Reflections on Food Systems From an Agricultural Island

I’m working full-time on organic farms on Lopez Island in Washington State this summer, which is why I haven’t had much time to post. It’s a small but friendly community here, about 2,000 people on 30 sq mi of land. It’s also a microcosm for organic farming. I work at one farm that has sheep, pigs, and vegetable growing three days a week, and a strawberry and fruit farm one day a week, which I prefer since I get to eat strawberries while working, which is fantastic. If you’ve never had fresh, non-grocery store strawberries and have farms nearby, I implore you to go pick some. It’s a whole ‘nother world.

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My island home from June through August.

Spending eight hours a day in fields and with animals has definitely given me perspective on agricultural issues in our society. Even as a child starves to death every 10 seconds, modern, post-Industrial people (myself included to some extent) are by and large very disconnected from where their food comes from, and even in many instances ignorant of what it’s composed of. What the hell is Taco Bell beef anyway? (Hint: mostly not beef). Or chicken nuggets — how much further can you get from an animal’s true form than a ball of ground meat-like product deep fried and incrusted in chemically-assured deliciousness? To top it all off, these are the products many children, who have no choice in what they eat, are introduced to as examples of food. Hey, and I haven’t even gotten to my rant about non-meat food products.

Anyway, my point is, like the developed world’s disconnect from the outdoors, i.e. land without roads and big boxes with TVs in them, our desensitization and ignorance about what our food is and where it comes from has drastic consequences. In the case of the lack of immersion in wilderness, we (as a society) are less attuned to the reasons we should care about the non-anthropogenic, non-mechanically developed world, and don’t even have a conceptualization of such an ideal drawn from real world experience. The form of “nature” isn’t informed by phenomenal experience, and thus remains an abstract ideal, often even reserved for those fortunate to be educated about it, although often still lacking the essential experience. In the same way, our notions of the essence of our food are similarly poorly informed. Unless you are of have been at some time an avid food researcher or farmer, this is probably true for you. It’s time for all of us to get our hands dirty in addition to trying to stay as informed as possible. We can live without iPhones and cars, but certainly not nourishment, so it’s difficult for me to conceive how the most valuable companies in the world and the apparent nexus of modern American life hold more attention and scrutiny (although not enough in the latter respect) than the cornerstone of our survival of a civilization, and a species.

Even more deplorable than the modern man’s detachment from his food and geography is the fact that 1.4 billion people have too much food to eat (i.e. are overweight) while almost 3 billion are hungry and malnourished. The rapidly developing countries like China in addition to the industrialized societies like the U.S. threaten the food security of the people lacking enough food altogether. It’s easy to forget that even though we may have plenty to eat, a third of our fellow humans don’t have nearly enough, and our seemingly boundless consumption impacts them greatly.

It also seems absolutely absurd that people with means would be alright with dishing out hundreds/thousands for [insert newest fixture of conspicuous consumption here] while consuming cheap junk food or the products of blatantly unsustainable industrial agriculture. I’m not so gung-ho on organic foods as to condemn the eating of non-organic food, since I think the first priority is definitely making sure people are eating enough fruits and vegetables, a balanced, locally-sourced diet taking precedent over only consuming what is essentially a luxury good for a great deal of people, but if it is affordable, why not choose the (often) healthier and certainly more ecologically sustainable option? I struggle with whether organic can work on a mass scale in most instances, because we do have such an incredible human population to feed. I think in addition to trending towards organic, the focus needs to be on local foods, a reduction the amount of meat consumed (especially beef — since even organic, free-range meat can be extremely unsustainable, so local/organic aren’t even necessarily the be-all and end-all of sustainable agriculture), and reducing the population that needs to be fed through diligent family planning. Each of these topics deserve their own posts.

Sustainable food systems will be a growing issue in the coming years. It’s a shame to think how disconnected most people are from what they eat. My summer offers me a renewed perspective on a real world issue that’s been reduced, in some sense, to something that’s taken for granted, or just analyzed from a detached perspective, and we as a sanitary, hermetically sealed society are unwilling to (literally) get our hands dirty over. This should be good experience leading up to my two years in the Peace Corps advising on sustainable agriculture in rural Paraguay. Through my internship here at the Lopez Community Land Trust I’ll be doing some research on food systems the politics that surround them, which will inform a series of essays on this blog.
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