Food Fight, Ctd - Haiti an Important Case Study in Local Food Infrastructure and Food Security

The food fight continues (go here, here and here for previous installments of food fight) with Adam Ozimek's assertion that the push for local and organic foods in schools is more about using schools to advance progressive values vs. advancing educational objectives.

He says that if the goal is to get kids to eat more vegetables, then teaching them how to prepare frozen vegetables from far off places is a much better way to accomplish that goal.

(He doesn't seem to be aware that programs to teach kids and parents how to prepare healthy meals are already up and running. Here in Spokane County we have the Food Sense program, which is a model program, and I'm sure they use their fair share of frozen vegetables.)

The evolving debate has people lining up on one side saying that industrial food produced and shipped from far off places is best and an over-emphasis on local and organic is dangerous, while others are lining up on the other side saying that an over-emphasis on global food distribution is dangerous and local/organic food is best. The argument seems to focus mostly on the merits and benefits of each kind of food system, but I'd like to see more debate about which is more dangerous. In other words, which system has a bigger down-side for local communities?

I'll leave it to others to outline the perils of an overemphasis on local and organic food systems, but I'll take a shot at outlining two of the looming dangers of a global industrial food complex.

An over-reliance on a few genetically modified seed stocks is a classic case of putting all of our eggs in one basket. A story this week about Monsanto's souring prospects is a bit foreboding;

Sales of Monsanto's Roundup, the widely used herbicide, has collapsed this year under an onslaught of low-priced generics made in China. Weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, dimming the future of the entire Roundup Ready crop franchise. And the Justice Department is investigating Monsanto for possible antitrust violations.

Creating a dependence on importing cheap food can decimate local communities as illustrated most recently in Haiti. A report out this week explains the predicament;

"Currently, U.S. rice subsidies and in-kind food aid undercut Haitian farmers at the same time as the U.S. government is investing in Haitian agricultural development," said Philippe Mathieu, Oxfam's director for Haiti.

"The international community must abandon these conflicting trade and aid policies in order to support the growth of Haiti's fragile rural economy."

I was talking to a friend last week who works for an agency trying to help develop a sustainable agricultural base in Haiti and he explained how the influx of cheap imports over the years put local farmers out of business, so when the earthquake hit, there was no way for the country to feed itself. It was completely reliant on cheap imports, and in many ways still is. Here's how the situation was reported back in March;

Decades of inexpensive imports – especially rice from the U.S. – punctuated with abundant aid in various crises have destroyed local agriculture and left impoverished countries such as Haiti unable to feed themselves.

While those policies have been criticized for years in aid worker circles, world leaders focused on fixing Haiti are admitting for the first time that loosening trade barriers has only exacerbated hunger in Haiti and elsewhere.

They're led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton – now U.N. special envoy to Haiti – who publicly apologized this month for championing policies that destroyed Haiti's rice production. Clinton in the mid-1990s encouraged the impoverished country to dramatically cut tariffs on imported U.S. rice.

"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10. "I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."

Haiti is an extreme example, but it points to the devastating effects of a country or region that relies completely on importing cheap foods from elsewhere.