Three Scenarios for the Future of America’s Food

Slow is Beautiful (and delicious)

Organic Vs. Local

Three Scenarios for the Future of America’s Food

Agriculture’s Next Frontier

Havana’s Homegrown Revolution

The Edible Schoolyard

Hungry For More?

This is a time of great upheaval in the American food production system, ranging from the boom in natural food stores to the unparalleled power of multinational agribusiness companies. There are solid hopeful signs amid the ongoing trends of dwindling family farms, massive livestock feedlots, and more new products on the grocery shelves packed with artificial ingredients.

Who would have guessed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would receive more than 275,000 responses to its attempt to water down the ‘organic’ label? Who would have predicted the strong tide of consumer resistance to genetic engineering of food? Who would have expected that farmers throughout the world would join with labor, youth, and environmentalists to help scuttle World Trade Organization plans for expanding corporate dominance of global trade? It’s anyone’s guess where all this is leading, and what shape food production will take in the future. Here are three possible scenarios, all based on current trends.

Business as Usual: Agriculture continues much as it is–large, industrialized operations produce commodities in bulk quantities, shipping them all across the world. Meanwhile, smaller growers serve local and niche markets. Sustainable and homegrown products gain some ground, but large corporations make major inroads into the increasing market for organic food. New environmental laws limit the most obvious ecological problems caused by bigger industrialized farms, but the overall quality of the rural environment declines. Depopulation of the countryside continues as fewer people make their living from the land.

A Global Assembly Line: More thrilling for the captains of agri-industry and more chilling for the rest of us, is a scenario characterized by even more rapid agricultural industrialization and globalization. This vision is laid out in an editorial in Feedstuffs (Sept. 13, 1999), a trade journal for the farm industry: ‘Based on the best estimates of analysts, economists, and other sources interviewed by this publication, American agriculture must now quickly consolidate all farmers and livestock producers into about 50 production systems . . . each with its own brands . . . However, putting these systems together will be a Rushmorean task that must begin now and be done with a sense of urgency. It is time to say to the voices of anger and fear and resistance that they either need to join the process or get off the mountain.’ (Those who question genetic engineering and global ‘free’ trade are the ones referred to as the ‘voices of anger and fear and resistance.’)

Many economists tell us that this world of industrialization and globalization is not only inevitable, but that it is innovative, and stimulates new products that consumers crave. We should question whether rubbery factory-farm chickens and strawberries tasting like cardboard constitute a consumer’s paradise. But even more is at stake. We simply cannot continue the squandering of natural resources (including topsoil) and the toxic and biological pollution caused by this model of agriculture.

A Different Meal in Every Town: Another possibility is emerging all over the world, characterized by entrepreneurial, ecological, regional food systems. People buy local food because they trust it. Some large companies provide out-of-season and exotic foods, but a growing portion of our food comes from local farmers, many of whom welcome us to their farms to pick fruit or enjoy bed-and- breakfast accommodations.

Cattle and sheep are weaned from grain diets and put back to pasture, eating the grasses that their bodies were designed to digest. Manure is an asset instead of a liability, and it is applied to the soil in addition to crop rotation to undo the damage of industrial agriculture. Good farming practices increase the soil’s capacity to retain water, which is greatly needed with the now long summer droughts associated with a shifting climate.

The enormous research and educational budgets of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land grant universities are devoted to promoting sustainability–replacing chemicals and machines with intelligent, nature-friendly innovations.

Individuals become healthier and cancer rates decline as we eliminate the toxic load of pesticides from plants, soil, water, air, and our bodies.

We still eat bananas in Vermont, but long-distance trade is less central to our food supply. As fossil fuel energy becomes more scarce, we re-create local and regional food systems, which help us to reinvigorate a sense of local community and grassroots democracy. We enact policies to restrict the power of large companies to control our food supply. We ensure that farmers receive adequate compensation not only for their production of food but also for their stewardship of the countless ecological, cultural, and historical features of the American countryside.

Hal Hamilton, a Kentucky dairy farmer for 15 years, is now agriculture director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont. From Yes! (Summer 2000). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

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