The United States' Failing Food System
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The following conversation with Anuradha Mittal is an excerpt from the new book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. You can read more about the book here.
Anuradha Mittal is Founder and Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, a non-profit research and advocacy organization in Oakland, California, that works to ensure public participation and democratic debate on crucial economic and social policy issues. A native of India, Anuradha is an internationally renowned expert on trade, development, human rights, democracy, food security, and agriculture issues.
Q: What are the biggest problems with the food system in the United States?
AM: I think the biggest problem in the United States is that food, instead of being about communities, is now about commodities. It is controlled, not by the family farm, growing food for families and communities, while maintaining bio-diversity; it has come to mean large corporate industrial agriculture farms, where machines have replaced farmers, where monocultures have replaced biodiversity, where corporate agribusiness has replaced family farms. What we see as a result is a disconnect between us and the food system where we have been reduced to mere consumers. So we have to rethink our relationship with the food system before we can effectively challenge that.
One of the biggest myths about hunger is that people are hungry because we are not producing enough food, and therefore technological solutions and genetic engineering is put forward as a solution. There is no shortage of food production. If you look at the figures compiled by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there is enough food to provide over 2,720 calories per person per day around the world. If the problem was a shortage of food production, you would not have hunger in a country like the United States.
The real problem is the absence of living-wage jobs. Many people have to choose between putting food on the table or having a roof over their heads or having medical insurance for their families. There is a real deficit in governance of the food system, as a result of which today we have nearly 60 percent of the processed food that we eat in the U.S. has genetically modified organisms in it. There was no democratic process whereby people of this country could determine for themselves what kind of food they would eat, how it is grown, and who grows it. So while we have regulatory agencies asleep at the wheel, we have seen genetic contamination -- we don't even know the health impacts of this dangerous technology -- and we have seen negative impacts on the livelihoods of farmers.
Basically we have been turned into guinea pigs. We have been reduced to people who think freedom is about choosing from 40 different brands of toothpaste, but we have really forgotten what true freedom looks like, what true democracy looks like.
Q: Defenders of the system say that through supply and demand people get the food they want because they choose to buy it in the marketplace. Is there democracy in the marketplace?
AM: It's a big mess. According to a recent poll, 90 percent of Americans want their food labeled. Right now our food does not say it contains GMOs. So when you are drinking your "all natural" Minute Maid orange juice, it doesn't have to say it's not really natural, that it contains GMOs because of the high fructose corn syrup in it. The system is not very democratic.
We are living in a world where corporations are taking so much control of our food system that they are creating monopolies. Less than four companies control 80 percent of pork production, and two grain companies control the majority of the world's grain trade. So we don't really have a choice. What we have are monopolies-Cargill, ADM, Conagra are monopolies, controlling our food system and dictating prices. The biggest brunt of this system has been borne by the farmers, so when U.S. government officials talk about promoting trade agreements to benefit farmers, it's a joke because we have an agricultural system that is destroying our farmers.
In 1925, 30 percent of the U.S. population was in agriculture. Today less than 2 percent of the population remains in agriculture. We have more people behind bars than behind the wheel of a tractor. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 55 years or older. An increasing number of farmers get their income from a second or a third job at the gas station or a Wal-Mart. So we are starving our food producers. But the most shocking fact is that the number one cause of death among farmers in the U.S. is suicide. The rates of alcoholism and depression are very high among farmers. And this is the model of agriculture that has been exported around the world by the U.S. government.
Q: Why are so many countries rejecting GMOs, including nations facing food insecurity?
AM: Genetic engineering is a symptom of the larger problem we are all facing: the corporate control of our food system. We are losing food democracy, food sovereignty. And the biggest example of that is the United States. Most countries -- Japan, Philippines, South Korea, most of Europe -- have set regulations for genetic engineering. But here in the United States, there is a revolving door between the regulatory agencies that approve these crops and the corporations producing the technology, and so we have seen a demise of food democracy. I think that is the root of the issue.
The second thing is that the corporations are also taking over our airwaves. There is a steady flow of myths. "We need this technology to feed the world; we need the technology because it is friendly to the farmers; we need this technology because it is environmentally friendly." But now the truth is beginning to come out ... countries like Romania, which had been growing GMOs, started in 2007 a decontamination process. Brazil was facing GM crops being smuggled in and last year denied the approval of GM crops. Right here in the U.S., we have seen counties in California, including Mendocino, Marin, and others, adopt resolutions declaring themselves to be GMO-free and banning the growing of GM crops. So even in the U.S., we are beginning to see this widespread resistance because food democracy is absolutely essential for any kind of democracy that we envision for ourselves.
