It seems everyone is questioning the implications of the most recent economic downturn. Then, of course, we’ve seen corporate America reap the benefits of its own disgrace with our tax dollars and, therefore, at the expense of all of us. Corporate America along with government support just keeps hitting us over the head. It’s too much! While, there’s been criticism of Wall Street and huge bonuses to the likes of AIG, one sector that’s not been the focus of attention lately is corporate agribusiness and it also should be intensely scrutinized. It seems, however, we’ve gone through a transition economically but we’re beginning to see some changes locally that are encouraging, perhaps partly in response to all this. The interest in urban agriculture and more attention to food issues in America is a case in point and a counterpoint to corporate agribusiness.
Understanding the history of agriculture in America and the advent of industrialized corporate agribusiness is important to help all of us understand where we are now and what needs to be done. We will touch upon it here, but only briefly. But how corporate agribusiness weaves into our lives at virtually all levels has been insidious. It’s time to turn this around.
The United States is an urban country. Recent demographics reveal that 81% of the U.S. population lives in cities or suburbs of cities. One of the realities of this, however, is that many of the folks living in urban areas are former farmers or families of farmers who have been forced off the land in the 20th century – particularly since post-Second World War. This has been the result of an industrialized and increasingly globalized agriculture in America.
Corporate involvement in agriculture has also largely been intensified since post-Second World War. Some refer to it inappropriately as the “green revolution” – it should instead be called the “corporate chemical revolution”. It has led to the industrialization even of the basics of the food system and that being seeds. Whoever controls the seeds controls agriculture and farmers have historically been the caretakers of this most important and invaluable resource. Corporate America, the likes of Monsanto and others, have patented and genetically modified many of these precious seeds and by doing so have taken farmers, as much as possible, out of competition and away from being the caretakers of our food system.
When making the above statement about seeds, however, it’s important to mention also that many farmers and community groups throughout the world have taken action to counter this trend by saving seeds and therefore protecting our heritage seeds as much as possible. Organic farmers will access this important resource or save the seeds themselves for the next year’s crop as farmers have always done historically and that corporate agribusiness has been trying to prevent.
Sadly, the American public has not been vigilant in protecting itself or others throughout the world from corporate agribusiness much less from corporate supported genetically modified seeds. This has been coupled with an increased reliance on chemicals in our food system – even in some of the seeds themselves. Europe, for example, is wisely banning GMO seeds and has for some time. European researchers are now indicating that kidney and liver problems can result from GMO corn from seeds produced by the Monsanto. This will be debated for some time as Monsanto will do whatever it wants to do in twisting the facts to benefit itself – the company has generally had the free ride in America. The point is, however, the Europeans use the “precautionary” principle for their population. They don’t let products possibly considered unsafe into the food system – they will take the necessary precautionary steps before allowing potentially unsafe foods into their countries. Why don’t we in America apply the same principle? Why should we let Monsanto experiment on us and others throughout the world?
Americans have essentially handed over their food and well being to corporate agribusiness. We’re all vulnerable because of that. We’ve seen our communities become more obese, with more high blood pressure, cancers and a whole host of problems we are now trying to contend with. “Food” writer Michael Pollin wisely makes the point that when going to the grocery stores people should only buy what’s on the periphery of the store because that’s were all the fresh and healthy foods are generally located. That’s what we need to eat, he says, and not all the junk food from corporate America that have all kinds of additives and sodium and chemicals that have been partly responsible for destroying our health. How can we change this?
The hopeful sign in America is that in the last agriculture census in 2007 we have seen an increase in the number of small farmers in America and an increase in women farmers. We are also seeing an increase in farmers markets and direct marketing (farmer-to-consumer) generally across the country. These are positive signs. This is somewhat countered by the loss of middle range farmers and more consolidation of huge corporate farms as indicated in the 2007 census. Nevertheless, we are witnessing some positive changes in the agriculture landscape in America.
We are also seeing an increase in urban agriculture in America. With it jobs are being created along with healthy, fresh affordable produce all of which are now beginning to become available in communities throughout the country. Even Tom Vilsack, Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, has created an urban garden right on the property of the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington DC. The First Lady Michelle Obama has also initiated a garden on the White House grounds. The trend is a positive one.
Why urban agriculture? Because, we as Americans need to re-claim our food sovereignty. It’s as simple as that and as profound as that. Plus, most of us are now living in cities. If that’s where we are, we need to be growing our own food and feeding our own families and communities. Existing farmers in rural areas should be doing the same. Most are generally growing for corporate America with their major commodity production such as corn, soy, cotton or cattle. Some are engaged in diverse and healthy vegetable production but we need more of them. Rural farmers too need to be growing food for their families and communities as most have generally done historically. So farmers, whether in rural or in urban America, can be growing organic and healthy foods and all of us can be part of that solution by supporting them and encouraging this and/or in growing produce ourselves.
In addition to the above, and to summarize, urban agriculture can play a critical role in reversing many of the negative aspects of industrial agriculture. Urban farming enhances the health of metropolitan residents, creates “green” jobs, produces affordable locally grown organic fruits and vegetables; teaches people to grow their own foods; re-connects people to their food and the land; and strengthens the environment through reduced fossil fuel dependence.
It seems that turning away from relying on corporate America to generate wealth and well-being is perhaps one of the most valid positions we can take right now. We can do this by strengthening our locally owned and controlled economies, keeping wealth in our own communities and even and especially by growing our own food.
Heather Gray is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at email@example.com
K. Rashid Nuri is an organic urban farmer and agricultural educator in Atlanta, Georgia. He brings forty years of experience to this work. Rashid has lived and worked in over 30 countries around the world. He has managed public, private and community-based food and agriculture businesses. Rashid served four years as a Senior USDA Executive in the Clinton administration. He is a graduate of Harvard College, where he studied Political Science, and has a M.S. in Plant and Soil Science from the University of Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org