With obesity rates reaching an all time high and projections of cancer by the World Health Organization increasing 70 percent in the next 20 years, many Americans are crying out for stricter food production and manufacturing regulations. However, public outcry may not be enough to successfully bring about the changes sought. As many individuals of my generation have begun to discover, the fastest means for progress is to actually be the change you want to see. Though there are many ways to support more sustainable, local practices, the quickest way to counteract the pitfalls of industrial food manufacturing is a DIY approach. The power of choice is in our hands, and our future depends on that choice.
The American people’s suspicion of the food industry has gained traction in recent years. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed distributor, has been publicly criticized for its use of genetically modified seeds. The synthetic seeds are often insect-resistant (Bt), which contain built-in pesticides to kill insects. The goal is to use less insecticide on the crop, however, the USDA reported in February there are “indications that insect resistance is developing to some Bt traits in some areas.”
Herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops have traits making them less susceptible to weed killers, like the chemical glyphosate, allowing farmers to kill pervasive weeds more effectively. Glyphosate, however, a key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is said to be toxic by organizations like the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
It is generally believed that Bt seeds increase the yield of their crops, but the USDA has found these claims to be inconclusive.
"Empirical evidence regarding the effect of HT crops on yields is mixed," says the February report.
The use of these chemicals on crops revolves around profit. The goal of almost every company is to maximize revenue for the sake of employees and shareholders, and the food industry is no exception. Greater crop yields result in more revenue. Higher profit margins are also achieved by processing foods, since adding salt and sugar results in longer shelf life for food products. Nearly all genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are commodity crops like soy and corn, core ingredients in processed foods like high fructose corn syrup.
According to Melanie Warner, author of “Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Foods Took Over the American Meal”, processed foods constitute roughly 70 percent of the average American diet, and are thought to be a key culprit in the recent upward trend in obesity. Short-term gains for the food industry are contributing to long-term consequences for our nation’s health and well-being.
Lesser economic and technological advancements in developing nations account for less food processing and GMO science in these places. Small-scale farmers in these countries use their own scientific processes, which are largely a product of culture. Peasant farmers all over the world use methods and ideologies that have been passed down for hundreds of years; but to say the practices of these farmers is ancient doesn’t even come close to doing the complexity of their systems justice. By sharing all types of farming techniques and adding their own personal antidotes, they are able to adapt to changes in demand, the environment and the economy.
Enter La Via Campesina, the world’s largest independent farming movement. The organization is comprised of famers of small and medium-sized farms, peasants, family farms and migrant workers from around the world. The group shows strong objection to industrial practices that compromise the environment, consumer health and local economies.
It uses an agroecological approach to farming, which preaches four properties: sustainability, productivity, stability and equitability. They believe all of these properties are interconnected, and that there is no universal formula for success and optimization of an agroecosystem. Rather, it believes no one better understands the consumer needs, geographic characteristics and political climate of a region than local peasant farmers.
The group’s beliefs and practices have been validated by a number of international environmental and agricultural programs in recent years. A 2008 report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, developed by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme, found peasant farmers to be most effective in alleviating the pains of hunger.
“Between 1950 and 1980, prior to the development of genetically modified organisms, modern varieties of wheat increased yields up to 33% even in the absence of fertilizer,” says the report. “The application of modern biotechnology outside containment, such as the use of genetically modified crops is much more contentious.”
The report further suggests that, “globalization of the food supply, accompanied by concentration of food distribution and processing companies, and growing consumer awareness increase the need for effective, coordinated, and proactive national food safety systems.”
La Via’s agroecological methods consist of the use of organic heirloom seeds, intercropping and natural fertilizer and pesticides. The success of these techniques is largely a product of the farmer’s knowledge.
Fortunately, a system utilizing many of La Via Campesina’s methods for success and aimed at spreading that knowledge has begun gaining momentum in the United States and Europe’s developed countries.
WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is a non-profit group which provides exactly what it’s title suggests: The chance to volunteer on organic farms around the world, in exchange for a proper education on the methods used by the farmers. The volunteers are provided meals and living accommodations for the duration of their stay, which is typically for several weeks. The hope of the group is that volunteers take the knowledge gained through the experience and share it with others.
The driving force behind the WWOOFing initiative, as with the peasant movement, is the notion of food sovereignty, a phrase coined in 1996 by La Via Campesina. It refers to the people’s right to define and control it’s own farming system. It is a much improved version of food security, common rhetoric used by the Obama administration, which seeks to improve food access, but pays little mind to where it comes from or the methods used in its production. Food security ignores the agroecological approaches of these grassroots movements, embracing instead the agrochemical production of food deployed by industrial farming.
Though the best way to prevent yourself from exposure to these agrochemicals is by growing your own crops, we recognize not everyone was put on earth to be a farmer. There are many other ways for those who don’t have an interest in organic farming or the time to grow their own crops to promote sustainable farming practices.
Minnesota has many grassroots, nonprofit organizations supporting small-scale farmers and sustainable living solutions, such as Land Stewardship Project and Do It Green! Minnesota, all of which accept donations of any size. Most also have volunteer opportunities available, or part-time job opportunities for those who are seeking work. The agriculture section of the NextStep website, Minnesota’s sustainable communities network, has links to many amazing resources for local food retailers and urban gardening information.
Shopping at farmers markets is also a great way to support local farmers and economies, and keep money out of the hands of powerful food corporations. Farmers market consumers also benefit by opting to eat foods that promote their health, not deteriorate it.
National food and farming policy change begins with the individual. The best way to lobby legislators for change is to create it locally, in the community. When communities get together for a cause like this, the bodies that govern them tend to take notice. The more that consumers demand sustainable food, the more incentive corporations have for making changes.