Food Fight!

Friday, October 1, 2004

The San Francisco Food Professional Society, October 22, 2004, Commonwealth Club, San Francisco

Keynote Speech, Anuradha Mittal, Director, The Oakland Institute

It is wonderful to be here with my colleagues like Zeke Grader from the Institute For Fisheries Resources & PCFFA, who I believe are leaders in the struggle for an equitable food system. So thank you for your invitation. I am honored to be here with you all.

I want to share what resonates with me when I think of Food. Frances Moore Lappé wrote that Food is personal and political. As a child growing up in India, food was about community, about festivals, and about celebration around harvest times. It was very personal.

Even as school children, I remember my conversations with friends when the monsoons were late and how from a young age we all knew what it would mean for the farmers because those who grew our food were also our neighbors and our family members. We knew where the fields were and we knew what the earth yielded, how it was worked.

Over the last few years something has shifted. There is a growing detachment with food. This past September, I was in India and almost everyday, regional and national newspapers reported farmer suicides. Everyday, tucked away in the back pages, a small article reported that two or three farmers had taken their lives by consuming pesticides. It is estimated that between 1997-2003, almost 25,000 farmers have killed themselves. The numbers have numbed the nation. And yet some of us know that each of these suicides is really a kind of murder for which we can point to the WTO, unfair subsidies, and other far reaching policies whose architects do not farm the fields of Andhra Pradesh, for example.

A few months ago John Hepburn, GE campaigner for Greenpeace Australia-Pacific, and my good friend visited me. We talked lots about food and our work. On his return he sent me an email message about saying Grace before an evening meal. He wrote “in most cases this has been a general ‘give thanks to the lord’, but in some circles it is a heartfelt thank you to the people who make our meals possible. It is an opportunity to appreciate where our food really comes from.”

This started a conversation about what Grace would look like today if we really did appreciate all of the hands that played a part in creating our evening meal? Maybe something like this…

“...We give thanks to Cargill for setting up the grain handling systems and the crushing mills. And the contract haulers and harvesters for getting the grain from the farms into the silos.

We give thanks to the banks for lending farmers the money so that they could buy equipment and finance planting.

We give thanks to the seed merchants for selling the seed.

We give thanks to the chemical companies for manufacturing the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

We give thanks to the petroleum industry for providing raw materials for the chemicals, and for providing fuel for transportation.

We give thanks to neighbors for not complaining too much about spray drift.

We give thanks to the waterways for quietly accepting all of the nutrient and chemical run off.

We give thanks to the atmosphere for dealing with all of the CO2 emissions from the petrochemical use.

We give thanks to the frogs for being Okay with being born with five legs because of Atrazine run-off into their habitat.

We give thanks to the parents of children with leukemia in agricultural areas for not causing riots.

We give thanks to rural communities for being willing to die slow and silent deaths as farmers gradually sell up, and businesses close down.

We give thanks to future generations for subsiding the cost of our food so that we can continue to ship food all over the world in one of the most irrational and wasteful systems ever devised.

We thank those children of our children who will today, and into future, pay the environmental costs of this absurdist routine.”

What’s called ‘modern industrial agriculture,’ driven by the engine of economic globalization, has replaced family farms with corporate farms, farmers with machines, mixed crops with monocultures, and has traded local food security for global commerce. This phenomenon of cold detachment from our food system is best described by Wendell Berry in Fatal Harvest: “One of the primary results – and one of the primary needs- of industrialism is the separation of people, places and products from their histories. To the extent that we participate in the industrial economy, we do not know the histories of our families or habitats or of our meals. This is an economy, and in fact a culture, of the one-night stand. ‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.’ The industrial eater says to the svelte industrial hog, ‘We’ll be together at breakfast. I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterwards.’ ”

The agricultural system in the United States where Americans depend on profit-driven corporations for 95 percent of their food can only be described as the canary in the mineshaft of the corporate controlled agricultural system.

In the 1930s, 25 percent of the U.S. population lived on the nation’s 6 million farms. Today America’s 2 million farms are home to less than 2 percent of the population. The U.S. Dept of Labor projects that the largest job loss among all occupations between 1998-2008 will be in agriculture. This is not surprising given an average farm-operator household earns only fourteen percent of its income, the rest from off-farm employment. However, these figures pale in comparison to one fact. The number one cause of death for farmers in the U.S. is suicide!

