Local food is hitting the headlines. More and more regions are starting local food initiatives and thinking about food independence and ways to feed people within regional foodsheds, focusing their efforts on community-building and creating sustainable local agriculture that is also ideally affordable as well. Big ag in turn is lashing back, because of course this is its worst nightmare, with individual communities turning away from industrial agriculture and food sourced from remote locations; every bushel of local apples sold in a local store is another bushel that store won’t buy from a big distributor.
There are a number of lies industrial agriculture likes to tell about local food in an attempt to dissuade people and communities from pursuing it. One of the most obvious, of course, is that people can’t feed themselves locally. People clustered in cities can’t grow their own food and thus must get it from somewhere, big ag says.
Factually speaking, yes, people in densely populated urban areas don’t have their own gardening space. But they can have access to community gardens and it is possible to run extremely productive urban farms. In fact, industrial agriculture is not inherently more productive than intensive community agriculture; to the contrary, it can actually be extremely wasteful. High intensity cultivation is better for the soil, yields more food, and produces healthier food, because well-conditioned soil with healthy biology results in more nutritious plants. Furthermore, local foodsheds can include tracts of land outside urban areas that can be very effectively used for local food production, belying the claim that cities are unable to sustain themselves.
Big ag likes to claim that the application of chemicals and the use of patented seeds are necessary for high yields. Again, incorrect; responsible farming can generate high yields with less environmental harm, and at less expense. When you are not locked into a specific company’s seeds and chemicals, you can afford to create a farm that produces high volumes of food, and also manages to treat workers fairly. High yields also don’t necessarily mean food getting into the mouths of people who need it, which is something many people seem to have trouble grasping; yes, big ag produces huge volumes of food, but a lot of that food sits in warehouses or is used for non-food purposes. In the United States, where we have surpluses of many staples, people are still going hungry.
Growing food is the first step; next, you have to connect the food with the people who need it. This is not necessarily followed through by big agriculture, but it is on small and community farms, both because they are connected with their communities, and because they need to sell their crops to thrive. They cannot afford surpluses and supplies sitting in storage, because they don’t have the space, and need money for operating costs. They need people to eat, and many small farms are passionate about providing people with healthy, local food: they want people to eat.
The so-called ‘green revolution’ forced on the Global South is often used as a case study of the wonders of big agriculture. It’s more accurately a house of cards, which quickly collapses under any kind of scrutiny. In yet another example of philanthropic colonialism, companies imposed their own crops and methods on the Global South, with catastrophic results. People were forced to grow crops that didn’t thrive in that environment, using sterile seeds so they had to buy new stock each year. Agricultural companies forced chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides on farmers, totally changing the way they farmed, destroying their soil, and exposing them to significant health risks; some companies viewed these regions as a great dumping ground for banned or controversial chemicals.
Hunger is actually more extreme in some regions as a result of the ‘green revolution,’ no matter what big ag likes to claim. Instead of working with farmers and learning about their traditional methods, big ag imposed specific values on them, and the results were horrific. So much for feeding the world. Now nations that were producing their own food are forced to rely on food aid to address hunger, while farmers attempt to rebuild soil, and communities, to become independent again.
And people are surprised when nations reject donations of seeds and agricultural chemicals, preferring to focus on promoting domestic agriculture and traditional farming practices. Once bitten, twice shy, and many recipients of foreign aid have seen what happened to other countries. They are not willing to run the risk of damaging their farms and communities in order to receive assistance, even if it means giving up what appears to be a highly beneficial aid package. It comes at too high a long-term price.
Locally-based intensive agriculture is an effective way to feed people that both balances environmental needs and ensures that people do not go hungry. Big ag is determined to make sure that people don’t know about this, and goes to great lengths to suppress local farming and generate propaganda suggesting that the only way to meet the food needs of the world is to turn to industrial agriculture, great saviour that it is.
For an industry that claims to care about people, food, and the environment, it’s notable that big ag sues small farmers out of business, snaps up patents on seeds right and left, imposes Western farming and food values on other nations, and spends a lot of money branding itself as your friendly neighbourhood farmer. If big ag was really all that and a bag of chips, it wouldn’t need to try so hard to convince people.