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Slow Food Nation

In this forum edited by Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, experts discuss the politics of food, and how it may be poisoning our bodies and our planet.
 
 
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It turns out that Jean Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin was right in 1825 when he wrote in his magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste, that "the destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed." If you think this aphorism exaggerates the importance of food, consider that today almost 4 billion people worldwide depend on the agricultural sector for their livelihood. Food is destiny, all right; every decision we make about food has personal and global repercussions. By now it is generally conceded that the food we eat could actually be making us sick, but we still haven't acknowledged the full consequences -- environmental, political, cultural, social and ethical -- of our national diet.

These consequences include soil depletion, water and air pollution, the loss of family farms and rural communities, and even global warming. (Inconveniently, Al Gore's otherwise invaluable documentary An Inconvenient Truth has disappointingly little to say about how industrial food contributes to climate change.) When we pledge our dietary allegiance to a fast-food nation, there are also grave consequences to the health of our civil society and our national character. When we eat fast-food meals alone in our cars, we swallow the values and assumptions of the corporations that manufacture them. According to these values, eating is no more important than fueling up, and should be done quickly and anonymously. Since food will always be cheap, and resources abundant, it's OK to waste. Feedlot beef, french fries and Coke are actually good for you. It doesn't matter where food comes from, or how fresh it is, because standardized consistency is more important than diversified quality. Finally, hard work -- work that requires concentration, application and honesty, such as cooking for your family -- is seen as drudgery, of no commercial value and to be avoided at all costs. There are more important things to do.

It's no wonder our national attention span is so short: We get hammered with the message that everything in our lives should be fast, cheap and easy -- especially food. So conditioned are we to believe that food should be almost free that even the rich, who pay a tinier fraction of their incomes for food than has ever been paid before in human history, grumble at the price of an organic peach -- a peach grown for flavor and picked, perfectly ripe, by a local farmer who is taking care of the land and paying his workers a fair wage! And yet, as the writer and farmer David Mas Masumoto recently pointed out, pound for pound, peaches that good still cost less than Twinkies. When we claim that eating well is an elitist preoccupation, we create a smokescreen that obscures the fundamental role our food decisions have in shaping the world. The reason that eating well in this country costs more than eating poorly is that we have a set of agricultural policies that subsidize fast food and make fresh, wholesome foods, which receive no government support, seem expensive. Organic foods seem elitist only because industrial food is artificially cheap, with its real costs being charged to the public purse, the public health and the environment.

The contributors to this forum have been asked to name just one thing that could be done to fix the food system. What they propose are solutions that arise out of what I think of as "slow food values," which run counter to the assumptions of fast-food marketing. To me, these are the values of the family meal, which teaches us, among other things, that the pleasures of the table are a social as well as a private good. At the table we learn moderation, conversation, tolerance, generosity and conviviality; these are civic virtues. The pleasures of the table also beget responsibilities -- to one another, to the animals we eat, to the land and to the people who work it. It follows that food that is healthy in every way will cost us more, in time and money, than we pay now. But when we have learned what the real costs of food are, and relearned the real rewards of eating, we will have laid a foundation for not just a healthier food system but a healthier twenty-first-century democracy. -- Alice Waters

Michael Pollan
Every five years or so the President of the United States signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, as a result, the health of our population. In a nation consecrated to the idea of private property and free enterprise, you would not think any piece of legislation could have such far-reaching effects, especially one about which so few of us -- even the most politically aware -- know anything. But in fact the American food system is a game played according to a precise set of rules that are written by the federal government with virtually no input from anyone beyond a handful of farm-state legislators. Nothing could do more to reform America's food system -- and by doing so improve the condition of America's environment and public health -- than if the rest of us were suddenly to weigh in.

The farm bill determines what our kids eat for lunch in school every day. Right now, the school lunch program is designed not around the goal of children's health but to help dispose of surplus agricultural commodities, especially cheap feedlot beef and dairy products, both high in fat.

The farm bill writes the regulatory rules governing the production of meat in this country, determining whether the meat we eat comes from sprawling, brutal, polluting factory farms and the big four meatpackers (which control 80 percent of the market) or from local farms.

