Food For Thought

From The Editor

A funny thing happened on the way to the Farm Bill — ordinary consumers got involved. In the past, a small number of legislators from the soy- and corn-growing states and lobbyists from the corporatist Farm Bureau have overseen the US’s agricultural policy. This time, however, a broad range of citizens fought to have their views included. Organic farmers tried to increase support for more sustainable farming practices. Environmental organizations demanded monies for conservation programs to protect prairies and wetlands. Anti-hunger activists in the cities argued for broadening food security programs, while fair trade groups sought an end to giant subsidies for commodity growers.

As of press time, the fate of the Farm Bill remains undecided. The House and Senate have yet to reconcile their different versions of the legislation, and President Bush is threatening a veto. Although the exact shape of the legislation is uncertain, it’s clear that a growing number of Americans are passionate about the ways in which we grow our food.

Mark Lipson, policy director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation, says the heightened activism around the Farm Bill marks a real shift. “The public is certainly more aware than ever of food issues,” says Lipson, who has worked on federal agriculture legislation since 1990. “The cross-issue grassroots communication and coalition building is better than it’s ever been.”

Food politics have long been an important element of the broader environmental movement. For more than 30 years, writer-farmer Wendell Berry has been a prophetic voice of agrarianism, warning that an industrial food system risks destroying not only the land on which we depend, but also the democracy we hold dear. During the same time, writer-chef Alice Waters has lead a revolution in how we eat, arguing that our fast food culture is fundamentally inhumane and unsustainable. The ecologically minded know well that the methods by which we currently produce and consume food reveal our larger disregard for the planet’s ecosystems.

What were once the fringe concerns of back-to-the-land hippies and gourmands appear to have sunk roots deep into mainstream culture. I think of this as the “Michael Pollan Effect.” The best-selling author seems to be feeding a deep societal hunger for getting closer to our food. Last year, a sold-out crowd packed UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall to listen to a conversation between Pollan and Whole Foods founder John Mackey. At the beginning of the discussion, Pollan said: “You know there is something changing in the culture when several hundred people pay money to listen to a conversation between a grocer and a food writer.” Indeed.

By putting food near the center of the environmental movement, we can make the effort for ecological sustainability central in people’s lives, for the simple reason that everyone eats. You don’t have to travel to Yosemite to discover nature; you can also find it in the backyard tomato plant, the pea trellis on the side of the house, or in the fields of the local farm a short drive away.

In eating, we can find new ways of thinking about where and how we fit on this planet.


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