dependent on industrial technology. “All of current agricultural changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon fossil fuels – the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans. And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.”

Depressing, right? Important to remember, though.  I’ll leave you with hopeful words from Mr. Berry:

“A positive cause, still little noticed by high officials and the media, is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary. It rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighborhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection, and all else that neighborhood implies. An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.”

How do you think we can change our ways to create healthy, fair and sustainable food systems?

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