It is the same industrial agriculture, profiting the big agribusiness which has driven food producers both in the U.S. and in India to starvation and death.

This crisis is best exemplified in our state of California, one of the world’s leading agricultural economies. Today California has a higher proportion of corporate farms and a smaller percentage of family farms than the national average with corporate farms accounting for almost half of all farms with a net income of over $500,000! This conversion of our food into commodities and replacement of family farms with corporate farms is evident through food trade in California where more raw farm products are shipped into California than are shipped out, making the state a net importer of food. And while California imports large quantities of raw farm products, 43 percent of the state’s harvest is exported, nearly half of it internationally.

This food trade is truly upside down and backwards given that a large portion of California’s exports are to countries that either produce the same commodities they are importing or could obtain the same product much closer to home. For example, twenty percent of California table grapes are destined for China, when China is the world’s largest producer of table grapes. Half of all exports of California processed tomatoes go to Canada, while the U.S. imports $36 million worth of Canadian processed tomatoes yearly. California exports brussel sprouts to Canada at the same time it imports brussel sprouts from Belgium. New York City ports ship California pistachios worth $70,000 to Italy while importing $50,000 of the same from Italy. Canada is the second most important destination for California cherries, yet each year the U.S. imports $19 million worth of Canadian cherries.

This corporate globalization of food has left its mark on California’s fishing industry as well. In the 1970s the state’s tuna canning industry was among the largest and most profitable in the world. In 1985, California was abandoned in favor of American Samoa and Puerto Rico because of their lower labor costs and less strict environmental regulations. In 2000 only 12% of fish consumed in the state were caught in California. At the same time, almost 75 % of California’s catch is exported to other countries. Since most of the exported fish are less valuable species, the states spends nearly 10 times as much on imprints as it receives from exports.

While economically this makes no sense, this ‘modern’ agriculture also weighs heavily on our lives and our environment. Today per-acre pesticide use in California is almost ten times the national average. Between 1990 and 1995, 38 millions tons of toxic waste were spread as fertilizer on California fields. This chemical based agriculture has damaged 81 percent of the state’s lake area, 75 percent of its estuary and wetland area and 23 percent of its rivers while manure waste from industrial dairy farms threatens the drinking water of 65 percent of Californians

And this does not come without an impact on our social well-being. While consolidating corporate agribusiness’ control over our food system, ‘modern’ agriculture leaves little for farmers, farm workers, and the rural communities that traditionally have nurtured, and been nurtured by small farms and their products. On average, farmers keep only nine cents out of every food dollar. In California, the smallest 50 percent of farms capture less than one percent of the states’ agricultural revenue. Between 1982 and 1997 the total number of farms declined by 10 percent, with the smallest farms declining by 20 percent. Three quarters of farmworkers earn less than $10,000 a year and have the highest rate of malnutrition of any sub-population in the country. Fewer than 10% receive health benefits.

Hunger and food insecurity has increased in the state. Over five million Californians are food insecure with Fresno and Tulare, the country’s leading global food producers, reporting the worst food insecurity. The problem is even worse in low-income neighborhoods and inner city areas which face food redlining. While 3 companies control 57 percent of the huge food retail market in California, food supermarkets chains are redlining inner city areas in favor of more affluent city neighborhoods and suburbs. West Oakland, with 32,000 residents and a 60 percent unemployment rate has only one supermarket compared to 40 liquor and convenience stores. And the price of food in these stores is almost 30 to 100 percent higher than the price in the grocery store. Again, these numbers only begin to convey how these conditions impact on human health and the public welfare in general.

Federal policies have contributed greatly to the decline of our countryside. The crop subsidies farm bills don’t go to farmers who resemble John Steinbeck’s Joad family, but to mega-rich American corporations and wealthy individuals. Most family farms get nothing but a tax bill. In California the biggest farms reap the lion’s share of USDA’s farm subsidies. From 1995 to 2002, the top 1 percent of California recipients took in one quarter of the subsidies, with an average payment of $2.3 million per farm. Most subsidies go to agribusinesses producing monocrops for export: cotton, rice, and to large-scale dairy farmers. Farmers practicing sustainable agriculture and those marketing locally get almost no support.