Most important, the farm bill determines what crops the government will support -- and in turn what kinds of foods will be plentiful and cheap. Today that means, by and large, corn and soybeans. These two crops are the building blocks of the fast-food nation: A McDonald's meal (and most of the processed food in your supermarket) consists of clever arrangements of corn and soybeans -- the corn providing the added sugars, the soy providing the added fat, and both providing the feed for the animals. These crop subsidies (which are designed to encourage overproduction rather than to help farmers by supporting prices) are the reason that the cheapest calories in an American supermarket are precisely the unhealthiest. An American shopping for food on a budget soon discovers that a dollar buys hundreds more calories in the snack food or soda aisle than it does in the produce section. Why? Because the farm bill supports the growing of corn but not the growing of fresh carrots. In the midst of a national epidemic of diabetes and obesity our government is, in effect, subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

This absurdity would not persist if more voters realized that the farm bill is not a parochial piece of legislation concerning only the interests of farmers. Today, because so few of us realize we have a dog in this fight, our legislators feel free to leave deliberations over the farm bill to the farm states, very often trading away their votes on agricultural policy for votes on issues that matter more to their constituents. But what could matter more than the health of our children and the health of our land?

Perhaps the problem begins with the fact that this legislation is commonly called "the farm bill" -- how many people these days even know a farmer or care about agriculture? Yet we all eat. So perhaps that's where we should start, now that the debate over the 2007 farm bill is about to be joined. This time around let's call it "the food bill" and put our legislators on notice that this is about us and we're paying attention.

Peter Singer

There is one very simple thing that everyone can do to fix the food system. Don't buy factory-farm products.

Once, the animals we raised went out and gathered things we could not or would not eat. Cows ate grass, chickens pecked at worms or seeds. Now the animals are brought together and we grow food for them. We use synthetic fertilizers and oil-powered tractors to grow corn or soybeans. Then we truck it to the animals so they can eat it.

When we feed grains and soybeans to animals, we lose most of their nutritional value. The animals use it to keep their bodies warm and to develop bones and other body parts that we cannot eat. Pig farms use six pounds of grain for every pound of boneless meat we get from them. For cattle in feedlots, the ratio is 13:1. Even for chickens, the least inefficient factory-farmed meat, the ratio is 3:1.

Most Americans think the best thing they could do to cut their personal contributions to global warming is to swap their family car for a fuel-efficient hybrid like the Toyota Prius. Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago have calculated that typical meat-eating Americans would reduce their emissions even more if they switched to a vegan diet. Factory farming is not sustainable. It is also the biggest system of cruelty to animals ever devised. In the United States alone, every year nearly 10 billion animals live out their entire lives confined indoors. Hens are jammed into wire cages, five or six of them in a space that would be too small for even one hen to be able to spread her wings. Twenty thousand chickens are raised in a single shed, completely covering its floor. Pregnant sows are kept in crates too narrow for them to turn around, and too small for them to walk a few steps. Veal calves are similarly confined, and deliberately kept anemic.

This is not an ethically defensible system of food production. But in the United States -- unlike in Europe -- the political process seems powerless to constrain it. The best way to fight back is to stop buying its products. Going vegetarian is a good option, and going vegan, better still. But if you continue to eat animal products, at least boycott factory farms.

Winona LaDuke
It's Manoominike Giizis, or the Wild Rice Making Moon, here on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. The sound of a canoe moving through the wild rice beds on the Crow Wing or Rice lakes, the sound of laughter, the smell of wood-parched wild rice and the sound of a traditional drum at the celebration for the wild rice harvest links a traditional Anishinaabeg or Ojibwe people to a thousand years of culture and the ecosystem of a lake in a new millennium. This cultural relationship to food -- manoomin, or wild rice -- represents an essential part of what we need to do to repair the food system: We need to recover relationship.

Wild rice is the only North American grain, and today the Ojibwe are in a pitched battle to keep it from getting genetically engineered and patented. A similar battle is under way in Hawaii between Native Hawaiians and the University of Hawaii, which recently agreed to tear up patents on taro, a food sacred to Native Hawaiians. At one point "agriculture" was about the culture of food. Losing that culture -- in favor of an American cultural monocrop, joined with an agricultural monocrop -- puts us in a perilous state, threatening sustainability and our relationship to the natural world.

In the Ojibwe struggle to "keep it wild," we have found ourselves in an international movement of Slow Food and food sovereignty activists and communities who are seeking the same -- the recovery or sustaining of relationship as a basic element of our humanity and as a critical strategy. In the Wild Rice Making Moon of the North Country, we will continue our traditions, and we will look across our lakes to the rice farmers of the rest of the world, to the taro farmers of the Pacific and to other communities working to protect their seeds for future generations, and we will know that this is how we insure that those generations will have what they need to be human, to be Anishinaabeg.

