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by Judith Ford

Global, industrial-scale, “fast food” agriculture has been a resounding success for food convenience, standardization, and availability. Fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, cheeses and seafood are available any time, nearly anywhere, without blemish and packaged to last. Remarkably, Americans only spend about 7% of their disposable income on food, the lowest in the world. Yet this system has also aggravated a host of problems, including land and water degradation and conflict, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, human and animal disease, and forced migration. Today, industrial agriculture contributes 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, not including their transportation around the world, which also spreads pests and disease. Clearly, the 7% we spend does not cover all of the real costs involved in getting that food to our plates.

Proponents argue we need a global food system to “feed the world” and highlight the vulnerabilities of smaller-scale, local food systems to weather events, conflict and climate change. Yet, the scale of these vulnerabilities is limited to the community at hand; vulnerabilities of a global system are global in scale. When one cog in the giant wheel of global trade breaks, the effects are felt around the world. One clear illustration followed the volcanic eruption in Iceland when Kenyan farmers destroyed millions of dollars of food because their crops had been grown for northern European palates, not their own, but could not reach their target market. 

Along with the dependence such a system creates, this method of growing and conveying food disconnects us from the natural systems, which provide our food. Consumers are too distant from the source of their food to truly feel the environmental and social impacts of their production. Even when strawberries available in January are labeled ‘organic’, we know nothing of the journey that they have taken – the ownership, quality and care of the soil, water, labor, and transportation – to get to our shelves. Frankly, the anemic, pink things that pass for strawberries in January bear no resemblance to their juicy, bright red cousins of local strawberry seasons.

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Following two devastating world wars in the last century, trade dependency and central policy were seen as keys to repairing economies and preventing future conflict. Global commerce and governance flourished under the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, which were created after WWII under U.S. leadership. The dominant worldview of the U.S. at that time had been shaped by centuries of Protestant Christianity and science in northern Europe. Superior scientific knowledge and heavenly purpose of humankind – at least westerners – made us benevolent stewards, who could observe, measure, and centrally control the natural world to our benefit from a physically and emotionally safe distance. We treated the natural world as a single global commodity, which could be bought and sold. These ideas fueled colonialism, the industrial revolution, and free market capitalism. Political and corporate leaders linked the universal values of freedom, democracy, and well-being with American ideas of ownership, rights, growth, standardization, decision making, and happiness. Individualism became freedom; democracy depended upon free markets; and the pursuit of material wealth was the key to well-being. 

Yet, the very individualism, objectification, and pursuit of material wealth, “universalized” by the U.S., brought a host of social and environmental ills, most dramatically seen in the rapidly evolving crisis of climate change. As a result, not only is the U.S. the largest historical contributor to climate change, its impact has been magnified by the export of these ideas around the world. Proposed solutions for climate change continue to be constricted by these same assumptions. Solutions not fitting this global, central control model are dismissed as irrelevant. 

Acknowledging the limitations of our current system would break our illusion of control and safety from the natural world; those invested in the current system are not anxious to relinquish power. However, solving climate change requires us to recognize the assumptions we make, which constrict real progress, and consider alternative ways forward. Before we believed we could – and should – distance ourselves from our environment, humans saw themselves imbedded within the mysterious natural world around them. Decision-making considered past practices and future generations. Communities were sustained within naturally-occurring bio-regions, which defined identity, economy, and society. Today, indigenous peoples still living ‘in place’ retain this view of the world. They live in close physical contact with, and are more immediately affected by, their natural environments. In small scales of economy, actions directly affect well–being. “Protecting the environment” is simply in indigenous communities’ self–interest. Addressing climate change requires the kind of sustainable practices stemming from this same kind of self-interest, which can only be found at a community scale.

Slow Food proponents are deeply aware of the connection between the choices we make in sourcing, preparing and consuming food and the health of our community, families, and natural environment. Understanding this connection and working to resituate our food systems towards a bio-regional, community-scale holds the greatest potential to address global climate change. If food prices included a carbon tax, which reflected all social and environmental costs, strawberries from Egypt and roses from Kenya would become prohibitively expensive for the western consumers they currently supply. Communities throughout the world could shift towards growing locally-appropriate foods, using the bio-regionally-unique, sustainable practices that provided for their communities prior to colonial interference. This change could not happen immediately, since current global trade and aid policies have created a short term dependency. However, a deliberate move towards local food sovereignty, which ensures the crops grown are favored by local communities and preserve future harvest fertility, natural resources, and biodiversity, should not take more than a few seasons. Lest we think of this shift as a sacrifice to ‘save the planet’, scholars know that humankind derives happiness – not from the consumption, individualism, and artificial habitats that characterize western lifestyles – but from meaning found through the purpose, community, and contact with nature, which is richly cultivated within bio-regional communities.

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Judith Ford recently defended her PhD dissertation: ‘Climate Change as Metaphor and Catalyst‘, a transdisciplinary study inspired by experiences and observations made during two decades of experiences working in global advocacy, policy making, and business throughout Europe, Asia Pacific, and North America. After thirteen years in Paris and Amsterdam, where she originally joined the Slow Food Movement, she recently returned to her native California, where she relishes the natural beauty, community scale, and local food so revered in Marin County.