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I love NPR! I work from home so all the reporters and anchors are like my co-workers...Renee Montagne, Neal Conan, Kai Ryssdal, Melissa Block, Chris Simmons, etc. But yesterday on Morning edition, hosts, David Green and Steve Inskeep, really disappointed me with their one-dimensional interview about organic food...

Equally respected NPR correspondents, Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles, were there to talk about the nutritional value of organic food, or the lack there of. Even if it is true, which I don't believe it is, why even fill the airwaves with fodder for the opposition to say, "See, we told you so." Especially, when there are studies that show organic food really does have a higher nutritional value than conventional like the one released by Organic Farming Research Foundation this past August entitled "Organic Farming for Health and Prosperity." And if these counterpoint studies do exist, proper editorial would compare both not just present one side of the story.

But that's not what irks me! It's the other half of the story, the most important part of the story, that they marginalize...eating sustainably grown food is really more about the ecological benefits than the nutritional benefits. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kill the soil food web disabling its biological functions to provide food to plants, store carbon and retain water. 70% of the chemicals used on crops aren't even absorbed by the plant. They run-off contaminating ground water  and contributing to the oceans' dead zones which increases the effects of global warming. Bottom Line...choosing organics goes way deeper than nutrition. it is an ethical and lifestyle choice.

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Even if you are not worried about pesticides on your family's health, there is no denying the detrimental effects these poisons have on the soil, air, water and farm workers! Yes, farm workers! If farm workers can get sick and even die from over exposure to these nasties, then it can't be that much better by the time it gets to my dinner plate.

Allison and Dan do mention the environmental upside to organics but by that point in the interview, all that people are thinking is..."Did I just spend too much at the grocery store today on organics?"

When the news dumbs-down the story and doesn't provide the full picture, we stop thinking critically. If the news doesn't present both sides equally then we only hear what they want us to hear..."organic food is not any more nutritious than conventional."

Alison and Dan did not linger on the environmental attributes which would have helped bring people around. And David and Steve did not bother to challenge them. The inclusion of organics' redeeming qualities was on the downside of the story and was mentioned as an after thought. Are they shortsighted, or just too busy reporting the facts than to really take beef with this bologna study?

Under-reporting is a problem in many parts of the news...people will talk about offshore oil reserves, the abundance of domestic coal and natural gas as a cleaner fuel. If the situation was that cut-and-dry then yes, let's get after that energy independence. But the ugly truth is in the extraction process of those fossil fuels and their degrading impacts on the land, the ocean wilderness and the neighboring communities. Like food, it is not just about the end product, it is about the means to get there and the toll it takes on the environment and people. We need to think holistically when considering these options. And the news needs to present it in such a way so people can make an educated opinion based on this holistic picture.

Farming ecologically is about taking care of the land so it can feed the next generation and the many generations after that. It is about treating livestock humanely and allowing them their innate right to interact with the land and work together to build a healthy agro-ecosystem. Sustainable farming practices are focused on the long-term whereas conventional is focused on the short-term. To feed the world, we need to start thinking long-term!

I started writing this post yesterday and already, the news wire is filled with angst against this study. I opened my home page just a little while ago and Grist.org had their review of the study front and center! Even if NPR, can't see past the end of their nose on this one, their media allies will get their back and help bring them along. Don't worry NPR, I still love you!

 
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Having an elevator speech for anything you do is a good idea. It could be for a new project, campaign or even your profession. We shouldn't get stumped by simple questions like, "What do you do?" But it's easy to get hung up when you are in a career transition like myself. An elevator speech can help clarify your goals and get people excited by what you are doing.

I'm taking a leadership program offered by the North Tahoe Business Association. It's like Toastmasters but a whole lot more. It is definitely keeping me on my toes and encouraging me to further refine the purpose of my sustainable food project. Here's my pitch (it's a little long. I'm banking on a ride to the 50th floor)...

"I’m working to create a more sustainable food community in North Tahoe. By building a regional food system within 150-miles, Tahoe can reduce its food insecurity. A food hub will aggregate food produced by our more food abundant neighbors for regional distribution lessening our dependence on the national food system. It keeps Tahoe fed and creates inter-commerce between regional partners. Money that circulates regionally supports local economies which encourages new business and creates jobs. By taking a regional approach, communities can work together to address their food security and build a more equitable supply chain. A North Tahoe food hub will offer multiple services in order to be sustainable such as a commercial kitchen; retail for locally, produced, specialty foods; cold storage for hunger relief agencies; and farm education. Yes, farming! With nearly 280-days of sun, Tahoe doesn’t need to be a food desert. We can work within our climate constraints and harness the sun's energy by employing 4-season growing techniques."

And then the person in the elevator says, "Aren't food hubs only feasible if close to where the food is produced?" My answer, "All communities need a food hub."

If every community was focused on food security and took responsibility for how their food was sourced, we will have fed the world one community at a time. Not every community can grow their own food but they can establish food policy which advocates for  how it is produced and distributed. The further you are from your food source, the more a food hub reduces your food insecurity.

 
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In the wake of Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, resigning and a new Italian government on the horizon, it makes you wonder, "is it really that easy?" Out with the old government and in with the new? All of a sudden, some of my more radical ideas started to seem not so extreme. So I dug through my archives and pulled out a piece that I wrote a couple years ago when I first started dabbling in food thought. I had this idea for a farmer led food revolution. It is pretty idealistic. But sometimes you just have to ask, "What If?"


