Saturday, February 11, 2006

Harvest for Hope

This week I've been working my way through Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall (with Gary McAvoy and Gail Hudson). After seeing Dr. Jane on campus a year and a half ago and having the privilege to meet her briefly, I was thrilled to see her tackle the question of sustainable agriculture in her latest book.

The book offers a broad overview of the myriad problems with industrial farming, from an excessive reliance on chemicals and fossil fuels, the waste of water and soil health, and the resulting environmental damage... to the economic misery of farm workers and small farm owners as well as the abhorrent conditions forced upon factory-farmed animals. In this sense, Goodall's book brings together a great deal of information from many other sources to present the big picture in a way that (one can hope!) will reach many more people on the basis of the author's fame alone.

Despite a frustrating lack of citations, the authors give a number of compelling facts about the environmental impact of what we eat:

...every calorie of energy we get from our typical high-travel supermarket food has already burned about ten calories of fossil fuel before it even reaches our mouth. (p.154)

The Rodale Institute calculated that America could comply with the Kyoto Treaty's demand for a 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gases simply by making a full switch to organic farming. (p.161)

Very little of what was mentioned in the book came as a surprise to me, since I have read so voraciously on the topic, but I found myself concerned that the lack of citations for such statements might lead critical readers to dismiss many of the claims.

Fortunately, Goodall makes a strong, positive argumen for what people can do to eat better and to make more environmentally conscious food choices. Everyone say it with me now: "Eat local and organic whenever possible!"

For all the reasons I've discussed before -- better land use, fewer chemicals, fewer fossil fuels used for transport, better nutrition, support of local economies and small farm owners, biodiversity, and so on -- local (and organic) is the way to go. And if you're still not convinced, Dr. Jane makes the case personal:

And everyone seems to appreciate the renewed relationship with their food supply that the local food movement offers. When you think about it, the act of eating -- putting something directly into our bodies -- is an intimate process, and it is only natural that we should desire a more intimate or at least traceable knowledge of the people, land, and waters that provide our food. (p.177)

One point this book makes that I don't often see in other places is that the amount of food we in developed nations eat is part of the overall problem with the world's agriculture. Trade of food products has increased greatly because

people in wealthier nations are consuming more and ever more of the food resources of poorer nations. We now have a global corporate structure where less developed nations are struggling with overpopulation, poverty, and hunger while they deplete their land and natural resources to feed people in other, wealthier parts of the world... And the small family farmers in the importing countries cannot compete with cheaper imported produce. (p.209)

(Don't think that's a problem for us? Think again. Recent reports indicate that the U.S. is on the brink of becoming a net food importer. If you're concerned about our heavy reliance on foreign oil, this trend should disturb you even more.)

With all the concrete examples in the book of how to make a difference in our food supply, Dr. Jane keeps a hopeful, optimistic view that we can find a better way to feed ourselves that doesn't inflict such damage on the world around us. And as always, her gentle example inspires, as do her closing words:

Remember, every food purchase is a vote. We might be tempted, as individuals, to think that our small actions don't really matter, that one meal can't make a difference. But each meal, each bite of food, has a rich history as to how and where it grew or was raised, how it was harvested. Our purchases, our votes, will determine the way ahead. And thousands upon thousands of votes are needed in favor of the kind of farming practices that will restore health to our planet. (p.285)

There you have it: Eat local. Eat organic. Eat less. And make your voice heard.

Thanks, Dr. Jane. Let's hope your words inspire many other people!

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