Explorations of Food - Issues of storage, distribution and famine

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I have been participating for the last few days in an on-line conference with many incredible people and it has stimulated many references to food - especially its production, distribution and the essential nature of its meaning to us.

It is an uncomfortable thing, this bit about food, and security, and even the smallest spectre of famine's increase shifts our words and thoughts to stumble through ideas that, as a generation divorced from the land that sustains us with the food we eat, we're unpracticed at.

Food on the land is a metaphor for food for our souls. How we feed ourselves, and who we feed - who isn't fed - is a reflection of our own self-nourishment. I wanted to share these two quotes:

The following words from Leo Tolstoy, writing of the starvation of peasant farmers in Imperial Russia, 1890's, should provide some food for thought. These concepts reverberate in many food, land, social and credit reform movements around the world, and there is a wealth of tool bases to draw upon when we find the will to both feed ourselves and "do no harm".

"Feed the people! Who then has taken it upon himself to feed the people? It is we, the civil servants, who have taken it upon ourselves to feed the very men who have always fed us and who go on feeding us every day...It can be said that bread, not to mention all other forms of wealth, is produced directly by the people...

"How is it then that this bread is to be found, not in the possession of the people, but in our hands, and that, by a peculiar and artificial process, we have to return it to the people, calculating so much for each person? Must we delude ourselves by saying that the people were poor merely because they have not yet had time to adjust to our civilization, but that, come tomorrow, we shall set about imparting all our knowledge to them, concealing nothing, and that then they will doubtless cease to be poor...

"Do not all enlightened folk continue to live in the towns -- for what they claim to be a very exalted purpose -- and to eat in the towns the sustenance which is brought there and for want of which the people are dying? And these are the circumstances in which we have suddenly started to assure ourselves and everyone else that we are very sorry for the people and that we want to save them from their wretched plight, a plight for which we ourselves are responsible and which is indeed necessary to us. Here is the cause of the futility of the efforts made by those who, without changing their relationship with the people, wish to come to their help by distributing the riches which have been taken from them." ---Leo Tolstoy, "La Famine"

"There has never been enough food in the world...The limiting factor is not the physical cpacity to produce enough food but the abiliy of nations to bring about the complex economic adjustments necessary to make adquate production and distribution possible...Food is more than a trade commodity; it is an essntial of life." - Sir John Boyd Orr, first director general of the FAO, 1946.

For those who notice that we must change now our way of relationship through eating (and I have thoughts, but they'll need to come out over time, since we have so little here) I highly recommend two books - "Ending Hunger -- an Idea Whose Time has Come" by the Hunger Project and Susan George's book "Food For Beginners" (one of the "----- For Beginners" series in the brown trade-paper covers)

If you want to do more research, Amazon's link will help you find titles on famine and hunger

These are some of my references for long term policies that I seek to manifest through my grocery store and its efforts. Much of what I do now, in my store and in my life (both not nearly well enough), is an attempt to make more real, at my small individual choice-filled level - some of the thoughts I have found in the wise words of others.


-- Cynthia Beal (cabeal@efn.org), January 10, 1999


Y2k as catalyst: Realizing that We, norte Americanos, have been living self-indulgently - the Marie Antoinette's of the world.

Embarrassment at being caught in the awkward position of using the rest of the world and having an attitude towards the rest of the world. Ashamed of having become so soft. Spiritually hollow having lost touch with Mother Earth.

If necessary change my life and my living enough to be able to:

Grow/collect most of what I eat, process most of what I grow, store most of what I process, prepare most of my stored food using fuel/ energy source I collected.

Know my garden, from mulch, to veggies, to weeds, to pests, to impliments. Not to be afraid of dirt under the fingernails.

Know all my animals. Able to vet, deliver live birth, terminate an animal in suffering. Able to provide fresh water, good food, adequate & clean space, grooming, love.

Able to kill and butcher the fowl, the pigs, the goats, the cattle. Able to cut the carcasses into joints of meat. Able to store the meat.

Able to sit back at the end of the day watching the stars wheel in the sky - at peace with myself and with my maker, cherishing the very land, the animals, and the people in this place I call home.

-- Mitchell Barnes (spanda@inreach.com), January 16, 1999.

20-some year ago I was visiting at the farm where my good friend, Joe Lawler, grew up. Not a big farm, but big enough for his Dad to run and raise 8 kids on. Joe's dad was a simple, decent, mild-mannered man. A farmer: nothing more, nothing less.

Joe told me about one of those rare occasions when the old man lost it. He was pitching pig shit when all of a sudden he slammed down his pitchfork and hollered, "There's got to be a better way!!!"

A better way to make a living. A better way to spend a life.

Although I agree with the notions and ideals expressed concerning growing our own food, being as close as possible to the source, and agree that it seems the technological food chain has gotten all but completely out of hand, at the same time I always think of what Joe's dad had to say at that moment. And I always think about why it was none of his four sons took over the farm. Why they couldn't wait to grow up and move away from it.

Whether we want to admit it or not, there's a reason beyond the profit motive and technological "gee whiz" involved in why our food production system has evolved into what it has. The most succinct word for it is Drudgery: Often stultifying, back-breaking, endless, high personal energy input, labor.

