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Change the World, One Meal at a Time
by Ted P. Schmidt
Next Wednesday at Buffalo State, a seminar on food policy and Erie County’s efforts to engage the issue
Metropolitan regions across the US are in the midst of a dynamic and growing regional food movement. Not only are we seeing small steps like community gardens, small urban farms, and field-to-fork experiences, but farm shares and urban farmers’ markets are becoming a key source of revenue that is helping to sustain local family-owned farms. Several metropolitan areas (Buffalo included) have explicitly acknowledged this movement through the creation of Food Policy Councils that will help shape local laws and policies and promote this intersection of urban and rural living. The roots of this movement date back to the late 1970s, and though there has been a long, steady movement toward regional sourcing of food, I would argue there is a more recent powerful movement afoot that has come about as a reaction to several factors, not the least of which are the industrialization and financialization of our food systems.
The first phase of this movement began in the late 1970s and is credited to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in San Francisco. Her culinary revolution known as California Cuisine focused on the use and sourcing of regional food, as well as creating dishes influenced by the melting pot of California cultures. For the most part, this movement did not spread beyond the creation of niche markets for small boutique farms, but it was a start, and it allowed these small farmers to make a decent living by selling to high-end restaurants.
The next (and recent) phase of the local food movement was initiated by books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc. which raised issues of sustainability, health and safety. The globalization of our food supply meant we could consume almost any good, almost any time of the year. However, this created a dilemma for those concerned about environmental issues—consuming and supporting the global food network meant supporting the energy intensive farming and transportation networks that allowed one to consume grapes (for example) all year long. In addition, exposés on industrial farming methods raised questions about the health effects from eating food products that used high doses of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones to raise production levels. The popularity of these books meant that questioning the environmental and healthiness of our increasingly globalized food systems was no longer relegated to hippies and peaceniks; it was becoming a mainstream issue.
While this growing awareness of industrialized farming methods raised more and more questions about the impact on our health, some also began to question the virtues of the biotech revolution and the growth of genetically modified organisms. GMOs have been touted as a way to raise efficiencies by creating plant species that are resistant to pests and diseases, and, for the most part, very few were questioning their safety. This was because the food industry claimed that GMO plants were “essentially equivalent” to their non-GMO counterparts, and they successfully lobbied FDA regulators to deem them as equally safe, and therefore no need for long term safety studies, or GMO labeling for that matter.
On the business end, some of the most profitable GMO products being created were Roundup-resistant crops. Roundup was Monsanto’s number one weed killer, so creating cash crops resistant to Roundup meant farmers could use the weed killer at will without reducing yield through associated crop destruction. More important, at least for Monsanto’s profits, was the fact that their GMO seeds were patented, so (industrial) farmers were required to purchase these seeds every planting season.
Despite the industry’s claims (supported by an overly obsequious FDA), there is growing evidence that GMO crops are not raising production levels, and, more important, there is no clear evidence that GMO crops are as safe as their non-GMO equivalents. Combine this growing skepticism about GMO safety with the industry spending over $45 million to defeat California’s 2012 GMO food label initiative, created yet another impetus for the locavore movement.
Finally, another trend generating interest in the regional food movement has been the financialization of commodities and farm land. About two years ago I wrote a piece for Artvoice (“How Wall Street Is Literally Killing Us,” v10n17) describing how financial interests had taken over commodity markets, causing price bubbles and greater volatility in the prices of everything from oil to wheat. Financialization of markets occurs when Wall Street creates tradable pieces of paper on real, tangible things. For example, stock shares represent the brick and mortar of real businesses; mortgage-backed securities represent the property people own; commodity swaps are paper investments that gain or lose when the market prices of oil and wheat change.
Now, the latest investment fad, touted last year by noted investor Jim Rogers, is the creation of financial products that invest in farms and farmland, both nationally and globally. The low yields on traditional stock and bond investments combined with high commodity prices has increased investment flows into farms and farmland causing their prices to increase by double-digits over the past two years. These increased investment flows both fuel price bubbles and create a focus on short-term profitability. Investor-managed industrialized farms plant crops that generate the highest profits from the global commodities markets, not local markets; and, they also tend to use industrialized farming methods and GMOs that have raised growing questions about the safety of our food supply.
When financial interests dominate markets, their profits come from siphoning off a portion of the underlying income generated by producers. These financial investments tend to drive up prices (by increasing land and commodity prices), and ultimately the higher prices are paid by end-users, we consumers. It was these financial flows that helped produce a commodity price bubble in 2008 which caused food riots around the globe, and it’s these larger, unseen forces that make people feel powerless over access to some of their basic needs.
Food is a basic human right. Food also bridges cultures and brings us together. The globalization and industrialization of our food systems makes us feel powerless over this basic human right. However, the regional food movement is growing. Many urban areas are proactively creating policies to promote the development of their urban and rural food systems. Cities like Vancouver and Cleveland are at the forefront of this movement, as they created some of the first Food Policy Councils which have been used to promote sustainable food systems in their regions. Erie County is not far behind, and it took a first step in this direction last spring by establishing the first Food Policy Council in New York State.
If you care about access to quality healthy food, you can make a difference. On Wednesday, October 23, 5:30-7:30pm at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, a coalition of organizations are sponsoring a public event to create awareness of Erie County’s new Food Policy Council. Maybe we can’t change the world outside of our borders, but we can certainly change the one in our own backyard. So come all ye farmers, consumers, producers, distributors, restaurateurs, foodies, and foragers, take a seat at the table and help change our world one meal at a time…
Dr. Ted P. Schmidt is an associate professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Buffalo State College.blog comments powered by Disqus
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