These essential questions are being raised more and more often, at least in California, and several local authors and filmmakers have addressed them recently in illuminating ways.
Offering useful information are Marion Nestle in her book What to Eat, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Lisa Brenneis’ delightful film about Berkeley’s Monterey Market, Eat at Bill’s; and Emiko Omori and Jed Riffe’s prize-winning new film Ripe for Change: Agriculture, Sustainability, and the Foods We Eat.
We’re beginning to see the frightening consequences of our disproportionate contribution to climate change. And we see unprecedented obesity in the United States, thanks to widespread consumption of processed food, high in calories from sugar and fat and low in food value. These two problems derive in part from the practices of corporate agriculture.
The evolution of agriculture from the family farm, based on local production and consumption, to large-scale, mechanized, fossil-fuel-dependent agriculture has provided huge quantities of corn and grains, much of which is processed into packaged foods low in nutritional value or is used for animal feed.
Industrial agriculture is a significant contributor to global climate change with its heavy use of gas, oil, and petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, including fuel for the trucks and planes that carry its products to markets around the world. Petroleum-based chemicals kill the soil and make the growers heavily dependent on their use for continued productivity.
Is this giving us food that is healthful and nutritious, or is it the means by which giant corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and Monsanto maintain their control of U.S. food production and siphon off our tax dollars by way of very generous agribusiness subsidies?
Ripe for Change investigates this question by examining two contrasting approaches to agriculture to be found in California—the agribusiness model of huge fields planted with a single crop and heavily sprayed and watered, to produce high quantity and uniformity at low (subsidized) cost, vs. small-scale and organic farming with the goal of producing flavorful and nutritious food in ways that are sustainable, by ensuring healthy soil, careful use of water, worker safety, and prices that reflect the investment of labor and experience. The film offers comments from defenders of agribusiness as well as those who have rediscovered the reasons for a local agriculture that connects farmers with the people who depend on their produce.
When David Mas Masumoto was ready to plow under the orchards he’d planted with his father, because their ripe delicious peaches had been displaced in the market by uniform, flavorless, undentable peaches at a lower price, his now famous essay on the dilemma struck such a chord with readers that he stepped back to reconsider just what he was doing as a farmer.
When Alice Waters realized that we could only recover a sense of what the pleasures of good food are if we introduce children to them, her Edible Schoolyard project was born. Masumoto and Waters describe these realizations in Ripe for Change, as do others committed to providing food in ways that respect and sustain the rich soils and wonderful climate that have made California one of the world’s primary food producers.
There are frustrating problems in our lives that are beyond our control, but we can make choices about what we buy to eat, and we’re fortunate in Berkeley to have a range of sources for fresh, local, affordable produce as well as writers and filmmakers in our midst whose work can educate us about those choices.
As part of an ongoing effort to print
stories by East Bay residents, The Daily Planet invites readers to write about their experiences and perspectives on living healthy. Please e-mail your essays, no more than 800 words, to firstperson@ berkeleydailyplanet.com. We will publish the best essays in upcoming issues.