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The Year Food Was Totally Schizoid: Growing Local Takes Off, As Giant Agribiz Becomes More Dominant

In the battle between Big Ag and Small Food there were notable victories on either side.

As 2009 closes out, the dominant issues in the world of food could be lumped into two competing paradigms that have framed much of the decade. In one corner we have Big Food: factory farms, fast food restaurants, mystery meat, biotechnology and other examples of when the economics of scale are applied to how we feed ourselves. In the other corner is Small Food, whose players include farmers' markets, ecology-based agriculture and seasonal diets of minimally processed food.

In a victory for small food, 2009 will perhaps be remembered as the year gardening returned to mainstream consciousness. Much credit goes to First Lady Michelle Obama, thanks to the organic veggie patch she planted on the White House lawn. The symbolic gesture created an instant buzz, and many other politicos around the world have followed suit. There are now gardens on the grounds of city halls, governors' mansions, and other houses of leadership around the world, providing countless opportunities to educate and discuss why gardens are good.

According to the National Gardening Association the number of households with gardens rose from 36 million in 2008 to 43 million in 2009. Michelle Obama's garden certainly deserves some credit, but so does the recession, which inspired many people to stick their hands in the dirt, not only to save on grocery bills, but to find economical ways to enjoy their leisure time.

Ironically, this proliferation of home gardeners bears some of the responsibility for the rapid spread of a late tomato blight fungus which nearly wiped out the commercial tomato crop on the East Coast. Many gardeners bought tomato starts from stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowes and Wal-Mart, nearly all of which were raised by the Alabama nursery Bonnie Plants. Plant pathologists believe the nursery sent out infected plants, which slipped under the radar of agricultural inspectors and brought the spores to all corners. Unusually heavy rainfall encouraged the blight to take hold, prosper and spread. The take-home message: buy your plant starts from local nurseries, or grow them yourself from seeds.

In addition to kitchen gardens, another beneficiary of the recession is a 93-year-old great-grandmother named Clara Cannucciari, whose YouTube videos combine salty commentary about life in the Great Depression with hands-on demonstrations on how to crank out simple delicacies that average 50 cents a serving. The videos helped win Clara a contract with St. Martin's Press, which published Clara's Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression this past October.

It's impossible to discuss the year in food without an update on the activities of biotech giant Monsanto, whose year can be summed up in a single word: "chutzpah." In April, the company sued the sovereign nation of Germany when its agriculture minister banned the planting of a type of Monsanto corn engineered to thwart the advances of the corn-borer moth. Monsanto was unsuccessful in forcing Germany to allow its farmers to plant the corn, and recent research suggests Germany's concern (shared by several other European countries) may have been warranted: French scientists published a paper suggesting adverse affects of this corn -- and two other types of GM corn -- on the kidneys and livers of rats.

While health and environmental concerns over GM crops are commonplace, in September federal judge Jeffrey White in California's Northern District ruled that Monsanto's sugar beets provided an economic threat to farmers who wished to grow organic or non-GM crops. Beet pollen is carried on the wind, and will pollinate chard as well as beets. In Oregon's Willamette Valley, where much of the nation's beet and chard seed is grown, the presence of Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" sugar beets threatens the livelihoods of farmers growing the non-GM varieties of these plants. It's also likely that after a few years of Roundup Ready sugar beet cultivation in the Willamette Valley it would be difficult to get non-GM beets or chard anywhere in the nation. According to judge White, Monsanto's sugar beets posed "...the potential elimination of a farmer's choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, and the consumer's right to eat non-genetically engineered food." The ruling, against the USDA, forced the agency to complete an EIS examining the potential impacts of the GM beets on organic seed growers and consumers before the Roundup Ready beets can again be planted.

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