But any system built upon structural inequities is ultimately unsustainable. It fuels conflict and struggle along the lines of class, gender, and ethnicity, till it consumes itself. Today’s corporate-controlled food system is just such a case.

But do not see this food fight as without hope. I personally have made the decision to fight this fight by looking for reasons to keep on keepin’ on. And I am glad to share my reasons with you with you.

I cannot over emphasize that:

In an open challenge to the corporate take over of our food system, a vibrant food system is growing all over America and California is at the vanguard of that struggle. Hundreds of family farm groups, farm workers, community gardeners, and environmentalists are working to ensure community food security where everyone has a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritional diet through a sustainable food system that ensures community self-reliance and social justice. Farmers’ markets have doubled in the past decade while the burgeoning Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement is helping individuals form a direct relationship with local farms, thus supporting both the farmer and the communities’ needs. Innovative examples such as Peoples’ Grocery and their mobile farmstand subvert the current paradigm by doing the real work of providing low-income communities with viable and nutritious sources of food.

California is the largest organic fruit and vegetable state, producing more than 50 percent of the country’s organic produce. This does face a major threat from genetic contamination caused by genetic engineering. Since the early 1990s, there have been field trials of GE with the biotech industry hoping to commercialize GE crops in California.

Meanwhile, as the Monsanto’s of the world drift and settle across vast territories, people are communities are fighting back and our food, health, and our social networks win when they do. In recent victories, on March 4, 2004, Mendocino County, California set the standard for the rest of the country by becoming the first county to ban the cultivation of GM crops and animals. Soon after, four other countries, Butte, Marin, San Luis Obispo, and Humboldt each submitted enough signatures to put similar measures on the November 2nd ballot. Several other counties including Alameda, Napa and Sonoma have launched similar citizen-led initiatives. Farmer to farmer campaigns are strengthening the farmers movement to take back our food system

Each of these examples—farmers’ markets, CSAs, county level measures, urban gardens, and farm to school programs —are not isolated examples of an alternative or of dissent. These are about change that is taking place on the ground: slowly, organically, and steadily. Its best crop is a new consciousness where we recognize these struggles are the new civil rights movement of the day, which in small and large ways are replacing the industrial food-system with a more sustainable and life-affirming agriculture. And this movement both inspires and is inspired by the international struggles in which similar movements in communities all over the world are reclaiming food, making it personal and assuring their own food sovereignty.

So what is Food Sovereignty?

Food Sovereignty requires that we:

1. Prioritize local, regional, and national needs, based on agriculture that consists of small farmers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, and other local communities;

2. Protect local and national markets of basic food stuffs, giving priority to the products of local farmers;

3. Promote and enforce farmer's rights including access to land, water and seed;

4. Promote sustainable peasant agriculture which is more productive and protects our biodiversity.

5. Promote a direct, shared and decentralized relationship between food producers and the rest of the community;

6. Enforce genuine land reform to ensure redistribution of land.

7. And lastly, design a new farm economy which should be the centerpiece of the country’s economic development model.

Yes, another relationship with food is growing around the world which makes our food both personal and political. It is about us knowing where our food comes from. It is moving towards smaller-scale food systems that are localized, diverse, and ecologically-based. It is about food grown in harmony with nature, rather than an industrial food system that treats nature and earth as an obstacle to be overcome.

And this model is economically viable. For example when farmers sell directly to local shops, restaurants or directly to the local community through farmers markets or CSA schemes, farmers can keep as much as 80 to 90 percent of the price of food. If just 10 percent ($85 per person per year) of Californians’ food expenditures were directed toward food produced within the state, an estimated $848 million in additional income would flow to the state’s farmers, $1.38 billion would be injected into California’s overall economy, $188 million in tax revenue would be generated, and 5,565 jobs would be created.

Sufi poet Hafez wrote: The small man builds cages for everyone He knows. While the sage, Who has to duck her head When the moon is low Keeps dropping keys all night long For the Beautiful Rowdy Prisoners.

This food fight is throwing keys to the rowdy prisoners. John wrote to me: By definition, this change will not be led by experts, corporations or politicians. It will be led by individual people like you and me…people like our mothers, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors… Like all exciting journeys, reclaiming our food culture and shortening our evening Grace where we can thank our farmers and nature, will start with the first step. I am proud to be with you all who have taken that first step already!

(C) 2004 By The Oakland Institute. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.