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Friday, August 10, 2012

GreenBiz: Speakers push for "organic and beyond" to improve food system

By Gregg Hoffmann
Two recent speakers at the Organic Valley annual Kickapoo Country Fair said the "organic and beyond" movement could help fix a broken food system in the world.

Raj Patel, a visiting scholar in the Center for African Studies at UC-Berkeley, and Andrew Kimbrell, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety and the International Center for Technology Assessment, said the current food system leads to global markets that exploit farmers and the poor and can compromise the safety of food.

"The current system leads to a stuffed or starved population," said Patel, who has authored a book by that "Stuffed or Starved" title. "Around 2 billion people in the world are overweight, while almost a billion people are going hungry."

Patel said the global food system leads to the marketing of food that often contains a great deal of sugar and other ingredients that make people who can afford it fat. Meanwhile, many of those who produce the food, including more and more farmers in the United States, have difficulty affording the food to feed themselves and their families.

Kimbrell concurred with Patel's opinion and added pesticides and fertilizers used to increase yields of crops, as well as genetically-modified products, often compromise the safety of food.

"Many have been linked to cancer and other illnesses around the world," said Kimbrell, who has represented clients who have sued Monsanto and other large chemical companies. One of his cases helped lead to the labeling of BGH in milk.

Kimbrell said there are two visions of how people in the world should eat. One he called the "Jetsons' vision," referring to a TV cartoon program, in which, "we eat pills using a knife and fork and Tang."

An alternative vision includes local food, produced and provided at an appropriate scale, by a system that is fair for all and bio-diverse.

"These are the two competing visions of food in the world," Kimbrell said. "We participate in a decision on those two every time we buy food."

Both Kimbrell and Patel said the organic food movement offers an alternative to that "Jetsons' vision."

"I call it organic and beyond," Kimbrell said. "Organic is at the floor level of what we are building. We are going beyond to add other elements to it."

Regulations on what is certified as organic must be maintained, and must resist watering-down pressure from large corporations.

"Walmart can join, but not change the rules. Instead, change its production system," Kimbrell said.

Patel said that while big agribusiness companies control much of the world food system there are pockets of alternatives developing all over the world, including India, Cuba, Africa and elsewhere.

"We should look at what is happening outside this country, as well as within it," Patel said.

Organic Valley is an example of an alternative within the United States, Patel said. "It was started in response to the prices being paid to farmers in the 1980s," he said. "People took power into their own hands."

Patel said, "There is an abundance of organizations and companies that have built alternatives. All we need to do is look at our own history."

Kimbrell said change starts with a change in thinking, "We are not consumers; we're creators," he said. "We can create systems that work better.

"When somebody says, 'we have to progress' as an argument against organic and beyond, ask 'progress toward what?' We determine what is progress."

Both speakers said the 2012 drought and other factors will make the debate over food systems even more important in upcoming months.

Now an activist, Patel has worked for the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, as well as protested against them. His most recent book, "The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy," has been hailed as a "deeply thought-provoking guide to the way economics works, exploring the recent economic collapse and painting a clear picture of how to achieve a fairer, more sustainable economy and society. He is also the author of the book "Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System."

Kimbrell was named by the Utne Reader as one of the world's leading 100 visionaries in 1994. In 2007, he was named one of the 50 people most likely to save the planet by The Guardian-UK.

His books include 101 Ways to Help Save the Earth, The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life, Your Right to Know: Genetic Engineering and the Secret Changes in Your Food and general editor of Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture.

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes the GreenBiz column monthly.

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