Another aspect of the same thing just got covered this morning: I just got back from having lunch with a friend in one of those museum piece small town cafes (where my only contact with the food chain was consumption). That friend grew up in that town. Somehow he got to telling me about the time his ag class in school went over to the local butcher shop and watched them butcher a cow:

"They shot it in the head with a wax bullet, slit its throat, skinned it out on the spot after it bled to death, cut it up into big chunks, and passed them through the window to where they went right to work on it. You always think there's some step in the process where they wash the carcass parts off, but they didn't. They just picked it up off the ground, butchered it, hung part of it up in the freezer, and put some of it in the display case. It was weird."

So there's that aspect of things too, and there simply aren't very many vegetarians around. The "closed system" process of raising the feed to raise an animal to the point where it's ready for that bullet demands a fair amount of crop raising which requires a small, but still fair amount of land and, depending on equipment (and "capital and energy investments"), a fair amount of the labor mentioned above.

Point being - aside from the hard work and butchering jobs involved - life back in the days where everyone was in direct and complete touch with their food supply was mostly taken up by tending to that food supply. Dawn to dusk. There was no Internet of course. Wasn't electricity or phones or radios or television either. The "functional illiteracy rate" was a lot higher too: There wasn't much need to know how to read or write or do much math beyond counting heads of livestock, rows, and bags of grain, (and kids), and getting it all to add up.

But besides there not being the need for much sophisticated anything (which is relative, I know), there simply wasn't time or energy left over afer the food supply was tended to.

I read or heard something a while back that touched on the issue of how we have a tendency to romanticize nature... I thought about that. And now every once in a while I notice how almost every time one of those scenes that has mountains and pine trees and that big lake or river in it comes on the tube there's always majestic or sublime classical music on the soundtrack. "Rocky Mountain high... Colorado... Almost heaven."

Until we take the road, the 4-wheel drive vehicle, the cash, the technology out of the equation (where things like boards, door knobs, shingles, glass - as well as things capable of automating the food production process, or generating soundtracks - qualify as technology). Helicopter the average person (from any era) into that scene and the romantic attributes quickly fade. Especially in the cooler seasons. Especially around the time the sun goes down.

So when Tolstoy says... "Feed the people! Who then has taken it upon himself to feed the people? It is we, the civil servants, who have taken it upon ourselves to feed the very men who have always fed us and who go on feeding us every day...It can be said that bread, not to mention all other forms of wealth, is produced directly by the people"... could it be there's a touch of the same kind of romance in that. A bit of melodrama perhaps?

A large part of what I'm driving at is that there always seems to be a tendency on our parts (including mine) to point a finger at all the greedy, power-mad usurpers of our divine right to do things like grow our own food when I tend to believe that we - as one of those "collective consciousness" things - were more than happy to throw down our pitchforks and head off in search of more interesting, satisfying, rewarding ways to spend our lives. I suppose it could turn out to be a "prodigal son-type" situation in which we realize the error of our ways after we return to the house of our own food raising/ preparation (or self-sufficency in general), but I have my doubts.

To me, this all has to do with the "Darwin's Doorway" thing, and what has (surprisingly) seemed to crop up as a recurring cliche as I think about the future: "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." To me, the "ideal world of the future" would best be summed up by that other cliche-like thing related to blending "the best of the old with the best of the new," as opposed to simply trashing what is now (if even only in our minds and hearts).

Tractors are good things. So are combines, trucks, grain elevators, railroad cars, and mills. The alternative (in America alone) is 270 million people attempting to start over with knowledge they don't have and really don't want because the day-to-day reality in true food production is - more often than not - whatever it was that made Joe's dad lose it that day. If it wasn't, not nearly as many of us would've left the farm. Not everyone was forced to leave by Tolstoy's fictional co-workers. Cargill didn't simply get to be Cargill because they tricked everyone. Millions of recent history's inhabitants gladly handed over their jobs as soon as they possibly could, and they didn't all do it because they were temporarily insane or lazy. A lot of them did it so they could go somewhere and learn to read so they could learn to build computers, phone lines, modems, browsers, email programs. They did it so they could learn about and know what it means to "synthesize" and "extrapolate," get the time to examine things like y2k, gather the available info, and come to intelligent and instinctual conclusions to guide their choices to maintain or gain an improved sense of well-being.

And - just to be a friendly aggitator - I'm pretty sure a lot of them would be rolling over in their graves and saying, "What!!?" to think people were thinking the wisest course of action would be for everyone to set their internal compass to that place they left behind.

And that's where the baby and the bathwater thing comes in. But the reason I wound up sidetracked in this thread is that (because of the above) I'm looking around for "y2k and farming" links, and thought I'd seen a few of them laying around in here somewhere. The search engines don't seem to have a lot to offer (unless I'm using the wrong key words), so if you're aware of any would you please put them here: http://greenspun.com/boohoo/related.tcl?page_id= MSSR%3aFRM, in the Shared Resources section. There's one link to a pretty good little Canadian y2k and ag site there, but so far I'm buffaloed as to where else to point the people who already have the tractors...

-- Bill (billdale@lakesnet.net), February 05, 1999.

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