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Rethinking the Politics of Food by Fred Kirschenmann

An alternative food politics means that we must begin by expanding the circle of decision-making and ensuring that multiple and varied voices are heard. This is not accomplished through symbolic events or publicity stunts. New stakeholders must participate at all levels from the local to the international It is time for a new politics of food, one that starts from the bottom up not the top down.

- Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, President, 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly

By now it is obvious to almost everyone that food politics has captured center stage. Invite best-selling author Michael Pollan to a university campus and it stirs enormous controversy. A student writes a column in the school newspaper about the influence a corporate donor has on her university's educational environment and it causes heartburn for the administration. A neighbor complains about an unintended consequence of a particular agricultural practice and it becomes a source of conflict in the community.

It is, of course, perfectly understandable that farmers, food manufacturers and industry advocacy groups are defensive. They have made huge investments in infrastructure to deliver the kind of food - "fast, convenient and cheap" - that became the culturally accepted food paradigm for almost half a century; now we criticize them because we don't like some of the unplanned consequences. They invested millions of dollars to deliver a product they thought the public wanted; perhaps we can appreciate their lack of enthusiasm about calls to design an alternative system and new way of doing business. One can be especially sympathetic toward farmers since they are an aging population - almost 30 percent are now over age 65. Who of us would be enthusiastic about making major changes in our operating system at that age?

Nevertheless, our modern food "miracle" has produced significant problems. Our heroic determination to "feed the world," provide our country with cheap food, and "free people" from the "drudgery" of farming didn't all turn out quite the way we planned.

The laudable goal of ending hunger clearly has not been achieved. Today a billion people (roughly one-sixth of the world's population) suffer from malnutrition and 4.1 percent of U.S. citizens have very low food security. A 2007 Congressional Budget Office report entitled "The Long Term Outlook for Health Care Spending" projected that without significant changes to our health care system, all health care spending would consume 50 percent of the total U.S. Gross Domestic Product by 2080. Chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes, which are diet-related, are a major contributor to that increase. A commonly cited figure indicates that costs associated with obesity alone already had reached $117 billion in 2000. Major food safety issues (E.-coli, salmonella, etc.) continue to plague us.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis report points out that our specialized monoculture food system has played a major role in destroying biodiversity and biological health of our soil, both essential to the restoration of the ecological health of our ecosystems, the foundation of any productive agriculture. Through it all we have diminished the store of human capital (farmers) that we will need to address new questions in the decades ahead. In the United States, only 400,000 farmers produce 94 percent of our agricultural commodities.

It is sobering to realize that we have reached this juncture at the same time that enormous food-related challenges confront us. Among them are the end of cheap energy, declining fresh water resources, more unstable climates, the loss of both biodiversity and genetic diversity, the loss of soil health, an expanding human population intent on increasing its rate of consumption, while a rising number of people live in communities where they are denied access to nutritious, affordable food.

The lesson is that we do not have time to engage in a food fight. As United Nations President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann suggested, now is the time to
  • * expand the circle of decision-making to ensure that multiple voices are heard, 
  • * bring to the forefront the voices of scientists, community activists and above all, food producers, 
  • * represent all members of the community, and 
  • * link to global reality.
He states that this new discourse must be grounded in the fundamental principles of food justice, food democracy and food sovereignty, so that together we can "proclaim what should have been a fundamental right in every society; the right to food."

The Leopold Center is engaged in two experiments that encourage broad audiences to look at our food system. The first is an innovative knowledge system called "communities of practice" being used in the Value Chain Partnerships project. Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (authors of Cultivating Communities of Practice) define communities of practice as "groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis." We have found this approach particularly useful in addressing issues related to food within Iowa communities.

The other experiment taking root in urban communities is the concept of a "foodshed," similar to a watershed (see "Foodshed Analysis and its Relevance to Sustainability" in the March 2009 Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems). A foodshed is a designated area in which members determine what kind of food system will best serve the needs of their community. Ideally farmers and consumers are a foodshed's "citizens" who work together to meet everyone's needs. Such a foodshed is perfectly suited for the type of discourse described by the UN president as a "dialog that emerges from the bottom up" in which "multiple and varied voices are heard."

As part of our relationship with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York, I am working with the Urban Design Lab at Columbia University's Earth Institute and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to explore the foodshed concept in the New York City region. We hope to create a model that can be used in other parts of the country, both rural and urban, and can demonstrate "alternative food politics" which expand "the circle of decision-making" and ensures "that multiple and varied voices are heard."

A democratic approach to address food and farming challenges is a much better pathway than the acrimony that now seems to accompany food politics.  

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