17 May 2011

Local and slow versus industrial and fast food

The day began with an interaction with local foods connenction, Laura Daud. She tries to bring together the farmers through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to low-income people. Most of the low income people are either single-women parents or children or old. In terms of communities they are either Hispanic or Latin Americans or Immigrants (there are a number of them from Sudan). In the usual marketing channel a farmer gets 20 cents of the dollar paid by the consumer, but through the local foods the farmer gets about 90 to 100 per cent of the dollar paid by the consumer. The poor are used to less healthy food and effort is required to make them appreciate local foods with a vegetable and fruit diet. It is difficult to take them out of the habit of fast food which also is easily accessible.

Generally under CSA the farmer gets the food baskets to a common place from where people pick up their baskets. However, under local foods some farmers who deliver at home are tied up with old and physically disbaled households who will have difficulty in traveling.

Another problem about the poor is difficulty in accessing health care. Poor people can access some free medicare, but that will not help them for chronic diseases. Another thing is that when they seek care they will have no bargaining power. The insured always hve their insurance companies who negotiate and reduce the medical bill much after the acture care has happened but this recourse is not their for the poor who pay out-of-pocket.

The next stop was at the slow food restaurant Devotay. Food for international participants was waived by the owners Chef Kurt and Kim Friese. The tip on behalf of the participants was paid by Laura from local foods. The concept of this type of dining is to enjoy food in the company of people at a leisurely pace as against the fast, cheap and easy. After lunch Chef Kurt spoke us at length about the movement's start in Rome, Italy in 1986.

This movement is also antithetical to the industrial agriculture, which is being referred to as conventional but that is not the correct thing as it is anything but conventional. Its emergence is not even 50 years old and has failed. In the new method of cultivation, overall production has increased, but it has less nutrients and with more sodium and nutrients and vulnerable to more attack from insects, diseseases and fungus. The emphasis on producing big has now put us in a situation where a billion people suffer from hunger and a large number who are overfed with unhealthy food. In the United States it started in the 1970s under Nixon with the thinking that a farmer has to 'get big or get out'.

Another watershed in the United States agriculture is 10 Deccember 2001 when a Supreme Court judge (who earlier was an attorney for an agri-business seed producing company) passed a ruling in favour of utility patent (as against the plant patent). In the new scheme of things if the gened owned by a company is found in any other plant either because of pollination or whatever process the farmer has to pay the company.

The alternative to this is food that is associated with pleasure, awareness and responsibility. More importantly food should be good, clean and fair that is the producer of food should get a fair price. This is very essential not only in the United States and in other countries. In India, more that 50 per cent of the population are depenedent on agriculture. They are either farmers with an average holding of 2.5 acres (1 hectare) or agricultural labourers. These producers of food are also net buyers. Their status as net buyers is used to keep prices low, but the latter hurts them more.

One also needs to know that the recent prices increases of food are more to do with the middlemen and less with the benefits to the farmer. A sadder part from India is that in the last 15 years more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicides. More of this in Agrarian Crisis in India. To get back to Chef Kurt, I will end by saying that his co-authored book Chasing Chilies: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail is about the changing climate and the need for resilience.

The last meeting was with Mr Richard of Kirkwood community education centre and Mr Bard Buchanan, a distributor of Pioneer seeds who also provides extension on soil health managment with the use of global positioning system. The information here told us the advantages of being big - the corn-soyabean cycle. The need for foodgrade quality production when it is for human consumption and with less stringent requirements when it is for animal feed. We were told that more than 90 per cent of corn is now genetically modied and it would be probably about 80 per cent for soyabean. The contaminaton for non genetically modified is more for corn as there is cross pollination but for soyabean this is not there as it is based on self pollination. The advantages of genetic modified in reducing some pests/diseases was told, but its implication on other new diseases was not very clear.

Climate change is another important question. Mr Richard pointed out that the data with us may not tell us anything conclusively but then if we wait for data we would have lost out on time. Even with the danger of dubbed non-scientific it is better to be cautious than regret.

It has been a tiring one and it is time I call it a day. Tomorrow we move to Burlington, Vermont.

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