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The politics of food

Sustainable farming practices rely on democratic principles for getting healthy food to market


Politics is in every bite we eat.

Nothing is more basic to our survival than food. So of course, politicshow food is grown, how it is distributed, and how it nourishes usplays a key role in every food decision we make.

At issue for a small percentage of farmers is the devastation being wrought upon communities and ecosystems by the more conventional methods of monocultural, single-crop industrial farming.

They argue that the only way to ensure healthy farms, healthy food, and healthy communities is to have a deep respect for the biodiversity of life, which requires methods of farming that are organic, sustainable, and ecologically sound.

Often, they find themselves at odds not only with conventional farming practices but with governmental policies that allow the use of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They frequently lock horns with entities like Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, and other corporate giants that are moving to genetically alter and control the worlds seed stock.

At its core, the nature of growing organic food is democratic, said Dave Smith at the 23rd annual Ecological Farming Conference at Asilomar last weekend, which attracted numerous sustainable farming advocates and teachers from San Luis Obispo County and other points around the globe.

Organic agriculture is the deepest movement for peace, Smith added.

Smith, who co-founded Briarpatch Natural Foods Co-op in Menlo Park and was an executive assistant to Cesar Chavez, spoke for many of the 1,200 people at the conference by asserting the rights of citizens and the health of the planet over the tyranny of corporations like Monsanto, which are attempting to patent more life forms and develop genetically modified organisms to feed a hungry world.

Smith, as well as a number of other speakers, addressed the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition as a question of politics rather than the inability of indigenous farmers to grow enough food, taking issue with the claims of purveyors of GMOs as the solution to world hunger.

Hunger is caused by the scarcity of democracy, not the scarcity of food, he said.

Eric Michielssen, who with his wife, Dana Tryde, purchased 81 acres of land from the Woods Humane Society in Los Osos last May, is planning to incorporate many of the ideals presented at the conference.

Im a much different person now than I was a few years ago, said Michielssen, who packed in a lucrative career as a developer and decided to become a farmer.

He wants to grow organic food, recharge surrounding habitats and water systems on his land, and open the harvest to the local community. He doesnt want to rely on outside resources such as pesticides and fertilizers for his livelihood. It wont be easy, he notes, but its far more promising than the deadening desk job he had a few years ago.

Were doing it because we want to have fun, we want to have a place for our horses, and we want to grow good food, he said.

Once a staunch Republican, Michielssen was used to making lots of money, buying real estate and building condos, tearing up the land for profit. And every sale he made always seemed based on someone elses miserydivorce, foreclosure.

Every time I sold a house, it was a tear-jerker. … I hated being in the office.

Then, a development deal for the Eagle Creek golf course in Atascadero went sour.

I lost my ass on the golf course, he said.

The whole mess, he continued, made him realize that money wasnt everything.

I closed my Better Homes and Gardens office, sold everything, and paid off my debts.

Until then, he believed unquestioningly in the right of a property owner to do whatever he pleased with the land, regardless of its impact on the environment or how it may have affected others.

But now he believes were stewards of the land. His political views have shifted.

Theres more to life than profits over planet, he said. Hes been influenced by Kentucky farmer, poet, and essayist Wendell Berry; as well Japans Masanobu Fukuoka, author of One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. Both authors argue for a more sensible and earth-friendly approach to farming that has widespread appeal.

Michielssen admits that hes got a long way to go, theres plenty to learn, and the natural farming enterprise he envisions is more complicated and challenging than he realized.

But he comes from farming stock, raised in Watsonville and active in virtually every aspect of food production as a young boy: I grew up farming apples and berries, and loaded strawberries for Driscoll. He also worked in frozen-foods packaging and delivery.

At the conferenceknown simply as Eco Farm to manyheld Jan. 22-25, politics and democracy are focal points for farmers and food distributors who believe that the health of our culture depends entirely upon our agriculture.

Sustainable, ecological farming is probably the most political of farming methods because of its commitment to social and economic justice, and to its determination to keep a healthy balance in the earths ecology.

Its fundamental premise is that everyone has a basic right to healthy food, which of course means food that is grown organically, without GMOs or pesticides or synthetic fertilizersits impact on the environment helps create rather than destroy natural habitats, and is produced and distributed in a way that respects rather than diminishes life.

The farm is seen not as a factory but as an integral part of the ecosystem and the local community. The farms survivaland thus the survival of the community and local ecosystemsdepends on soil and plant life teeming with the richness and biodiversity of microscopic life that makes healthy food possible.

One of the worlds most vocal advocates of sustainable farming is Indias Vandana Shiva, a scientist and activist whose clarion voice and strident call for truth in advertising often raises itself against corporate giants such as Monsanto, which is patenting life forms and developing genetically modified organisms to introduce into our global food systems.

