Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants if you prefer. The peasant system is not only here for good, it’s arguably more efficient than the industrial model. According to the ETC Group, a research and advocacy organization based in Ottawa, the industrial food chain uses 70 percent of agricultural resources to provide 30 percent of the world’s food, whereas what ETC calls “the peasant food web” produces the remaining 70 percent using only 30 percent of the resources.These are the words of Mark Bittman of the Sunday NY Times Opinion Pages. I've been following Bittman's writing since my boys bought me his cookbook, How To Cook Everything, a few years ago. His ideas, as well as his cooking style, matched my own and I've been watching him insert difficult topics into everyday cooking conversations. While he writes about food, he also makes people think about how they eat and what they eat. I hope that he helps people change their approach to food as well.
Which is why I want to share his opinion piece with you. I've seen many people on DailyKos argue that we can't feed the world without BigAg. That's exactly the topic that Bittman tackles and he explains very well why we can and must feed the world through 'peasant farming.'
My friend and CSA farmer, Jim Muck, in Wheatland, California would laugh to hear himself called a peasant. It brings forth images of masses of the poor holding out their hands for a meager loaf of bread while Marie Antoinette says, "Let them eat cake!"
But these are exactly the 'peasant farmers' that Mark Bittman is referring to, at least here in the United States... American farmers are very different from peasant farmers where I live now in Ecuador but take away the issue of money and their accomplishments are very much the same. Peasant farmers around the world work small plots of land, especially in comparison to BigAg where one company monocrops hundreds to thousands of acres in a single location. Peasant farmers plant a variety of produce and very often peasant farmers have animals on the farm as well. Peasant farmers know their land and they know the people to whom they sell their food. They are true producers in a local economy rather than in the broader global economy (exceptions to the rule might be argued, such as small growers of coffee and chocolate where there is an expanded market for their goods).
Bittman points out in his editorial that though Big-Ag produces more food per acre, "small landholders can produce more food (and more kinds of food) with fewer resources and lower transportation costs (which means a lower carbon footprint), while providing greater food security, maintaining greater biodiversity, and even better withstanding the effects of climate change."
So critics would say that of course farmers living in areas with healthy soil, access to clean water, and without war are capable of producing food for their communities. But what about those other farmers, the ones that struggle with arid lands and overworked soil, often because peasant farmers have been sold BigAg answers, like chemical fertilizers and monocropping. Bittman argues that these are problems not of farming but of poverty and a lack of justice. Our desire to approach this issues as one of food security only exacerbates the problem. The root cause can often be tied to poor governance:
Often that’s a result of cruel dictatorship (North Korea) or war, displacement and strife (the Horn of Africa, Haiti and many other places), or drought or other calamities. But it can also be an intentional and direct result of land and food speculation and land and water grabs, which make it impossible for peasants to remain in their home villages. (Governments of many developing countries may also act as agents for industrial agriculture, seeing peasant farming as “inefficient.”)And the cycle is devastating because because once peasant farmers lose their farms they have little option but to chase after jobs where they exist, in the big cities. They become another mouth to feed and often rely on the industrial food chain for the food they will buy.
Governments in developing nations could learn a lot from the United States. Bittman claims our standard diet "represents the low point of eating" and I would have to agree. We don't want the world eating like America but that is definitely where we're headed. I see it here Quito everyday where fast food options, both American and Ecuadorian, are easy and inexpensive and where people from the campo are moving into the city in increasing numbers everyday. Yet Ecuador still has a vibrant local farming movement; people still buy from the local markets even as the grocery stores grow larger and larger in the style of Walmart; there is hope that developing nations will figure it out.
But we as Americans need to figure it out to. And while government can make a difference, our choices are changing the food climate faster than Congress can make laws that would make a difference. So I ask you:
Where do you buy your food?
How much meat do you consume and how much of that comes from factory farmed animals?
Do you have a local CSA and do you use it?
How can you better support the peasant farmers of your community?
Have any other questions you would like to add to the list?
I look forward to your answers in the comments below. And please, go read the entire piece. Mark Bittman is well worth your time this morning.