How do we sustain ourselves in a way that sustains the region's environment, food supply, and people's health?
If you're reading this article, chances are you're hip to the idea of eating organic and local perhaps you're a "locavore" who studiously prioritizes a diet grown within a 100-mile radius of your home. Perhaps you're a vegetarian who eschews animal flesh in the name of the environment, as well as health and ethics; or a conscientious "flexitarian" who only dines on sustainably farmed, humanely slaughtered meat. Perhaps you go the extra mile and buy a box of organics each week from a local farm. There's no shortage of individual responses to the ecological nightmare of industrial food.
But what is the city's collective response to unsustainable food? A new systemic approach is taking hold that goes beyond sustainable agriculture, to a bigger vision of sustaining people (farmers and consumers), communities, and economies, as well as the environment.
To Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, a leading California food reform movement, a core problem lies in the current system's values both cultural and economic. "We live in an environment where people want cheap food," often at the expense of sustainability, Dimock says. "We're over-dependent on pesticides that have disrupted natural cycles," and that have "created an economic straightjacket for farmers ... we've got to get away from these toxic chemicals without collapsing the system." Indeed, as oil prices have risen, pesticide and fertilizer costs have become a serious threat to farmers' livelihood.
Labor costs chew up a major chunk of the food dollar yet, farm workers toil for minimum wage in backbreaking conditions, and often live in ramshackle homes or canyons and ravines. Sixty percent of farm workers live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, meat factory workers suffer crippling injuries at alarming rates (roughly 20 percent a year) while laboring on brutal, dizzying-fast assembly-lines, typically for $8 per hour.
The solution lies beyond buying local and organic, and involves transforming food systems, locally and nationally (and globally) to meet an urgent array of needs: petroleum-free agriculture and food policies that build new infrastructures markets, distribution channels, and a diversity of farms centered on economic and ecological sustainability.
"It used to be about calories, now it's about health healthy people, healthy environment, and healthy communities," Dimock said. A blossoming "Buy fresh, buy local" label, an outgrowth of the Community Alliance with Family Farms, is building a network of local producers, distributors, and markets to simultaneously expand opportunities for smaller growers and access to fresh local foods for urban consumers.
But underlying tensions must be addressed: there are ongoing debates about what beyond reducing pesticide use makes farming "sustainable." Farms can be local and non-organic, or organic and non-local; or they may mass-produce a single organic crop for Wal-Mart or Safeway, depleting soils by monocropping, exploiting farm workers, and supporting corporate control over food.
Even in a city known for its conscientious consumption, industrially farmed and processed food remains a juggernaut. Fast food joints are plentiful, serving up fattening doses of unsustainably grown, heavily processed food. Most supermarket chains and smaller produce stores offer minimal organic fare at exorbitant prices, and often nothing remotely local.
More broadly, the city's food infrastructure is a chaotic polyglot of stores and restaurants, with little design or planning to ensure health and economic diversity.