Crafting a New Food System

Goodlifer: Crafting a New Food System

Most of us in the Western world do not really eat food anymore, instead consuming what Michael Pollan calls food-like substances, engineered by food scientists to provide maximum “nutrition” (read calories) at minimum cost. Our food is so diluted with chemicals and genetically modified ingredients that our bodies have a hard time recognizing that which we eat as food.

The way we’re growing, distributing and consuming food has little relation to where it comes from. Supermarket aisles have become displays of colorful plastic. The earth gave us everything we need to sustain our lives on this planet, why are we messing with that?

Real food has become a luxury only afforded the richest.

Real food has become a luxury only afforded the richest. Photo by altemark, Creative Commons.

There has been much talk about the secrets of regional diets (The Mediterranean diet! The French paradox!). They are all so amazingly different, yet all seem to sustain healthy populations, whether it’s by consuming lots of carbs like Italians, fish like Inuits or even blood and milk like some ancient tribes. The only diet that really makes people sick is ours — the Western diet.

The leading cause of death in the Western world today is food-related diseases, many of them self-inflicted. Children today are increasingly obese and suffer from diseases such as high blood pressure, clogged arteries and Type II diabetes. They are the first generation to be born with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. We’re eating ourselves to death, and depleting the planet’s resources while at it.

Large agricultural conglomerates such as Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, ConAgra and Noble operate on a level of inefficiency that can’t possibly be sustained, using about ten fossil fuel calories to produce one single food calorie. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2005 U.S. agricultural production emitted about as much carbon dioxide as 141 million cars do in one year.

Most farmers are paid poorly for their services, largely because we have grown so accustomed to having access to cheap food. The people who bring us food can’t afford to eat. And while large conglomerates reap the benefits, we pay the costs of eating bad food—through doctor visits, environmental clean-ups, medicines etc.

Why are the people who grow the food that keeps us all alive the poorest?

Why are the people who grow the food that keeps us all alive the poorest?

Even though we, in the Western world, have access to more food than we can ever consume, developing countries do not. A corrupt system of subsidies and food aid, designed to keep these countries dependent, has crippled their self-sufficiency. In Haiti, for example, farmers used to grow enough rice to feed the entire population. Then, as a result of the Agricultural Act of 1949, American farmers started receiving large food subsidies in order to produce cheaper food. Haitian farmers could no longer compete and were essentially put out of business (and advised to instead start producing export goods since they could buy their food much cheaper from the U.S.). Humanitarian aid shipments containing bags of rice, cleverly labeled “gifts,” only helped worsen the situation. Today, food rebellions are raging on the streets of Port Au Prince.

Food riots in Haiti were the subject of much international attention last year. But what are the real causes?

Food riots in Haiti were the subject of much international attention last year. But what are the real causes? Photo via

So, we are in trouble, there is no doubt about it. Now, let’s look on the bright side. There is a way out of this vicious circle, but it does involve some effort on all our parts.

This past weekend I attended the Brooklyn Food Conference, a completely grassroots conference, without any government or corporate involvement. The mission of the event was to “bring together a uniquely broad and diverse community of activists and interested persons to discuss and learn more about the critical food issues of our time and what role we as neighbors can play to address them. [Creating] a Brooklyn base for the food movement, advocating for Food Democracy in our neighborhoods and everywhere in the world. Food Democracy is here defined as a just, sustainable, healthy and delicious food system.” Speakers included Anna Lappé, co-founder of the Brooklyn Food Conference and the Small Planet Institute and author of Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet and Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, the brilliant Raj Patel, food activist and author of Stuffed and Starved, crowd-rouser LaDonna Redmond, founder of the Institute for Community Resource Development, an organization working to bring healthy organic food to the West Side of Chicago, the ebullient Ray Rogers of Campaign to stop Killer Coke, as well as local chefs, farmers and activists.

Crowded NY State farmer panel at the Brooklyn Food Conference.

Crowded NY State farmer panel at the Brooklyn Food Conference.

It was incredible to see the diversity of attendees; nearly 3000 people of all ages, races and social classes, coming together to craft a future in which we can all live a good life. It’s not just about buying organic and local foods, it is about rethinking our whole relationship with what we eat. Food choices are not individual acts, they are agricultural and highly political, and the connections are visible everywhere. A recent example is the rapid spread of the swine flu. Many factory farm animals are ill, and if a disease spreads it is almost impossible to trace from where it came. This can be avoided. Creating a shift in the food system is the fight of our generation. But we owe it to our children to leave them with a sustainable system that will also work for their children.

A main goal of the conference was to organize community neighborhood meetings, where people can help define the kind of change-making group they would like to see. Building on this, community groups would send representatives to larger meetings to bond together and create stronger coalitions with other groups. The power of change lies in numbers; if enough people join this movement it can no longer be ignored by legislators or peers.

This particular conference was very Brooklyn-specific, but this type of event can (and should) be organized anywhere. Get in touch with like-minded people in your area through local chapters of organizations like Slow Food USA, WHY, EarthSave International and, find nearby sustainable food at Eat Well Guide, Sustainable Table and Shared Harvest, and show your support by signing petitions at Food Democracy Now! and All it takes is some hard work and dedication. It is unfair that we have all been put in this situation, but we cannot just stand by and watch our dysfunctional food system continue to wreak havoc; we have to admit our mistakes and band together to craft a new one.

The future lies in your hands.

The future lies in your hands. Photo by Mr. Kris, Creative Commons.

Top photo by: Simon Shek, Creative Commons

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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