As 2009 closes, most of the highlights in the food realm could be framed in the context of two competing paradigms that have clashed for much of the decade. In one corner we have big food: factory farms, fast food restaurants, mystery meat, biotechnology and other examples of the economics of scale applied to food. In the other corner, small food: farmers markets, ecology-based agriculture, seasonal diets of minimally processed food, locavores, etc.
One of small food's biggest victories is that 2009 will perhaps be remembered as the year gardening returned to mainstream consciousness. Much credit goes to Michelle Obama and the veggie patch she planted in her new lawn. The symbolic gesture created an instant buzz, and there are now gardens on the grounds of city halls, governors' mansions and other houses of leadership around the world.
One of small food's biggest victories is that 2009 will perhaps be remembered as the year gardening returned to mainstream consciousness.
According to the National Gardening Association, the number of households with gardens rose from 36 million in 2008 to 43 million in 2009. The White House garden certainly deserves some credit, but so does the recession, which inspired many people to break ground—not only to save on grocery bills, but as a form of affordable, wholesome diversion.
Ironically, the proliferation of home gardeners bears some of the responsibility for the rapid spread of a fungus called late blight, which almost wiped out the commercial tomato crop on the East Coast. Many gardeners bought tomato starts from stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's and Wal-Mart, nearly all of which were raised by the Alabama nursery Bonnie Plants. Plant pathologists believe the nursery sent out infected plants, which slipped under the radar of agricultural inspectors and brought the spores to all corners of the country. Unusually heavy rainfall in the East encouraged the blight to take hold, prosper and spread. It was a case of big food masquerading in small-food clothing with disastrous consequences. The take-home message: Buy your plant starts from local nurseries, or grow them yourself from seeds.
Biotech giant Monsanto’s year can be summed up in a single word: "chutzpah.”
In addition to kitchen gardens, another beneficiary of the recession is Clara Cannucciari, a 93-year-old great-grandmother whose YouTube videos combine salty commentary about life in the Great Depression with hands-on demonstrations on how to crank out simple delicacies that average 50 cents a serving. The videos helped win Cannucciari a contract with St. Martin's Press, which published Clara's Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression this past October.
It's difficult to discuss the year in food without an update on the activities of biotech giant Monsanto, whose year can be summed up in a single word: "chutzpah." In April, the company sued Germany when its agriculture minister banned the planting of a type of Monsanto corn engineered to thwart the advances of the corn borer moth. The company was unsuccessful in forcing the sovereign nation to allow its farmers to plant the corn, and recent research supports Germany's concerns (which several other European countries shared): French scientists published a paper suggesting adverse effects of this corn—and two other types of genetically modified corn—on the kidneys and liver of rats.
Meanwhile, Monsanto's marketing practices have placed it on a collision course with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which indicated it's considering anti-trust litigation. Monsanto owns the rights to genetic sequences found in more than 85 percent of corn planted in the United States and 92 percent of our soy. A string of corporate acquisitions have squelched almost any possibility of competition, while Monsanto's seed prices have risen by an average of 42 percent. When the DOJ dispatched some of its lawyers to meet with Monsanto to discuss these developments, the company hired the services of Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer who is a friend and financial supporter of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
While touting its products as safe for humans and the environment, Monsanto's main sales pitch is based on the claim that genetically engineered seeds will increase crop yields and facilitate pest control. But last summer, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that genetically engineered seeds actually don't increase productivity. Another study by the Organic Center found that since the introduction of "Round-Up tolerant" corn, soy and cotton, farmers have sprayed 382.6 million more pounds of herbicides than they otherwise would have. This is partly due to the proliferation of Round-Up resistant weeds: Between 2007 and 2008, farmers increased the use of different herbicides by 31 percent in an effort to combat these superweeds. Meanwhile, Monsanto's website promotes the seeds as a key component in "sustainable agriculture."
That small food terms like "sustainable," "local" and "organic" are becoming attractive to large corporations is, arguably, a good sign. It shows these words, and what they represent, have infiltrated the mainstream consciousness. And one of the most powerful vehicles to deliver this message has been the movie Food Inc., whose depressing-yet-important message about the American diet was the year's highest grossing documentary.
The year closed with the anticlimactic climate summit in Copenhagen, where U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack acknowledged the huge role livestock plays in global warming—more than transportation activities by most estimates. Vilsack announced plans to build methane capture facilities at large dairy farms in order to turn that potent greenhouse gas into an energy source.
Vilsack deserves credit for keeping agriculture at the forefront of climate change discussions. But enabling the big cattle industry, while politically expedient, is short-sighted. Given the atrocities of feedlots and slaughterhouses, the environmental destruction wrought by cattle, the questionable health consequences of mystery meat, and the skyrocketing worldwide demand for meat—the human addiction to cow products is reaching a breaking point.
Thus, my prediction for next year's hot topic: serious soul-searching on the pros and cons of all things bovine.