EnviroThursday furthers global food crisis awareness

By Leigh Bercaw

Macalester was graced by the presence of Jim Harkness, President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, for EnviroThursday on Sept. 11 to talk about the “Real Roots of the Global Food Crisis.” Intrigued by the concept of “real roots” (what wily false roots must have been deceiving us all this time!) and lured like a cow to pasture by the promise of free food, I decided to attend-but not without hesitancy. Hypothetically, if I was unsure just what this crisis was, would I (hypothetically, of course) understand what was going on? Well, hypothetically, the answer was yes.

So what is this “global food crisis”? In a nutshell, we’re experiencing the downside of a global agricultural system prone to increasing volatility, characterized by increased concentration of market power, longer and longer supply chains, lack of support for domestic farming, loss of farmland and bad grain reserves-making China’s “strategic pork reserve” look pretty appealing.

I, being an ex-grocery bagger, can attest to the full spectrum of people affected: the health-conscious vegan grumbling about the rising cost of organic granola, the shoplifter facing charges who can’t afford to feed his family and surely college kids too, evident through the five heaping plates of first-years determined to eat their way through the cost of tuition. All of which seems insignificant compared to the “10,000 farmers who committed suicide in Punjab over the last decade.”

How did this come about? Harkness presents a reasonable explanation.

In the early eighties, the U.S. agricultural policies combined the power of high-yield crops with mechanization to produce an industrialized beast-our farming system-which flooded developing nations with low-cost agricultural products and led to globalization of labor, “undermining the very conditions on which our food system depends.”

As reports of increasing food shortages in Haiti, the Philippines and Mexico (all adopted the U.S.’s agricultural policies most enthusiastically) begin to frequent newsstands, the question remains: what to do?

According to Harkness, there are three possible outcomes. First, irreversible damage to soils and water cause agricultural systems to become trapped in a catch-22 of sustainability vs. productivity, causing prices to continue to rise and people to continue to starve. Second, we could also maintain the “business as usual” approach and wait out what could be part of normal fluctuations in a developing market. Or third, we move beyond what Harkness affectionately dubs the “politically correct shopping club” and encourage small, sustainable farming that will provide enough food to sustain the population without increasing the agricultural land base. This sort of vast redefinition of agricultural policy would have to include increased food reserves, increased affordability of healthy food and a more resistant market tilted away from today’s biggest corporate actors.

As I left the lecture, picking my nails and smacking my gums, enjoying the last remnants of free carrots, I was pleasantly surprised to have been presented with such practical, applicable information. Who better than hungry college kids whose closest grocery store is Whole Foods to relate to rising food costs?

I find myself motivated as well. Perhaps the time to “wait it out and see what happens,” is over. Perhaps it’s time to actually put myself on the line. Perhaps tonight instead of sneaking out of Café Mac with fruit in both pockets like a chipmunk preparing for the frigid winter, I’ll just eat what I need.

And perhaps, fellow chipmunk, you can do the same.