Yesterday was National Ag Day in the United States. The pinnacle of National Ag Week. The yearly opportunity to “build awareness for–and appreciation of–the role of agriculture in our everyday lives,” as the Agriculture Council of America (ACA) that has been organizing the event since 1973 puts it.
Why should we care? Because “eating is an agricultural act,” according to the famous quote by American author and organic farmer Wendell Berry. And we’re all eaters.
ACA has a point. Awareness for agriculture is sorely needed. Too few of us care about where our food comes from. We take its abundance for granted and our interest usually stops at our need for sustenance being met. Too few of us even care about what’s in our food. That’s the reason Ag Day/Week is a much welcome opportunity to cast a bright light on farming for all the public to see.
What kind of farming is being celebrated today, though? That’s where the story takes a bitter twist. Suffice to say that the ACA board of directors, and the list of the sponsors of the event, read like a Who’s Who of the industrial food system. The same one that brings us about 30 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, hormone- and antibiotic-fed beef, genetically-modified corn and soybeans, processed food devoid of nutrients, toxic contamination of our watersheds, soil erosion, slavery in the fields, salmonella-tainted eggs, deforestation, destruction of agricultural biodiversity and traditional farming practices in the name of the global free market, speculative trading on commodity prices, etc., etc..
Needless to say, National Ag Day/Week is not used as the opportunity to educate the public about any of these vexing issues.
The good news is, there is another kind of agriculture and food system to reckon with. The one that provides us with carbon sequestration in the soil, enhances the microlife that plants feed off, nurtures biodiversity and ecosystems, upholds symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, conserves water, upholds traditional practices, sustains communities and local economies, and, lest we forget, offers us nutritious and tasty food. Such a system is actually the one that has been recommended by the panel of over 400 scientists that developed the IAASTD report (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) over four years of a worldwide collaborative project funded by the World Bank. The warning was clear: “business as usual [editor's note: read "industrial farming"] is not an option” if agriculture is to “reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development.” The report was ratified in 2008 by 59 countries (the U.S., Canada and Australia abstained despite being involved in the project). Yet its public policy recommendations have gone vastly unheeded by these governments since.
In this context, I’m happy to share that I was blessed with celebrating agriculture, last night, by attending a talk by Mark Winne (pronounce “Winny”), the author of “Food Rebels.” Not content with drawing the familiar picture of all that’s broken with the industrial food system, he portrays many inspiring, “ordinary” heroes who make up the sustainable food renewal movement in America. From Cleveland, Ohio, to Austin, Texas, and beyond, leaders are rising from unlikely ranks to take on the “Big Ag” industry.
“We know that citizens coming together can make a difference. We need more people to be engaged with their food system if we want to bring about a sustainable food system. In other words, we need more democracy in the face of an industry that is omnipotent in the States- and Federal legislatures-,” Mark Winne said on Monday night at a CUESA-sponsored event in San Francisco. “There are tremendous opportunities at the local- and State-level to bring about change. We all need to get involved and hold your elected officials to account,” he added.
Getting engaged with our food system can take many shapes and forms. Here are a few suggestions: get closely acquainted with your farmers’ market(s); subscribe to a CSA program; favor local and organic food; learn to discriminate between all the various misleading certification labels for meat, milk and eggs (tip: “natural” means nothing; “organic“, “cage-free“, and even “free-range” are dubious); read the ingredients’ label before buying any packaged goods; educate yourself as needed about the issues at stake, and engage your friends and family about them; join a community garden; learn or teach how to cook/preserve/etc.; get involved in your kid’s school to improve food and/or develop a food curriculum; join a local initiative to change regulation in order to promote urban farming, or to defend the rights of farm workers, or to multiply opportunities for food-stamps vouchers at farmers’ market, or to <fill in the blank>.
What action are you going to take to answer Mark Winne’s call to increase our democratic engagement with our food system? Whatever you choose, here’s to celebrating a sustainable agriculture and food system this week–and beyond! So that we may enjoy eating food that truly sustains us and our planet for a very long time to come.