Shes a contributor to the recent book, Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, which also features sustainable farming advocates such as Wendell Berry, former Texas ag commissioner Jim Hightower, Santa Barbara small farm innovator Michael Ableman, and the Center for Food Safetys Andrew Kimbrell.

The book is the basis for the Organic & Beyond campaign, which seeks to reestablish our relationship with nature, the farmer, and the land. The campaign helps us to stop being mere food consumers and teaches us to be creators, and truly see and understand that each action we take in deciding which foods to buy, grow, or eat creates a very different future for ourselves and the earth.

Like many who attended the conference, the Organic & Beyond campaign seeks to maintain strong organic standards and to promote agriculture that is local, small-scale and family operated, biologically diverse, humane, and socially just.

The ultimate goal of this campaign is to replace the industrial agriculture model with a new vision of farming and the natural world.

In the book, Shiva writes: The ultimate goal of the current economic global system is that every place on earth should be more or less like every place elsea monoculture. Such a model serves the marketing and efficiency needs of global corporationsbut it is nothing less than a war on diversity.

And such a war, she contends, describing it as bioterrorism of the planet, is a disaster for communities worldwide, more so than the terrorism of states and other rogue nations.

During a workshop, Ryan Rich of Four Elements Organics in Atascadero and a handful of activists introduced the newly formed Californians for GE Free Agriculture, whose mission is to get California farmers to reject the planting of genetically engineered crops.

He later pointed out that evidence shows theres considerable risk to California agriculture through genetically altered crops.

Californias agriculture is such a huge part of the economy. The use of GMOs threatens export markets, consumer confidence, and the environment, he said.

Many countries dont even want this stuff. The consumers dont want it. Probably half or more Americans arent even aware of the issue.

More to the point, Rich argued, Whos going to pay for the genetic contamination of my crops? Already there are signs of cross pollination of GMOs with organic fields, where traces of genetic coding have been discovered in what was supposed to be a GMO-free product.

In one case, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser was found liable in a suit brought against him by Monsanto when it was discovered that his canola crop contained traces of the corporations patented and genetically modified Roundup Ready canola.

Schmeiser, who had farmed for more than 50 years in Bruno, Saskatchewan, claimed he had planted canola from his own seed stock as he always had since the early 1950s.

In 1997, his crop was contaminated through pollen drift from a neighboring farm that had planted Monstanos seed. Monsanto claimed that Schmeiser violated their patent No. 1,313,830.

Monsanto claimed that Schmeiser should pay because his crop revealed traces of its patented formula of the genetically modified canola. On March 29, 2001, a judge ruled against Schmeiser.

The judgment in effect implies that farmers can be compelled to pay damages to the company owning patents of GE seeds … found on the farmers land, irrespective of how they got there, reports a paper produced by Bija, a college for sustainable living founded by Shiva.

A justice thinking of justice couldnt have ruled against a farmer in that case, Shiva said. Its like saying I now own Pacific Grove because my mercury got into your water system; that pollution is natural and gives polluters property rights over non-polluters.

Thats insane, added Rich. Monsanto should be liable for contaminating his crop. California is the largest organic-producing sate in the country. We cant afford to take the risk. Its not even a risk, its a reality.

While the sustainable farming community focuses its more strident political activism on the false promises and unjust shenanigans of corporations like Monsanto, it saves its more friendly outreach for conventional farmers who have shown considerable interest in improving the quality of their own operations.

Hunter Francis, program coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium at Cal Poly, acts as a kind of bridge between the two communities, offering courses on sustainable practices and opportunities for students and farmers to see how its done.

I think the perspective is changing, he said, noting that where once ecological farming practices might have been viewed as elitist or suspect are now being seen more as viable options for healthier farm communities.

Organics is a $10-billion industry now. Its the fastest-growing food production system in the United States. As the industry grows, more materials and services will need to be provided, making it more financially rewarding to go organic, Francis said.

The political activism, while necessary in most cases, he added, can be a hindrance. It spooks would-be ecological farmers.

Thats something Im really sensitive to, he said, because of my position here at a university steeped in more conventional farming methods.

Organics is clearly a better option for everyone concerned, Francis said, but not everyone is convinced yet, primarily because of the potential expense and the risk of converting to organic fields.

Economics is a real issue for anyone considering this way of farming, he added. A whole new structure would have to be created, which would be very costly and time-consuming for some farmers.

Nonetheless, the interest is growing, politics aside. Yet, politics will continue to play an important role in how we govern the health of our farms, food, and communities.

More smaller farmers are expressing an interest in being ecologically sustainable, Francis said. A lot of the practices of sustainable farming are starting to be incorporated. It will take a lot of baby steps to get there. Æ

Stacey Warde is associate editor of New Times. He can be reached at

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