I think this is the final version. Rewriting is a fascinating process. I really appreciate the comments you guys made- they helped me a great deal.
PJ, I expanded on genetic food diversity; it's a really important point. Thanks so much.
I'm giving the speech tonight... wish me luck. There might be a video, too, if I don't absolutely hate it!
“Are tomatoes safe to eat yet?” “Which peppers can we eat?” “Is the spinach still okay?”
These are not unreasonable questions to ask in the wake of our more recent food dilemmas, but they offer us no answers as to why these bacterial episodes keep disrupting our lives. And that’s the key: the questions shouldn’t be when or which, but why. And not an ordinary why, but a brass-tacks, root-of-the-issue why.
The mainstream media has reported on these events ad nauseam. But for all the minutiae they report, they never get around to addressing the big picture. And the big picture is this: Our food system is broken. That’s why our tomatoes and peppers and spinach are poisoned. Industrial agriculture is, plain and simple, not the way we should be growing vegetables. It’s a waste of fuel, and a waste of water. It’s destroying the microbial life in our soil, acidifying our oceans, and draining our aquifers dry. It’s obliterating genetic diversity in our crops. For all the gains that industrial agriculture appeared to make, it turns out we made a Faustian bargain with our ecosystem.
Thankfully, there are some solutions to this quagmire – three, in fact. And I would like to outline those for you tonight. They are: home gardening, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture.The first solution, home gardening, is a major part of the fix. Of course, it can't take the place of all crops, especially calorie crops like grains. But consider the wide variety of vegetables in the produce section of your grocery store. Just about all of them can all be grown at home, and you’ll get to eat the best food money can’t buy.
It is proven every year by millions of home gardeners across America: on the average American lawn, you can lay in three seasons' worth of vegetables, and have plenty of leftovers to preserve for winter, even in short northern growing seasons. One of the benefits of growing your own vegetables is the amazing diversity of heritage crops available by seed that can’t be grown by industrial growers. There are several seed companies in the US that specialize in selling rare seeds; Seed Saver’s International in Iowa being is one of the oldest and best.
Why is genetic diversity in crops important? It’s not just for taste and history; when a broad genetic base exists, it increases a plant species’ ability to adapt to unforeseen pests and diseases, or changes in climate. The wider the diversity of crops, the safer our food is. Like the Irish potato famine, the genetically identical crops grown on most corporate farms around the world are truly courting disaster. And genetic modification is not the answer.
If you don’t have a yard or you can’t garden, there are other options for local and seasonal food. Which brings me to the second solution: farmer’s markets. But first, I’d like to illustrate the absurdity of today’s centralized food system.
True fact: vegetables are 90% water. Water is heavy. Heavy stuff is expensive to move. We’re spending $5.00 per gallon plus now on diesel for trucks to send little bags of water an average of 1400 miles across the US so folks can have mealy tomatoes or bland strawberries, year ‘round. But there’s more: these vegetables are mainly grown in California. Southern California is actually a semi-arid desert, not a food-growing oasis. Growing industrial quantities of vegetables in California is only made possible by taking vast amounts of water from the Colorado River system. By the time the Colorado River reaches its delta, there usually isn’t any water left- the ecology of that river system is on its last legs. And it’s all for the sake of having out-of-season, tasteless vegetables, whenever we want them. Speaking of taste, you might have noticed that these vegetables aren’t very good. It’s because the few varietals in our stores are developed for their shipping abilities, not for their taste.
But back to Farmers Markets. These days, there are Farmer’s Markets cropping up all over Detroit, and many sell food grown right in the city. Other seasonal, regional crops come from small farms in rural Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Ontario. Industrial vegetables not only come from far away, but can make many stops en route to your plate. Each stop along the way is an opportunity for contamination. From the field, food is sent to many hundreds of processors, then to thousands of local distribution sites all across the US, and then on to stores. It’s difficult at best to trace the routes of industrial foods. That’s why multiple states issue food recalls, and why the recalls are so confusing. Regionally grown produce makes far fewer stops- as few as just one- and if there does happen to be a contamination, it stays local and is much easier to trace.
The third solution is community supported agriculture, or CSA for short. CSA farms are the new wave in the local food movement, and operate very simply: Members pay for their farm membership long before the growing season starts, usually in the winter. Once growing season starts, CSA members pick up a box of whatever crops have come up that week. Some of these farms also sell their own bread, meat, milk, and eggs, too. And CSA farms usually practice organic farming methods, so you don't have to worry about pesticides and chemicals on your food. The food is always local and seasonal; you get to know your local farmer, and get to know other families that support your farmer. Most CSA farms will even let you to work in the field, to lower your membership price.
Ok, so here’s the rundown-- We’re transporting little bags of endangered river water from a region of the country that cannot afford to give up its water, with fuel we can't afford to pay for anymore. Like the great ecology and farming writer Wendell Berry said about our industrial food system-- we took a system that wasn’t broken, and broke it. The three solutions of home gardening, farmer’s markets, and CSAs really would go a very long way to fixing it.
And I promise you, learning to cook with super-fresh, seasonal produce really is easy and fun, and will give you a whole new appreciation for the natural cycles of food: the 2 months of spring lettuce, and the 3 weeks of blueberries and cherries, and the 6 weeks of tomatoes. So give it a shot. Next growing season, if you’ve never gardened before, plant a single tomato plant in a big pot, and you’ll get to eat them while they’re still warm from the sun. Go to your local farmer’s market. Stock up with in-season produce and try your hand at canning or preserving- it will be well worth the effort when you open a jar of your very own pickles in February. Seek out and join a CSA- local farmers need local support. And members of CSA farms are usually also community activists, so it might expand your horizons in unexpected ways.
If you choose to take an active role in local and regional food, you will never again have to worry if the tomatoes or peppers or spinach are safe to eat.