Vandana Shiva
Humanity has eaten more than 80,000 plant species through its evolution. More than 3,000 have been used consistently. However, we now rely on just eight crops to provide 75 percent of the world's food. With genetic engineering, production has narrowed to three crops: corn, soya, canola. Monocultures are destroying biodiversity, our health and the quality and diversity of food.

In 1998 India's indigenous edible oils made from mustard, coconut, sesame, linseed and groundnut processed in artisanal cold-press mills were banned, using "food safety" as an excuse. The restrictions on import of soya oil were simultaneously removed. Ten million farmers' livelihoods were threatened. One million oil mills in villages were closed. And millions of tons of artificially cheap GMO soya oil continue to be dumped on India. Women from the slums of Delhi came out in a movement to reject soya and bring back mustard oil. "Sarson bachao, soyabean bhagao" (save the mustard, drive away the soyabean) was the women's call from the streets of Delhi. We did succeed in bringing back mustard through our "sarson satyagraha" (non-cooperation with the ban on mustard oil).

I was recently in the Amazon, where the same companies that dumped soya on India -- Cargill and ADM -- are destroying the Amazon to grow soya. Millions of acres of the Amazon rainforest -- the lung, liver and heart of the global climate system -- are being burned to grow soya for export. Cargill has built an illegal port at Santarém in Brazil and is driving the expansion of soya in the Amazon rainforest. Armed gangs take over the forest and use slaves to cultivate soya. When people like Sister Dorothy Stang oppose the destruction of the forests and the violence against people, they are assassinated.

People in Brazil and India are being threatened to promote a monoculture that benefits agribusiness. A billion people are without food because industrial monocultures robbed them of their livelihoods in agriculture and their food entitlements. Another 1.7 billion are suffering from obesity and food-related diseases. Monocultures lead to malnutrition -- for those who are underfed as well as those who are overfed. In depending on monocultures, the food system is being made increasingly dependent on fossil fuels -- for synthetic fertilizers, for running giant machinery and for long-distance transport, which adds "food miles."

Moving beyond monocultures has become an imperative for repairing the food system. Biodiverse small farms have higher productivity and generate higher incomes for farmers. And biodiverse diets provide more nutrition and better taste. Bringing back biodiversity to our farms goes hand in hand with bringing back small farmers on the land. Corporate control thrives on monocultures. Citizens' food freedom depends on biodiversity.

Jim Hightower
In the very short span of about fifty years, we've allowed our politicians to do something remarkably stupid: turn America's food-policy decisions over to corporate lobbyists, lawyers and economists. These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the Highway Patrol flag down the customers for them -- yet, they have taken charge of the decisions that direct everything from how and where food is grown to what our children eat in school.

As a result, America's food system (and much of the world's) has been industrialized, conglomeratized and globalized. This is food we're talking about, not widgets! Food, by its very nature, is meant to be agrarian, small-scale and local.

But the Powers That Be have turned the production of our edibles away from the high art of cooperating with nature into a high-cost system of always trying to overwhelm nature. They actually torture food -- applying massive doses of pesticides, sex hormones, antibiotics, genetically manipulated organisms, artificial flavorings and color, chemical preservatives, ripening gas, irradiation...and so awfully much more. The attitude of agribusiness is that if brute force isn't working, you're probably just not using enough of it.

More fundamentally, these short-cut con artists have perverted the very concept of food. Rather than being both a process and product that nurtures us (in body and spirit) and nurtures our communities, food is approached by agribusiness as just another commodity that has no higher purpose than to fatten corporate profits.

There's our challenge. It's not a particular policy or agency that must be changed but the most basic attitude of policy-makers. And the only way we're going to get that done is for you and me to become the policy-makers, taking charge of every aspect of our food system -- from farm to fork.

The good news is that this "good food" movement is already well under way and gaining strength every day. It receives little media coverage, but consumers in practically every city, town and neighborhood across America are reconnecting with local farmers and artisans to de-industrialize, de-conglomeratize, de-globalize -- de-Wal-Martize -- their food systems.

Of course, the Powers That Be sneer at these efforts, saying they can't succeed. But, as a friend of mine who is one of the successful pioneers in this burgeoning movement puts it: "Those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

Look around wherever you are and you'll find local farmers, consumers, chefs, marketers, gardeners, environmentalists, workers, churches, co-ops, community organizers and just plain folks who are doing it. These are the Powers That Ought to Be -- and I think they will be. Join them!

Alice Waters is the founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and director of the Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley, California.