Two Food Systems

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, September 24, 1999

Large scale poisonings by E. coli from a New York dairy farm as well as the flooded hog waste lagoons and millions of dead animals in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd demonstrate the real dangers of our rapidly expanding industrial food system.

This industrial model disconnects people from direct experience in producing food and separates food production from the elegant natural cycles that allow ecosystems to function. It creates concentration of ownership, extremely large-scale monocultures and highly-subsidized facilities which produce, for example, millions of hogs, chickens, pounds of margarine or 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 this system. Enormous 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, genetically-engineered and downright-dangerous inputs. The overriding goal in all cases is to achieve higher profits to satisfy investors.

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 of plant and animal species on Earth.

It also voraciously consumes soil, water, packaging materials and energy. In fact, the cheap energy from fossil and nuclear sources that is used to grow, process, transport, package and market food has become the most important ingredient in the industrial system. Proponents of this system 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, however, is not so good.

Fortunately, an ecological food system also exists and is growing. The basics of food production 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, food is largely local: 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 also of rural and urban communities.

The ecological approach maximizes the use of solar energy, recycles organic wastes and uses non-renewable resources sparingly. Practitioners of the ecological system strive to involve as many people 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 page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.