The Good Food Revolution

SOURCE: Jeri DiPietro ( SUBHEAD: Given global warming, growing populations, and declining natural resources, how will we feed ourselves? By Claire Hope Cummings on 13 February 2009 in Yes Magazine - The island of Kaua‘i is one of the most beautiful and fragile places on earth. From above, it looks like a vibrant green flower, lush and pulsing with life, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Hawaiian tourist industry calls it “The Garden Isle,” comparing it to the Garden of Eden. The image of Hawai‘i has always been sold as a “paradise.” But there is another side to life on this island, one that visitors rarely see. image above: Traditional gathering of taro on Maui. Photo by Scott Crawford. From The west side of this tiny island is home to the U.S. military’s Pacific Missile Range and testing grounds, part of the longstanding military occupation of the Hawaiian islands, and to the headquarters of giant agrochemical corporations Syngenta and Dupont. These corporations test and produce genetically modified crops on former sugar plantation lands here and throughout Hawai‘i, along with toxic herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. It is the very worst of America’s “agrochemical military industrial complex,” imposed on the ancient homelands of a rich traditional farming and fishing culture, in the midst of some of the world’s most precious biodiversity. When I visited the west side of Kaua‘i in 2006, the local newspapers were full of reports of children from Waimea Canyon School who had been sickened by chemicals used on nearby test plots. As many as 60 people were affected, including teachers and staff. It happened again in 2007, with school children suffering nausea, headaches, and dizziness. In 2008, for the third time in three years, chemicals being tested for industrial agriculture sickened children and adults and sent them to clinics and the emergency room with tears in their eyes, holding their heads in their hands, or vomiting. The corporations responsible for the tests deny any role in the incidences. But the open air testing of chemicals and genetically modified crops is a now a persistent worry for people living in this small rural community. Local activists have suggested that the welcome sign at the Kaua‘i airport be changed to warn tourists of what is going on there: “Welcome to the Mutant Garden Island.” Instead of being a source of health and well-being for the land and people, the American system of industrial agriculture has become a source of problematic food and even fear. The connection to the military is the key to understanding how this tragedy came about. Most of the toxic chemicals used in agriculture came from the implements of war, such as nerve poisons and defoliants developed during World War II. And our military has been repeatedly used to impose our system of industrial agriculture on other lands, depriving traditional farmers of their livelihoods and redirecting their natural resources to the use of U.S. business interests. American plantation owners used the military to force the monarchy of Hawai‘i out of power. The takeover of Hawai‘i—the imposition of plantation agriculture on Hawai‘i’s traditional system and the conversion of the Hawaiian people to a Western lifestyle—is a case history and a warning for all of us concerned about the future of food. We are facing an urgent problem: Given global warming, growing populations, and declining natural resources, how will we feed ourselves? Before colonization, Hawaiians had a sophisticated system of land, water, and ocean resource use that fed populations equal to or even greater than those on several of the islands today (excluding the urban populations of O‘ahu). Now, residents of Hawai‘i import 85 percent of their food. The descendants of the first Hawaiians, like most native peoples who have been colonized, suffer from some of the worst poverty and diet-related health problems of anyone living in the United States. The food being imported into Hawai‘i is produced, processed, packaged, and transported using enormous amounts of fossil fuels. By one measure, the current U.S. food system uses 10 times more energy than it produces in the form of food calories. Even if you like industrial agriculture, its built-in obsolescence is a problem. When oil production peaks, and prices rise again, as they inevitably must, food in Hawai‘i will become unaffordable. What will happen when the gas pumps and grocery store shelves are empty? This is a question all of us will face, sooner or later, since we are all on what David Brower called “Earth Island,” a small planet floating in a sea of space. A Storied Land Mythologists like Joseph Campbell tell us that many creation myths are stories about how a food plant or animal came to people, usually as a gift from their creator. But invariably, these gifts came with instructions about maintaining respect for and reciprocity with the sources of one’s food, to assure its continuing productivity. These stories are central to the formation of a culture’s core values. And they affect us now, not just in how we feed ourselves, but in how we relate to the natural world and each other. A Hopi creation story, as told by Frank Waters in The Book of the Hopi, is a good example, illustrating the values inherent in the choices we make. As Waters explains, the continuity of the Hopi people comes from these values and the way corn forms the sacred center of their lives, kept alive in ritual and practices to this day. Since the beginning of their existence, the Hopi have emerged through several worlds. Whenever they were overwhelmed by wickedness or corruption, their world would be destroyed. Later, they would emerge into the next world. At each emergence, the Creator would give them corn for sustenance. When the people entered the Fourth World, the one we are living in now, the Creator decided to find out how much greed and ignorance there still was among these humans. Many ears of corn were laid out of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. The people had divided into many races, and each was told to choose, according to its wisdom, the corn they would take with them into the Fourth World. They rushed forward and took different corn ears—long ears, fat ears, and ears of different colors. The Hopi held back and waited. All that was left for them was the smallest ear. But, they said, it was like “the original humble ear given them on the First World.” They recognized that this corn would be the best one to help them survive the harsh desert climate where they now lived. Traditional people worldwide have developed long-standing symbiotic relationships among themselves, their homelands, and their foods. And their farming practices are intimately adapted to the places they inhabit. All over the Americas, people developed corn varieties that were finely tuned to local conditions. According to Boone Hallberg, a botanist and one of the world’s experts on corn, some of these varieties were drought-resistant; some withstood wind, crowding, local pests, and different soils; and some even fixed their own nitrogen. These plants are evidence of an incredible genius at work in the reciprocal relationships among people, plants, and place. New Mexican activist Miguel Santistevan describes how, in the Pueblos, each type of corn “drank” from its own river, producing seed that was specific to its own watershed. One of the world’s most influential creation stories comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. It is often told incorrectly, without the warnings and prohibitions that are in the story—as if the children of Adam and Eve were entitled to control creation. Whether you read this story literally or metaphorically, it has had a powerful impact on Western thought. Many scholars believe that our current environmental conditions came about because our society interpreted this story as a license to dominate nature. When told this way, the development of our military-industrial system of agriculture makes sense. We can see the long arc of history, the search-and-destroy missions throughout the ages, including manifest destiny and the conquest of native peoples, their lands, and their well-developed integrated food systems.

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