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 by development.
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
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
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.