The Republican-manufactured budget crisis of this past summer — remember? — resulted in a “solution” that’s hijacking what little representative democratic process we have left. Equally sad is that the so-called supercommittee — charged with creating an outline for reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years — may preclude full discussion of the farm bill.
It’s the farm bill that largely shapes food and agriculture policy, and — though much of it finances good programs — ultimately supports the cynical, profit-at-any-cost food system that drives obesity, astronomical health care costs, ethanol-driven agriculture and more, creating further deficits while punishing the environment.
The farm bill is written every five years. Although the current one doesn’t expire until September, the next one may be all but wrapped up by your first bite of turkey, because the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees — a group of four, representing Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota and Kansas (do you see a pattern here?) — are working feverishly to draw up a proposal in time to submit it to the supercommittee before the Nov. 23 deadline.
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I’m not a jingoist, but I’d prefer that more of my food came from America. It’d be even better, really, if most of it came from within a few hundred miles of where we live. We’d be more secure and better served, and our land would be better used. And I’d feel prouder, as if we had a food culture rather than a food fetish.
The Farm Bill [PDF], which is currently under negotiation for renewal — and is dangerously close to being pushed through without real debate — needs to address this issue head-on. But by subsidizing commodities, the existing bill (and food policy in general), pushes things in precisely the opposite direction. The vast majority of our farmland grows corn (we’re the world’s largest producer), soy and wheat, and these, along with meat and dairy, make us net exporters of foodstuffs.
Incredibly, however, we are net importers of fruits and vegetables, foods that our land is capable of growing in abundance and once did. Most of our imports are from Mexico, Chile and Canada, but fresh fruits and especially vegetables are shipped here from all over the world, with significant quantities coming from as far away as India, China and Thailand. And those imports are growing.
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Last month, I stood in the midday sun a few miles north of Anthony, N. M., and Anthony, Tex. — a town divided by the state line created in 1854 — staring out over a 15-acre plot of land that didn’t look like much. In this part of the world, it was once almost as easy to travel from the United States to Mexico and back as it is to go from one Anthony to another. Now the trip can drive you crazy, with long waits and inspections; if you’re undocumented and unlucky, it can kill you.
I’d spent a couple of days touring El Paso and Las Cruces, the cities of El Paso del Norte, as well as the colonias. (These are unincorporated settlements largely inhabited by Mexicans whose ancestors lived here when it was New Spain, joined by more recent immigrants.) Here, I learned that the border isn’t the only thing that’s become complicated around here; food is another.
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Maine, to the outsider’s view, seems as food-conscious right now as California. (The Winter/Spring issue of Maine Policy Review, devoted to food and with a very cool cover, is 250 pages, some of which are even worth reading.) Of course it’s all whom you talk to, but it sure was easy enough to meet people who wanted to talk food. (And that, as we know, is happening everywhere, increasingly. Good.)
I was encouraged to come up by Ingrid Bengis-Palei, who’s been supplying top chefs in New York and elsewhere with Maine scallops, lobsters, sea urchins and more, for more than 20 years. (She has kept FedEx profitable.) I first encountered her name when Eberhard Müller was chef at Le Bernardin; that, I think, was in 1988. (Eberhard and I went scalloping that winter on Nantucket, not because we were afraid of Maine but because we were after bay scallops, not the huge sea scallops for which Maine is justifiably known.)
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North Haven, Me.
When Brenna Chase was farming in Connecticut a few years back, new farmers weren’t always welcome by oldsters. The pie, she says, just wasn’t big enough. “But now,” she said to me here, where she now farms, “the feeling is that the pie is getting bigger and that the more people that get into this the better it will be for everyone.”
By “this,” she means sustainable farming (here I use the term interchangeably with “organic” because many ethical farmers can’t afford organic certification), and the poised 33-year-old, who began farming in high school, is representative of young people I’ve met all over the country. These are people whose concern for the environment led to a desire to grow — and eat — better food. And although chefs still get more attention, the new farmers deserve recognition for their bold and often creative directions.
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In May, I went to Iowa, primarily to learn more about so-called conventional agriculture, those thousand-acre farms growing corn and soybeans, planted, tended and harvested largely by machine. (We have plenty of the other type — what’s variously called traditional, or alternative, or non-conventional — in the Northeast.) But thanks to an auspicious combination of topsoil, climate, topography and weather, Iowa is among the best locales for farming in North America, and I saw a wide range of practices.
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(Photo Credit: Quentin Origami via Flickr)
If you’re not already anti-factory-farming, this will do it: The Humane Society just released an undercover investigation (watch the video if you can stomach it, or scroll down the link to find the full report) into the obscene abuses of female breeding pigs and piglets by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest (and probably most profitable) producer of pork. The video leaves me pretty much speechless.(More links here, at Vegan.com.)
I’m usually not one to cry “boycott,” but if you, like Paula Deen, are a Smithfield supporter – in fact, if you’re still eating industrially raised pork (or chicken or beef or fish for that matter) – get real. Any industry (and Smithfield is hardly alone, though it does seem to be performing most egregiously) that operates with such infuriating disregard for the welfare of their animals deserves all the trouble we can muster.
Check out this James McWillams article called Why Free-Range Meat Isn’t Much Better Than Factory-Farmed. McWilliams says that “when it comes to farming methods and harm, free range is better,” but “better does not mean acceptable.” He goes on to suggest that it is nearly as harmful and morally dubious to kill a factory-farmed animal as it is to kill one that was not raised in confinement (follow his logic from start to finish and see what you think.)
As far as I know, McWilliams is a vegan. If he wants to personally and/or publicly object to raising animals for food that we don’t need, I have no problem with that. I understand and appreciate that a notable contrarian like McWilliams needs to be careful about flat-out telling people what to do, but in a way I’d have a lot more respect for this article if it were called Be A Vegan. By working to discredit free-range farming, he is in practice giving us all an excuse to buy into a system of industrial livestock production that he admits is worse. McWilliams may be right that none of it is perfect, but if it’s truly a more moral and less harmful system that he’s after, wouldn’t his time (and ours) be a lot better spent rallying against what’s worse (and ubiquitous) than picking on what’s better (and small)?
I’d really love to hear your thoughts on all of this. Please post them in the comments section below.
(Photo Credit: Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via Flickr)
Food and Water Watch just released this amazing interactive factory farm map of the United States, which is fascinating and terrifying at the same time – I can’t stop clicking through it. Below “the fold” are some eye-opening numbers that come attached to the map. I’ve been doing some digging of my own, but it’s (quite literally) tons of, shall we say, waste to wade through.
Take the map for a spin, and if you find anything interesting, or surpising, or frightening, or hopeful – please post it in the comments section.
Beef ranchers are complaining that the domestic market is “withering,” and therefore the quality of meat will decline.
This, of course, assumes that we’re not smart enough to buy better beef. From many perspectives – that of the person who wants only organic beef; that of one who wants only local beef; that of one who wants grass-fed beef, or “natural” beef, or humanely raised beef, or all of the above – the price of “normal” (that is, industrially-raised) beef is already too low. Suppose one wanted higher quality beef, and were willing to pay for it? Suppose one were willing to eat less beef in order to keep one’s food budget more-or-less stable? Wouldn’t a decline in industrially raised beef be OK? And who cares if it becomes even “worse?” It’s already produced with almost no concern for quality.