Sunday, March 8, 2009

New (and Old) Ideas for a Better Food System

From Food for Everyone, the Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine.

Solutions for improving the food system: restore seed diversity and native varieties, steward water, build resiliency, process locally and cooperatively, treat everyone fairly, get local foods to local outlets.

More: The Good Food Revolution


Restore Seed Diversity and Native Varieties

“My community needs its own food,” says Winona LaDuke, executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. “We cannot afford the industrial food system.”

Native American tribes across the country are rediscovering food plants well adapted to their regions and conducive to good health.

Among those reclaiming native seeds are the people of the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, whose White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) is restoring old, endangered varieties of corn and other crops once grown by native farmers.

Starting in 2001, the project began collecting traditional varieties of seeds. These strains are more resilient and don’t need petroleum-based fertilizer. The group focuses on crops that can thrive in Minnesota’s short growing season, such as Bear Island Flint corn.

Seed banks and individual growers provided the initial stocks. Working with seed breeders at North Dakota State University and native farmers, WELRP grew the plants to produce more seeds and keep the diverse strands alive.

Their work is reconnecting native communities with their food traditions, which include healthier foods that can prevent diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

More than 25 percent of native adults in Minnesota have Type 2 diabetes, according to WELRP. “We are doing this,” LaDuke says, “because we want to survive.”

Jon Sayer


Steward Water

Water is among the most contentious issues in farming, especially in western states.

New Mexico, where water is scarce, has a tradition of community-controlled irrigation that is making a comeback. The name for this system, acequia, refers not only to the network of canals that brings water to farmers across the Southwest, but also to the traditional community management of the water.

A few generations ago, nearly everyone in northern New Mexico understood this traditional form of sustainable irrigation. But the younger generation was losing that knowledge, says Miguel Santistevan, a teacher and biologist. In schools, kids were encouraged to learn high-tech skills and move to the city.

Santistevan left his teaching job and joined the New Mexico Acequia Association as youth program coordinator. Soon he was bringing kids to farms and teaching them how to maintain acequias. Students record the work to post on YouTube and podcast on Acequia Radio.

“By getting them involved in media production, we give them a voice,” Santistevan says. “But the content is traditional culture, so we’ve achieved two goals at once.”

James Trimarco


Build Soil and Resiliency

Across the U.S., about 90 percent of cropland is losing soil at an unsustainable rate.

In Salina, Kansas, researchers at the Land Institute are working to solve the problem from the roots up by breeding perennial varieties of grains that actually build soil. By crossing high-yield annual species like wheat and sorghum with their wild perennial relatives, the Land Institute aims to create food crops that don’t require intensive tilling, tending, or spraying.

“We have to farm the way nature farms,” says Land Institute founder Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist and fourth-generation farmer. Instead of row after row of a single species, perennial crops are grown in diverse mixtures that function like Kansas native wild prairie, naturally repelling pests and disease while storing water and holding soil and nutrients in place.

By mimicking ecosystems, farmers encourage and take advantage of the age-old evolutionary relationships between plants, soil, bacteria, insects, and animals.

The Land Institute believes ecosystem-modeled agriculture can be applied anywhere in the world, provided we look to nature’s example for cultivating plant communities that can also feed people. The result, claims the Land Institute, is “a wholly new way of farming” that will “make conservation a consequence of, not an alternative to, food production.”

Anna Stern


Process Locally and Cooperatively

In an area of the country where modern agriculture has devastated rural communities, the women of the Georgia Southern Alternatives Agriculture Co-op (SAAC) are independently processing and selling their locally grown pecans as a way of providing jobs for young women in the community.

In 2006, the co-op began working with the Equal Exchange Domestic Fair Trade program to package and ship pecans all over the United States. Their pecans are sold in places like food co-ops.

Kim Nochi


Treat Everyone Fairly

Food processing workers are at the very bottom of the pay scale. Many are subject to repetitive stress injury and other on-the-job hazards. Where unions exist, they improve conditions. But what can consumers do?

In early 2006, Rabbi Morris Allen struck a deal with Agriprocessors, a large meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, to bring fresh kosher meat to St. Paul, Minnesota. Two months later, a Jewish newspaper published a report exposing harsh working conditions at the plant. The report alleged that money was disappearing from paychecks, safety trainings were conducted in English for Spanish-speaking employees, workers were underage, and health coverage was overpriced.

Rabbi Allen felt “personally embarrassed” for putting his faith in the company. To him, a kosher seal means not just preparing and processing food according to the ritual tradition but also treating employees in an ethical way.

In the summer of 2007, Rabbi Allen, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism launched a program called the Magen Tzedek, an ethical certification awarded to kosher food companies that meet high standards in employee health, safety, training, wages, and benefits.

With over 10 million Americans buying kosher products, the Magen Tzedek assures consumers their food is produced with high integrity. As Rabbi Allen states, “Keeping kosher is the way in which I demonstrate not only a concern for my relationship to God and Torah but the Jewish concern for our relationship to the world in which we live.”

Kim Nochi


Get Local Foods to Local Outlets

Small, local farms have a tough time getting products into supermarkets, which prefer year-round deliveries. After years of puzzling over that dilemma, the founders of Portland’s Organically Grown Company worked out solutions. They convinced local farmers to stagger planting schedules. They purchased seasonal crops from farmers further south as needed. And they helped farmers showing up with muddy crates of beans to package their goods more attractively.

Stores loved the fresh vegetables, and the small nonprofit grew into an employee- and farmer-owned company of 160 staff. In addition to providing local organic foods, Organically Grown Company runs its warehouse entirely with wind power, fuels its trucks with biodiesel, and pays its employees wages that keep them with the company for the long haul.

James Trimarco