A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:
Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.
The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."
This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.
I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities.
Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing.
Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":
...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.
Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.
Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans.