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

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.

Meanwhile, Monsanto's marketing practices have placed it on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice, which this month indicated it's considering anti-trust litigation. Monsanto's string of acquisitions have squelched almost any possibility of competition, while its seed prices have risen by an average of 42 percent. When the DOJ dispatched some of its lawyers to meet with Monsanto to discuss these developments, the company engaged the services of Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer who is a friend and financial supporter of USDA chief Tom Vilsack. It's further indication that keeping Monsanto in line is about as easy as wrestling an anaconda.

Monsanto owns the rights to genetic sequences found in more than 85 percent of corn planted in the United States, and 92 percent of soy. Given the prevalence of corn and soy in the American diet, it's hard to take a bite of any packaged food without eating Monsanto's handiwork. What's scary is how little research has actually been done in the area of food safety, and that nearly all such research has been conducted by the company itself.

While touting its products as safe for humans and the environment, Monsanto's main sales pitch is based on the claim that genetically engineered seeds will increase crop yields and facilitate pest control. But last summer, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that genetically engineered seeds actually don't increase productivity. Another study, by the Organic Center, found that since the introduction of "Round-Up tolerant" corn, soy and cotton, farmers have sprayed 382.6 million more pounds of herbicides than they otherwise would have. This is partly due to the proliferation of Round-Up resistant weeds: between 2007 and 2008, farmers increased the use of different herbicides by 31 percent in an effort to combat these superweeds. Nonetheless, the company's Web site promotes the seeds as a key component in "sustainable agriculture."

While Monsanto has co-opted the term "sustainable agriculture," retail giant Wal-Mart, already the world's largest vendor of organic food, is poised to capitalize on the popularity of locally grown food. Wal-Mart is looking at ways individual stores can carry foods grown by local farmers. Another large grocer, Safeway, has this year begun aggressively pushing a "locally grown" marketing campaign, while blatantly taking advantage of the ambiguity in the term "local." A writer by the name of Food Dude, on the Portland, Oregon blog Portland Food and Drink, busted Safeway with photographs of produce bearing out-of-state stickers next to signs announcing "I'm Local!" and "Locally Grown."

That large corporations are jumping on the sustainable, local and organic bandwagons is arguably a good sign. It shows that these words, and what they represent, have infiltrated the mainstream consciousness. One of the most powerful vehicles to deliver this message was Food Inc, the movie whose depressing yet important message about the American diet was seen by enough people to make it the highest grossing documentary of 2009.

The year closed with the anti-climactic climate summit in Copenhagen, where U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack acknowledged the huge role that livestock plays in global warming -- more than transportation activities by most estimates. Vilsack announced plans to build methane capture facilities at large dairy farms in order to turn that potent greenhouse gas into an energy source. He deserves credit for helping to keep agriculture at the forefront of climate change discussions.

On the other hand, searching for ways to enable the cattle industry, while politically expedient in the short-term, are shortsighted in the long-term. Which brings us to my prediction for next year's (or next decade's) hot topic: serious soul-searching on the pros and cons of all things bovine. From the atrocities of feedlots and slaughterhouses to the environmental destruction wrought by cattle, given the skyrocketing worldwide demand for meat, the human addiction to cow products is reaching a breaking point.


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