February 3, 2003:
At a recent bio-terrorism conference sponsored by
the Harvard University School of Public Health, several participants
expressed concern that America's agricultural sector was the
most vulnerable to biological attack. "It's the perfect
target and the perfect weapon," said Tom McGinn, assistant
state veterinarian for North Carolina.
In a world that feels as unstable as ours does today, where
the omnipresent words "security" and "bio-terrorism"
and "threat" have turned all of us into hyper vigilant
citizen consumers, an additional measure of safety can be
gained by knowing where and how your food is produced. This
is why the development and maintenance of more regional and
community-based farming systems should be at the top of our
homeland security agenda.
It has been through the overwhelming force of the marketplace,
supported in large part by federal policies, that the United
States has developed a highly industrialized form of agricultural
production, food processing and distribution that is potentially
susceptible to bio-terrorism and other acts of human depravity.
With more of our food produced by fewer and larger farmers
who are increasingly concentrated in a couple of major agricultural
regions, we may very well have increased our vulnerability
rather than our security.
On the other hand, a large number of smaller farms, diversified
by size and type of production and scattered generously throughout
all regions of the U.S., stand as a prudent bulwark against
a catastrophic assault on our nation's food supply.
While efforts to increase security may be called for in these
edgy times, policies of support for a local agriculture offer
as much promise of thwarting bio-terrorism as any of the more
lavish and expensive proposals put forward by the federal
government to date. Maintaining a strong local and regional
agriculture base, for instance, requires a steadfast commitment
by federal and state government to the preservation of prime
farmland, especially near metro areas where it is most threatened
Farms such as the Holcomb Community Supported Agriculture
Farm, located just 30 minutes from Hartford, Conn., are one
example of how we can support local communities and farmers.
Members of this subscription-style farm visit once a week
from early June to late October to pick up a share of the
harvest. These shoppers have the added advantage of knowing
the farmer and knowing how the food is produced.
Similarly, there must be more public support for the development
of on-farm enterprises--such as cheese making and greenhouses--that
will give farmers a higher return from their products. These
programs would help support the Town Farm Dairy, just down
the road from Holcomb, where Bill and Agnes Walsh milk 40
Jersey cows, bottle and sell the milk right there on the farm
in old-fashioned glass containers, and turn what they don't
bottle into cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
Such efforts can also aid meat-producing farmers who wish
to gain a greater share of the food dollar by selling directly
to the consumer.
There must be an increase in public commitment to the development
of other direct market outlets for agricultural producers,
such as the 3,100 farmers markets that have sprouted across
the country. The growing trend of schools buying locally produced
food should be encouraged, not only because it helps farmers
but because it also gives students the opportunity to also
learn where their food comes from. Without a substantial commitment
to local agriculture, the security of our homeland will remain
at risk. Through our choices as consumers and our actions
as citizens, we can influence the future of local agriculture
as well as the safety of our food supply.
As shoppers, we can ask that our supermarkets carry and identify
locally produced foods. As voters, we can ask our elected
officials to stand up for small- and medium-size farms at
least as much as they already do for large corporate farms.
By viewing the farms tucked away in the hills and valleys
of our home regions as a vital part of our extended "supermarket,"
we will not only rediscover the pleasures of eating locally,
but also ensure a greater measure of food security for this
and future generations.
Mark Winne is the Executive Director of the Hartford
Food System in Hartford, Conn., and a Food and Society Policy
Fellow. The fellowship program is administered by the Thomas
Jefferson Agricultural Institute in partnership with the Institute
for Agriculture and Trade Policy, with funding from the W.K.
Kellogg Foundation. To visit the Fellows web site and browse
articles by other Fellows, go to www.foodandsocietyfellows.org
and click on “fellows in the media/by fellows”
from the drop-down menu.