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Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Cheap, Industrial Food Let Us Forget

On Thursday last week, I attended the Food Alliance Sustainable Food Industry Forum and Gala along with a few hundred other regional food producers, processors, and others passionate about making sustainable eating a way of life accessible to all. After an afternoon of hearing what the general public thinks about the term “sustainable” and discussing sustainable sushi with the founders of Bamboo Sushi here in Portland, I sat at a table of Country Natural Beef ranchers from eastern Oregon and southern Idaho for a delicious dinner highlighting seasonal foods from our region. After dinner, Paul Roberts author of The End of Oil and more recently, The End of Food, started out his keynote address by asking, “How self-sufficient should we be?”

He went on to briefly outline the now well-known history of the rise of industrial agriculture, but in a twist not often mentioned, he cited the farming know-how that was lost with the rise of monoculture. One hundred years ago, farms is Iowa and Oregon looked much the same, with a mix of row crops, field crops, and livestock. Farmers were “integrated systems specialists,” who knew how to conduct the orchestra of plants, animals, soil, water, and sunlight that made up the 19th century family farm. Today, farmers in Iowa specialize in growing corn, soybeans, and little else. While many of us know of many farms in Oregon full of variety, here too we have vast grass farms, single-fruit orchards, and feedlots. With that specialization and dependence on cheap oil for machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and transport, farmers have lost the knowledge necessary to manage the diversity essential to maintaining truly healthy, vibrant farms.

According to Roberts, ordinary citizens (aka consumers) have also lost once knowledge thanks to their dependence on processed foods made possible by cheap, abundant oil. As an answer to his question about how self-sufficient we should be, he argued that along with supporting smaller scale, diversified farms, he said, we all need to learn how to prepare food at home again. Know anyone who’s helping people with that? As he spoke, the group of ranchers I’d gotten to know over dinner all turned to me and smiled. Validation is a wonderful sensation!

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