Avoiding agricultural meltdown

By John Rockefeller, Special to the BDN
Posted Dec. 04, 2008, at 7:48 p.m.

Having spent the Thanksgiving weekend with a wide array of friends from across Maine, I was afforded a chance to exchange views on the latest iterations of our financial meltdown, and what it might mean to gatherings such as the Thanksgiving dinner table in years to come. While pondering the bounty of culinary options on the dinner table before me I realized that the current bailouts in the banking and insurance sectors should be redirecting our attention to a sector of far greater importance to our well-being — that which provides the most fortunate among us with a healthy and sustainable supply of food.

The term “food security” is still an abstraction for many of us Americans. After all, we live in the country with the lowest point of sale consumer cost for food in the world. We also live in the most centralized zone of corporate food control, with an ever smaller group of producers and distributors consolidating our nourishment into market shares through the efficiencies of vertical integration. Much of the food that enters this chain of distribution is grown and transported great distances to reach our tables.

This combination of centralization and wide geographical sourcing has everything to do with our recent history of bargain mortgages and bundled risk profiteering. It focuses on driving costs down and profits up, while never looking beyond the ledger sheet toward safety or sustainability. These practices should also conjure up the image of our current health care system, which has been constructed across the same fields of market efficiencies and company profits balanced against a public right to health.

In practical terms, we are living in a time when a single failure in our food production and distribution chains could eliminate a large percentage of our available foods, while driving costs up on the remaining food source options. In this situation our model of cost efficiencies, which have undoubtedly reduced point of sale costs in the short run, would collapse in much the same way that that mortgage funding has since being faced with the realities of issuing unsustainable loans.

Losing our food sources would certainly rival the loss of our homes. How would we approach a solution if there were no local sources from which to draw for our basic nutritional needs? In the case of home loss, there are options for rental of a temporary space, or cohabitation with other family members or friends. In the case of food, we would have to create a local solution to source our foods.

This move to local sourcing would not be quickly accomplished if our local options had in fact been closed down during the agricultural centralization of recent decades. Where would this leave us, living as we do, in the rural portions of Maine? I hesitate to follow this to the destructive conclusion it would engender, but it is high time we had the courage to address food in precisely this manner.

All of these issues may sound like doomsday-scenario-building, but when you start to pull the string on our current system of food production, it makes the control of oil and mortgage financing look more like minor inconveniences than modern tragedies. Food is the centerpiece in our physical existence, and should be guarded far more intensely than any other asset. Our national security is certainly premised as much on a solid food system as much as it is on availability of high-grade tactical weaponry, yet we exert no effective influence on its sustainability or management.

The issues in food safety and security are admittedly complex, starting with the overuse of antibiotics in farmed livestock operations, lack of proper disposal techniques for soaring concentrations of animal waste products that are reaching and polluting our water supplies, and perhaps the greatest danger being presented by the decimation of support for local and family farms in favor of huge agribusiness conglomerations. If we had supported our family farms and local agricultural operations over the past quarter century, we would not be facing the prospect of a centralized industry collapse based entirely on profits being reaped by a very small portion of our corporate sector, and in abeyance of the rights of a vast majority of our population. Is it not time we took the wheel on this issue before we witness the next, and without a doubt, worst systemic collapse in our nation’s history?

Thanksgiving is certainly a good time to exhibit a fondness for food. But until we truly consider sustainable practices to ensure that our food does not go down the same road as our failed financial sector, we are powerless to ensure its safe arrival at our tables in the years to come.

John Rockefeller is a nonprofit development consultant in Camden and a former trustee of the Camden Public Library. He can be reached at rockefeller@zeroconsult.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/12/04/opinion/contributors/avoiding-agricultural-meltdown/ printed on September 16, 2014