Q: Tell us about GMOs and U.S. foreign aid.
AM: Our foreign food aid is mainly about securing new markets. It is about finding new places to dispose of surpluses. Within this context, we have to look at one of the impacts of GMOs on the food system that has deeply impacted livelihoods of U.S. farmers; regulations around the world against GMOs have negatively impacted U.S. exports. For example, the EU does not want genetically modified corn. That results in a loss of over $300 million for the U.S. farmers each year. So the U.S. government has insisted on shipping GM food aid as a way of getting rid of surpluses that it can't sell elsewhere.
In 2002, we saw Zambia stand up and say no to GM food aid, and there was such an uproar here. One U.S. spokesperson on food issues, Congressman Tony Hall, even said that Zambia should be brought to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for starving its own people. Of course, somebody needed to remind Mr. Hall that the U.S. does not participate in the ICC. But when Zambia said no to GM food aid, offers of non-GM food aid came in from other countries including Kenya, Tanzania, India, and China.
Q: In this country, organic food is expanding rapidly. But it seems like it is being taken over by giants like Wal-Mart and Safeway. What do you make of this?
AM: I think just focusing on the labeling of organic is not enough. We have to look at where this food is coming from. If you have organic food traveling lots of miles to get to our table, that's a real issue because you are lowering organic standards. Local is more important, sustainable is very important.
This is one of the few countries where organic farmers have to pay to get the labeling that they are organic, but the chemical farmers who pollute earth, air, and water get away scot-free so they can provide so-called cheap food. It's not cheap food. The cost will be paid by each one of us and by future generations with the pollution that has been caused, and the greenhouse gases that result from industrial agriculture. So it is important to emphasize that organic in itself is not organic until we are challenging who benefits and who is harmed by the system. While the large corporations have been lowering organic standards, the small family farmers have been the best tillers of the land.
Q: Can you talk about this lowering of organic standards?
AM: There are great groups that have done excellent work on this issue: the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Consumers Association, and the California Alliance for Family Farmers. One important component of organic is who grows it. Is it large plantations? It's usually on small farms where farmers know every inch of land and they can take care of the crops they are growing. When you grow on large, corporate, industrial levels you are talking about monocultures. On a typical small farm, you will have biodiversity, with a whole bunch of vegetables that are seasonal with some fruits and some chickens and eggs and fish and goats. On a large, industrial, monoculture farm, they will be just growing one crop, and that is not natural. Nature does not do mono-cropping.
Q: You and I live in California, and many people say it's easy for you to buy organic, you live in the biggest agricultural state. How do we do that on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas?
AM: Yes, we are fortunate to live in California. But it is shocking that you can go into the shops that sell local grapes from California and you also find grapes from Chile. You have avocados from here and you also have avocados that have traveled thousands of mile from Chile or wherever. You have melons from here and then you have melons from Mexico. Again, the whole myth of cheap food; it cannot be truly cheap, given the miles it travels.
Today 20 percent of California table grapes go to China, while China is the world's largest producer of table grapes. Half of all California's processed tomatoes go to Canada, and the U.S. imports $36 million worth of Canadian processed tomatoes yearly. California exports brussel sprouts to Canada while California imports brussel sprouts from Belgium. This food system is upside down and backwards. We are exporting what we are also importing because it is profitable for the companies doing it, not because it is good for the nation or the environment.
One of my colleagues did a study showing that if we were to start spending a small percentage or our budget each year on buying food locally, we could have a big impact. If just an additional $85 per person per year of California food expenditures were spent on food produced within the state it would result in $848 million dollars in additional income for the farmers in California. It would result in $1.38 billion being injected into California's overall economy. It would result in $188 million in additional state tax revenue. And nearly 6,000 new jobs would be created. So it's a win-win situation for all of us if you make this one small change.
Q: If you are faced with the choice of buying local or buying organic, which do you choose? Which has a smaller ecological footprint?
AM: I would encourage everyone to look at the label to see where your produce came from. You can buy directly from your own state. I would encourage people to search out local grocery markets so we are not dependent on the big supermarkets such as Albertsons and Safeway and Wal-Mart. At the Oakland Institute we issued a report showing the impact of these supermarkets' consolidating control of our food system and the impact on low-income communities, the environment, and labor. If we support the independent local grocery stores we can have a relationship with them and tell them what kind of food we want to eat. The local, independent stores are better able to buy directly from small farmers than the supermarkets such as Albertsons and Safeway. And there are amazing websites. There is the True Food Network (truefoodnow.org), where you can find out which products have GMOs.
The key thing to remember is that food is not a privilege, it is a human right. We need to take back the power and get control of our food system.