From Farm to Fork

News & Politics

Combined, the Central Coast and Central Valley of California provide the nation with 25 percent of its food. Groups involved with food production range from community organizations and workers' rights advocates to farmers and agriculture cooperatives. This summer, a mix of Global Exchange staff and interns piloted a new Reality Tour, "From Farm to Fork," and met with these groups to learn about the process of food production and take the information back to their respective communities.

Florentino from the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) explained how initial planning is a crucial phase in the production process during which farmers can incorporate methods of organics and sustainability. Florentino and his wife Maria took us on a tour of the ALBA farm, explaining along the way how they minimize the farm's environmental impact by employing a system of drip irrigation, which is more efficient than conventional irrigation, and crop rotation, which, though more laborious, ensures that soil nutrients are not depleted.

ALBA (Spanish for "dawn" or "daybreak") is a resource for migrants like Florentino who wish to escape the confines of conventional farming labor. It is a unique blend of farm and school, structuring its farm around the practices of sustainable growing and cultivating, while providing Spanish-language educational programs about its practices, "to advance economic viability, social equity and ecological land management among limited-resource and aspiring farmers."

To capture a different perspective, our group also met with two prominent conventional farmers. The encounter with agro-business and its controversial genetically modified organisms furthered our knowledge about just how much energy goes into the production of food. One farmer explained how his seeds astonishingly travel to four different continents before the beans are eventually consumed in France. Most produce travels, on average, 1,600 miles once it has been harvested before it reaches the table. Plus, 25 percent of all greenhouse gases in the U.S. is a by-product of industrial agriculture, food processing and food transportation.

Transnational movement is not only contradictory to principles of energy conservation, but it also contributes to the growing disconnect between consumers and producers.  Ryan Zinn of the Organic Consumers Association encouraged our group to buy from local farmers as much as possible to simplify the movement of food from farm to fork.  

Having more players involved, as in the corporate model, ultimately reduces producers' accountability to consumers. Ryan provided the example of the lack of accuracy surrounding corporate organic labeling -- the USDA definition of organic does not include anything about land stewardship, biodiversity, or fair labor. The USDA's 1998 definition of organic allowed farms using antibiotics, genetically-modified organisms, and producing sewage sludge to be considered organic. The organics industry is undergoing a corporate takeover, as in fact many supposedly organic companies have been bought-out by large corporations such as Kraft, M&M/Mars, and Coca-Cola.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the corporate, energy inefficient and environmentally inconsiderate system of food production. One example of such a model is the Center for Agro-Ecology and Sustainable Food Systems at U.C. Santa Cruz. In addition to crop rotation, drip irrigation, composting and the use of biodiesel, the farm also uses manure from a local farm as fertilizer. A Global Exchange board member took our group on a tour, letting us stop to pick and sample fruit in between questions.

Another haven for delicious fruit and environmental stewardship is Swanton Berry strawberry farm in Davenport. Swanton Berry is the only unionized and organic farm in the country. Here our group was able to synthesize what we had learned thus far about organic farming with what we had learned about the migrant worker labor struggle by talking with Jesus of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in Watsonville.

Our group discovered that federal labor laws do not cover farmworkers; unions are the only means by which farmworkers can obtain decent working conditions. Jesus spoke of Cesar Chavez, the organizer who led the 1960s grape strike that evolved into a national boycott, and was responsible for the passage of the 1975 Agriculture Regulation Law, the first step in humanizing work conditions. However the struggle continues today, as only 2 percent of California farms are unionized.

Attempts to address these issues will require a restructuring of the entire food system. The first step in this arduous process is awareness, exactly what Global Exchange's reality tours seek to promote.

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