The brewing showdown between those who recognize that our food system is broken and those who insist on the status quo erupted into the open when Governor Jennifer Granholm initially and wisely proclaimed this Saturday as Michigan Meatout Day.
It didn’t take long for Farm Bureau to crank up its lobbyists to demand that the governor rescind the proclamation, arguing that the idea for a meatless day now and then is the work of subversive animal rights activists. And columnist John Schneider of the Lansing State Journal was quick to buy into the Farm Bureau line that going meatless will somehow put most of Michigan’s farmers out of business.
John needs to understand that people who eschew meat will eat other things. And that might not be such a bad idea if you read the recent New York Times article about how “beef” patties are often a mash of meat from many different countries ground together (and sometimes with unwanted e coli mixed in).
When John Schneider says that Governor Granholm “can either stick with the radical agenda of FARM or acknowledge she didnâ€™t realize what she was endorsing and rescind the proclamation,” he also falls into the trap of thinking that the status quo is sustainable. A day a week without meat would have many more benefits than drawbacks for everyone involved, especially a new generation of young farmers who want to help us eat more locally produced fruits and vegetables.
What Farm Bureau and other traditional agricultural groups must realize is that Big Farma is bad for our personal health and the well-being of the planet. Too many traditional practices are dangerously dependent on dwindling oil reserves and the future price shocks that will inevitably result as we move beyond peak oil. And it isn’t just animal activists who view reducing the meat in our diet as a welcome change. Groups such as Earthsave have also begun to demonstrate that we can do more to save the planet from the ravages of climate change by becoming vegetarian than by buying a Prius. And eating meat undeniably plays a role in our escalating health-care bills.
First, let me explain my standing on this issue. I spent 13 years as a reporter and managing editor for Michigan Farmer, at a time when industrial agriculture was tightening its grip on our food production system. And in addition to Lansing Online News, I founded Sustainable Farmer, which is dedicated to providing food and fiber producers the information they need to raise plants and animals with respect for the planet and all living things.
I remember walking into one of the first huge swine CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) in southwest Michigan about 30 years ago. A followup trip to a poultry facility made me a vegetarian overnight.
The treatment of the animals was only part of my concern. The invention of the CAFO transformed manure from being liquid gold that enriches our soils into a pollutant that threatens our water supply. Packing living things together also means you increase the likelihood of producing new and dangerous pathogens – and to keep them from dying of disease, we all too often pump them full of antibiotics, thereby reducing the likelihood these lifesavers will still be effective when we need them to treat our own health problems.
Growing millions of acres of “commodity” crops such as corn and soybeans at a cost to the taxpayer of more than $8 billion in subsidies last year has resulted in distorted priorities where excess corn is turned into the high-fructose corn syrup that scientists are finding plays a major role in our horrific rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.
Just last year the Centers for Disease Control estimated that obesity is costing us $147 billion a year in health-care costs – perhaps double the price tag a decade earlier. Our cheap food policy isn’t so cheap after all. Yet why do we continue to allow companies to put high-fructose corn syrup in infant formula? Is it because Big Farm and Big Food have more power than we do?
More and more university-based researchers are beginning to share their concerns that our current system is unsustainable. One called the future Farmageddon. Yet the pushback from Big Farma’s moneyed interests means they do so at their peril. As I learned in my work with Michigan Farmer years ago, universities and the farm press are so dependent on Big Farma for grants and advertising dollars that it is hard to fund and promote alternatives.
Who will pay for the study that shows the potential dangers of GMOs? Who will fund research into farming alternatives that do not require a new and patentable product whose revenue stream is shared by corporations and universities alike?
The situation is becoming increasingly critical. Climate change and population pressures are dramatically reducing the amount of water available to farmers in California, where 50% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States are grown. The same pressures threaten to reduce the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables we can import from other countries, and that does not even speak to the issue of how long we can afford to waste our remaining oil supplies shipping produce such long distances, especially since doing so reduces the levels of vitamins, micronutrients and phytochemicals they contain – and that we need.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. Yet current USDA farm policy says that farmers who receive subsidy payments for growing those commodity crops of corn and soybeans would lose those payments if they divert part of their acreage into growing fruits and vegetables for the local market. (The California fruit and vegetable lobby is powerful.)
John Schneider needs to understand the importance of changing the rules so that Michigan farmers can diversify into so-called “specialty crops” (the fruits and vegetables the rest of us think of simply as “food.”) Or he might want to read the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s press release last month about concerns that President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are reneging on promises to fund on-farm conservation efforts, while preserving subsidies for mega-growers.
Many friends are willing and able to pay a bit more to support farmers who want to grow fruits and vegetables for local consumption. In this era when our food safety appears to be eroding rapidly, we need to do more than make informed food choices ourselves. We need significant changes in our food policies so that our tax dollars support local growers who want to provide us affordable fresh produce.
Yet it is difficult if not dangerous for critics of the existing system to speak out. Those who do face enormous push-back from entrenched moneyed interests whose dominant oil-and-chemical based food production model is threatened by the proposed changes.
To show you the depth of the fear, Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma, who is coming to campus to speak about the changes needed in our food system, always requires that his hosts pay for extra security because of the threats to his safety he regularly receives. (Don’t look for a link – no one is so far willing to go on the record but this comes from more than one source.)
EDITOR’S NOTE: I am notoriously old, cranky, impatient and outspoken. Maybe I am the canary in the coal mine – or the crazy aunt in the attic. But I believe the time for positive change is now. Whether the issue is health care or food, the choice is between propping up a system that is ultimately unhealthy and unsustainable or transitioning to new models that will make us and the planet healthier. Supporting small and sustainable agriculture could enrich a new generation of agri-entrepreneurs. And even if you think I’m crazy, you might want to start learning how to grow some of your own food – just in case.