Two distinctly different visions for the future of our food system have emerged: one is industrial, the other is ecological.
The industrial paradigm urges society to amplify research and the application of intensive, high-input technologies for growing, processing and marketing food in order to feed an expanding human population.
Proponents of the ecological paradigm for our food system believe that if the human species is to survive, the work of feeding ourselves must be incorporated into the "larger task of restoring the health of local ecosystems" and communities. They "suggest that this requires not only a redesign of farming methods, but also of the entire food and agriculture system."* Producing and preparing food should become an integral part of our lives.
The basics of a food system are really quite simple. Soil supports plants which use sunlight to turn air and water into delicious things to eat. Animals turn some of the plants into other good food. Meals are prepared and eaten.
In the ecological model, the plants, animals and eaters share the same ecosystem. Wastes from one species nourish others by way of nature's elegant cycles. Growing and preparing food are integral to the culture, education, joy and the spirit of each community. While home, school and community gardens are the most important elements of an ecological food system, community-supported-agriculture projects, farmers markets, organic farms, as well as small and part-time farms (especially in urban and suburban areas) are also critical. All of these human-scale endeavors are expanding steadily here in the US and around the world. Grassroots organizations believe that these elements help restore the health not only of people and local ecosystems, but of rural and urban communities, as well.
The approach of the industrial food system is very different. This system disconnects people from direct experience in producing food and disconnects food production from the elegant natural cycles that allow ecosystems to function. Instead it creates concentration of ownership, extremely large-scale monocultures and highly-subsidized facilities which produce, for example, millions of hogs or chickens, millions of pounds of margarine or millions of gallons of herbicide each year. It also tends toward boring, inhumane and oftentimes dangerous employment for its workers.
Because food is produced very far from where it is eaten, distribution becomes the most important element in the industrial model. Large agribusinesses use contracts with farmers, vertical integration and other forms of coordination to control the flow of food from "farm to mouth." Large chemical, drug, seed and equipment companies take an increasing share of farmers' earnings for their high tech, toxic, dangerous, and genetically-engineered inputs. Globalization of all these activities is big right now, with the overriding goal in all cases being higher profits to please investors.
While the ecological approach maximizes the use of solar energy, recycles organic wastes and uses non-renewable resources sparingly, the industrial approach voraciously consumes soil, water, packaging materials and energy.
In fact, energy from fossil and nuclear sources used for growing, processing, transporting, packaging and marketing has become the most important ingredient in the industrial food system.
This system discards farmers and their knowledge as it eliminates locally-adapted plants and animals in favor of laboratory creations. The industrial system is quickly narrowing the diversity of food plants that we eat and the diversity of plant and animal species on Earth.
Proponents of the industrial vision would have us forge recklessly ahead on their path, putting all our hopes for future eating into the hands of genetic engineers, large-scale, far-away farms and global food processors. Their record so far is not good.
Practitioners of the ecological system strive to involve as many as possible in the rewarding work of feeding themselves. They have found that local, ecological food production nourishes more than bodies. It nourishes spirits and communities, too.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
* This description is adapted from a speech by visionary, North Dakota, organic farmer, Fred Kirschenmann. He is a member of the board of the Center for Respect of Life and Environment and an officer of the World Sustainable Agriculture Association. Contact Fred Kirschenmann through firstname.lastname@example.org
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.