A couple of years ago, sustainability was all about bike lanes and carpooling. When sustainable farmers suggested that food was part of the issue, the response was something like, "Well, yeah, even the little things ..." Now, consumers have figured it out. Food is not a little thing. Food production has an impact on everything from water to air to sprawl to the end of cheap oil.
Consumers know a lot more than a couple of years ago. Maybe we can thank the Bush administration for bringing back scarce oil, or maybe 9/11 when the ports shut down and stopped the flow of fresh foods from South America; but let's not thank the Clintons for jogging to McDonald's rather than the farmers' market. Think about it -- we elect a president from Arkansas and the two companies that do the best in his administrations are Tyson and Wal-Mart.
The problem of food sustainability is a bipartisan blind spot. Or a bipartisan hog trough. Politicians listen to the Farm Bureau, the Pork Producers' Council and other commodity groups; Monsanto, Cargill and all the other players who say prosperity will come through export and import. The major beneficiaries have been the oil industry and the major losers have been consumers and the planet.
Pop quiz question #1: The average mileage traveled by a grocery store item from field to store is (pick one): a) 14 miles; b) 140 miles; c) 1,400 miles; d) none of the above. (The answer is c, according to the Leopold Center.)
And that should tell all you need to know about petroleum in the system, but there's more. Most industrial ag "inputs," from fertilizers to pesticides to tractor fuel, come from oil.
#2: The world's biggest food retailer is a) the Root Cellar; b) Wal-Mart; c) HyVee; none of the above. (It's Wal-Mart, who got into the business less than 10 years ago.)
#3: True or False: Almost no US subsidy dollars go to farmers raising vegetables or meat for local markets, but farmers at those markets can usually match the prices at the grocery stores for fresh, in-season produce. (True. Farmers routinely check the prices at the big box stores because that's the competition. Usually, there's no comparison. For example, every package of meat at Wal-Mart has been "enhanced" with saline solution. There's no equivalent item in the store to local meats.)
You can find out who the big winners are at EWG.org. Click on the "Farm Subsidy Base" and a map comes up. Click on your state and your county and the list of names comes up. You might check on your favorite farmer legislator. It's a reminder of how the legal bread is buttered.
Final Question: For my family, the following percentage of our food is raised within 100 miles of our home: a) 90%; b) 50%; c) 0%; d) don't know.
Here's the kicker. We know what we should be doing, just like we know we should carpool. And, changing our food choices is easier than starting a car pool.
Consumers go on diets all the time -- the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the vegan diet, the raw-foods diet. Unless we are in prison, or in school, or another dependent position, food choices are one place where we take control. We learned that in the high chair when we closed our mouths and mom couldn't get the spoon in. We don't need other people in our food selections.
Even if we're the cooks in the family and everyone we cook for is very particular, we can still use local ingredients. After we've solved the puzzle for ourselves, we can move to the next level and make social change. A few ideas:
The subsidy system is a mess. Subsidies go to the biggest farmers, raising soybeans, corn, rice, cotton, milk, pork and sorghum, all things that are easily dried and exported for processing into consumables from baby formula to ice cream to aspirins to lipstick. We need to fix that system -- either stop subsidizing the corporate farms or start subsidizing local markets.
There is a USDA program to help low-income people buy at the farmers' market using food stamps and WIC coupons. In Missouri, Gov. Matt Blunt canceled it. Matt wants to kill the local foods movement and he gets his political tendencies from his dad, US Rep. Roy Blunt, the new House majority leader. It's not too early to write your representatives about this Blunt Trauma.
Next, we need to demand that our land-grant universities help citizens instead of major corporations. Learn about your university budget. Second, talk to your state legislator about putting more money into sustainable ag. Third, let the Sustainable Ag programs in your state know that you support them.
Finally, we need to put local foods back into our institutions -- churches, schools, senior centers, day-care centers, food banks. Some of these places have great kitchens but haven't quite figured out how to get kitchen staff to do more than dump cans into warming trays. We need to help, by creating the demand. It will happen one institution at a time, but this will keep our farmers in business.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teach in Fulton, Mo. Margotfulton@aol.com.