The idea of refashioning a multi-trillion dollar global industry that seems to require advanced understanding of microbial activity in the soil, livestock antibiotics resistance, advanced storage techniques and international trade treaties is almost enough to send anyone straight to the local convenience store for an aspirin, Pringles, and a Big Gulp full of high fructose corn syrup-based “soft drink.”
And yet it’s an idea that’s really caught on. It wasn’t long ago that Pringles and Pepsi were two of my fundamental dietary staples. I had no understanding whatsoever where each of them came from. Nor from whom, nor from what. Nor at whose expense and to whose profit. Nor did I actually care. One was salty, one was sweet, and I had the munchies: problem solved.
Then, like so many others, I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book that launched a thousand farmers markets. I’m not sure what moved me most—the horror show that is “factory farmed” animals, the insanity of a corn-based diet in itself entirely dependent on fossil-fuel derived herbicides and pesticides, the entirely counter-productive efforts by our government to mass produce a surfeit of sheer crap—but moved I was.
Still, I felt helpless, the way I often do when confronted with one behemoth or another—say, electoral politics, or unfettered capitalism. But learned two things pretty quickly: there’s an advisable relationship between our actions and the global foodscape, and unlike many other forms of resistance and revolution nearly every step down this road is an increasingly joyful one. With that in mind, I’ve come up with my personal set of recommendations for anyone who wants to make sustainability a part of their menu:
Read some books. Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, along with his short treatise In Defense of Food, a delightful primer on how to eat. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation woke up the country up much as did Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle over a century ago. Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved is literally all over the map, from Southeast Asian rice paddies to urban “food deserts.” Food Fight is a heavily-graphic laden book on the Farm Bill that actually makes the subject entertaining. Ben Hewitt’s account of Hardwick, VT, The Town That Food Saved, provides a hopeful look at alternative ways of feeding ourselves.
Organize. I highly recommend joining NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association). The quarterly newspaper is as dense as is the terrific three-day conference at U-Mass (Occupiers, take note: you can pitch a tent in the center of campus that week). SEMAP (Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership) is a treasure-trove of information including a slew of excellent events.
Buy local and direct. While writers from Bill McKibben (in Deep Economy) to Barbara Kingsolver (in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) have adopted the “100 mile diet,” here in Massachusetts you quickly learn what can’t be sourced within that radius. Start by replacing one item in your diet at a time based on cost and availability. Some stuff you’ll replace, some you’ll begin to eschew altogether, and, yes, some you’ll continue buying in a processed and packaged form from the west coast. But those ratios will gradually change.
Try to tread lightly through moral quandaries. Don’t get too hung up on issues of “organic vs. local” or whether you can sample the chicken at your aunt’s dinner table. Everything you purchase that is locally or sustainably produced is a step in the right direction. Work on the right steps, and don’t fret over the others.
Take some classes. If you want to study crop rotation, Bristol County Community College offers a certificate program in Organic Farming. Interested in the policy side? The Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition grants a BS in Agriculture, Food & Environment. Plenty of other colleges and universities are doing the same.
Learn a skill. Becoming adept any one particular thing makes you a valuable participant and consultant. Whether it’s tuning up a tractor or staking tomatoes, developing some specific expertise and sharing it is of value to all eaters.
Think ecologically. Food lies at the nexus of politics, health and nutrition, climate (and climate change), finance, international commercial agreements, transport,et cetera. It’s one of our most primal appetites, and is also the subject of the most bleeding-edge technological experimentation going on. In other words, it’s complicated and it’s rife with paradox. Find your place in it.
Get political. Legislators actually listen, especially on the state level. My first experience testifying before a legislative subcommittee came a few years ago, when I spoke on behalf of a bill to grant the same breaks to “microfarmers” as they do farms of five or more acres. On the federal level, pay attention to the Farm Bill.
And, of course: Till. Sow. Tend. Reap. No matter how global and abstract your own feelings about food may be—grow some. All you need is water, sunlight, soil, and a seed. If you have an acre, sow an acre. If you live in a rented room, grow window herbs. My bible is Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower.
Cook. I’d also add: don’t preach—feed . Your meals are your best testament. In this case, the way to people’s hearts and minds is through their bellies.
Oh, and one last thing. Drink local craft beer. There is a stupefying large variety of them around. I recommend sampling at least one of each.
Michael Horan can be reached at michaehoran at comcast dot net.