Who’s getting fat off the fat of the land?
New report says California’s residents, farmers, citizenry, and environment suffer at the hands of global trade policies that favor corporations over people, communities and culture.

By Dan Sullivan

June 1, 2004: It’s back to the future, once again: A recent report documenting California’s broken agriculture system and prescriptions for cure unfolds by citing Robert Rodale’s Cornucopia Project of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Like the Cornucopia Project (which examined the problem across the nation), the new 134-page report, Ripe for Change: Rethinking California’s Food Economy, points to a flawed system that, though one of the most productive in the world, is destructive in its inefficiencies and motives of profits over people, it’s inability to sustain regional and local communities, and its negative environmental impact.

It’s almost as if the new report, published by the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), was researched and written to validate the dire predictions made by the Cornucopia Project, which included: “California’s present method of producing and distributing food—the present path from field to table—is , in the long term, unsustainable…The drain on water, soil, mineral and energy resources, the dependence on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, a small genetic seed base, large government subsidies, and the concentration of ownership at all levels…are fostering conditions which threaten the long-term viability of the entire food system.”

Ironically (and somewhat sadly) the new report calls for many of the same changes offered as solutions by the Cornucopia Project and resulting book Empty Breadbasket (Rodale Press, 1981) nearly a quarter century ago. These common remedies include establishing and promoting regional food economies, funding sustainable food system research, and changing public policy that favors multinationals over the welfare of humankind.

“Most people think that California produces ample food for itself and exports the surplus, but our research shows that despite being one of the world’s leading agricultural economies, California is actually a net importer of food, relying on outside sources for 40 percent of its total food needs,” ISEC Director Helena Norberg-Hodge stated in a press release announcing publication of Ripe for Change. “The majority of Californians are losing out. When global markets are prioritized over local markets, economic benefits leak out of the local economy, our food supplies become less secure, hunger increases, and the environment is degraded.”

Part of the International Society for Ecology and Culture’s stated mission is to “move beyond single issues and look at the more fundamental influences that shape our lives,” and the report follows that strategy by illustrating the sometimes not-so-obvious connections between different facets of the broken food system, such as the loss of rural jobs and increasing dependence on agricultural chemicals. The system remains fundamentally flawed, the report suggests, largely because policymakers have refused to acknowledge such connections, let alone the more obvious ones. This includes allowing big business to dictate trade policy abroad that undercuts what the domestic farmer receives for his or her products and directly relates to poor conditions and wages for U.S. farm workers.

Another glaring example the report offers up illustrating a broken food system (under cover of brisk trade) includes the grossly redundant practice of importing huge amounts of crops that are in-season in California, even while those same locally produced crops are being exported elsewhere. Rather than discourage these inefficiencies, the report points out, current trade regulations—set up and enforce by government and dictated by multinationals—sanction this type of behavior.

“The state is exporting $6.5 billion worth of food each year, yet over 5 million Californians are food insecure, which means they must do without such basic needs as utilities and medical care in order to put food on the table,” said the report’s co-author Katy Mamen. “For at least 1.25 million of those, it also means going hungry, and ironically, this problem is worst in the leading food-producing counties.”

Ripe for Change derails any warm and fuzzy connotation held by the term “free trade” and outlines how California farmers—and ultimately consumers and society—suffer when they must compete with food producers in countries where environmental and health and safety regulations are weak or nonexistent, wages and work conditions are dismal, and tax breaks are large. (The report also debunks the myth of globalization as an inevitable evolutionary process and offers the notion that it is simply a strategy by big business to use government to provide access to an ever expanding pool of customers and cheap labor while eroding local self reliance.)

Other problems hit upon—and connected to each other—include: toxic agrochemicals related to health and environmental problems, rampant obesity juxtaposed with hunger and food insecurity, the disappearance of the family farm and ensuing breakdown of rural communities, a rampant increase in food-borne illnesses and their connection to “modern agriculture, and technologies that abandon the precautionary principal (once again, to quickly line the pockets of multinationals) and turn U.S. consumers into lab rats.

The report describes how large-scale industrial agriculture and the global trade system upon which it survives and thrives are catalysts for catastrophe for agriculture (and community, and the economy, and the environment, and human health) in California and beyond. Ripe for Change: Rethinking California’s Food Economy then turns these revelations into strategies for positive change, calling for the creation and support of diverse, small-scale, and local food systems that treat the problem as a sick organism and tackle all of its ills at once. These strategies include changing local, state, federal, and international policy to support people and communities over corporate profits; food literacy (such as dispelling myths about locally produced food and educating consumers about the real costs of imported and out-of-season fruits and vegetables); and shortening the distance between producer and consumer wherever possible.

Ripe for Change: Rethinking California’s Food Economy offers practical tools and strategies for individuals, communities, policymakers, farmers and business to take back a once vibrant food system by creating relationships between eater and producer that recognize food as more than just a commodity, the eating experience as more than just a chore.

To obtain a copy of the Ripe for Change: Rethinking California’s Food Economy report summary or to request a CD containing the full report, contact ISEC at california@isec.org.uk or 510-548-4915 or go to http://www.isec.org.uk/orderformusa.html.

Dan Sullivan is senior editor for The New Farm. ISEC is a nonprofit whose mission is to protect biological and cultural diversity. The organization’s Ancient Futures Network seeks to bring together groups and individuals from across the globe sharing in the struggle to ma64intain cultural integrity in the face of economic globalization.