THE UPRISING
Change in the food system can come from consumers voting with their fork or government passing progressive policy. Neither is moving very fast. What if the change came from farmers? After all, they grow the food! Without them, we would have no food. From that perspective, they hold a lot of power. The number of organic farmers is growing but we need more. Could we get enough conventional farms to transition to sustainable methods before consumer demand and government support turn the tide?

How many conventional farmers would it take to create a farm revolution in Big Ag? If that number banned together in solidarity for better farm practices, it could create a tipping point leading to a cascade of agricultural reforms. But how do we convince this critical mass?

Big Ag has lobbied government to consolidate and centralize taking the farmer out of the equation. It has driven the percentage of registered career farmers down from 20% seventy years ago to just 1%. 1% leaves the agricultural industry vulnerable. A significant disruption like a flood, drought or plight could paralyze the food economy. An organized guerilla effort could give that 1% a lot of power.

THE MOVEMENT
I like to believe that all farmers have an innate love for the land. And if given the chance, conventional farmers would unanimously return to a management style that built integrity not only back into the soil but into their craft. In the root cellars of these tradesmen exist basic guiding principles of land stewardship. Farmers are in many ways the first conservationists; learning from nature on how to grow food and provide. If food insurgents help them recover this lost art, we can reclaim the land and reestablish a sensible, food system.

How about a movement that paid farmers to quit farming conventionally? Farmers would participate in a program where they would be paid from private funds to transition their farms over to organic. Contracts with Monsanto, Cargill and the like would need to be cancelled. Land would begin to heal and diverse farming ecosystems would once again populate the country. A training program would assist farmers in the conversion process giving them the necessary skills as well as a business plan for marketing their products.

If enough farmers participated in the program, the supply of organic food would eventually surpass the supply of conventionally grown food or at least give organic a competitive edge.

THE EFFORT
To convince conventional farmers, a coalition of organic growers would launch a ground effort to talk farmer to farmer. With enough farmers on board, conventional farming would begin to wane and perhaps be extinguished altogether.

The money to fund this project would come from individual donors - celebrities, business men/women, private parties, foundations, etc. Basically, anyone interested in seeing a change. It would require huge capitol. Billions of dollars would be needed to cover all costs associated with the project from paying farmers and training programs to the project’s steering team made up of fundraisers, farmers and administrators.

The proposed revolution would focus on large-scale producers. To truly fix our food economy, we need address the large tracts of land designated for industrial farming and ranching namely the Central Valley and the Bread Basket. The question then becomes...Do we help these farmers improve their practice at their current size or do we encourage them to down-size dividing their land into smaller plots to be bought and sold to new farmers? Smaller farms create jobs and smaller farms can more readily mimic natural ecosystems. Better for the land, better for the economy, better for the community.

Farming is an untapped job market which could significantly reduce unemployment. If we could get just 5% of the population farming again, it would make a huge impact economically, culturally and environmentally. It would help achieve Food Sovereignty where by "the people" define their food system and agricultural policy. Now is the time! The average age of farmers is getting older. We need young, enthusiastic farmers entering the market. If we don't get more people farming now, the ag giants will only get bigger as the gobble up the land of these aging farmers. Rise your scythe!

 
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NPR coined it best when they came up with the series, "This I Believe."  We all have a voice. We all have big thoughts. We all have an opinion. But often don't have a place to express ourselves outside of private journals and coffee talks. "This I Believe" makes writers, orators and philosophers out of all of us - the proverbial soapbox. I'm a believer and deep thinker. And perhaps that's why I started a blog. I needed a clearinghouse to sort through and process all that I believed in.

One thing I believe...is that the way we grow, manage, distribute and market food can change the world! "Change" being the operative word. A lot needs to change in order for that to happen making the food question very complex. You could put your hand in a sack full of important issues related to this topic and write a book about how each one could contribute to this change, i.e. farming practices, sustainable agriculture, food justice, pest management, diet and nutrition, local food, dairy production, soil management, food safety, farm-to-table, feed the world, etc…The tricky thing is linking up all these issues. What needs to happen first? And in what order? I'm not claiming I have the solution but I am going to offer my suggestion on what I think we need to focus on in order to see positive impacts in our food system.

To help me make sense of complex issues like our food system, I strip them down to their most basic. From there I create a foundation upon which I can stack all the related information in an organized manor. It's like a big flow chart in my head. A filing system of sorts. Yes, I'm a "Type A" personality but governed by a left brain. I like creative order! If such a thing exists. The first complex issue I was given was in Mr. Hanley’s eighth grade class. We literally put our hand in a sack and pulled out a topic upon which we had to prepare a one-hour presentation. I drew “oil.” I used up more poster board and transparencies than the drug store could supply. I could have spoken for six hours with all the research I did. I think that project scared me for life and is probably why I’ve been an over analyzer ever since. It’s helped me though…like when I was a mountain bike instructor. If I gave my students too many, “do this, do that’s,” they would look like Tiger Woods in a yoga pose. So I would break each skill down into just three main points so they would not over think the task. For instance, when approaching a rocky downhill section, I would coach them by saying, “weight back, off the front brake, look ahead.” They would make it through ever time.

When looking at the food complex, I will rely on my "power of three" methodology using the three core principles of Agroecology: environmental, social and economics. We could break it down even further into just two, social and economic, because it is their demands upon the environment which drive how we treat it...We ask the land to provide high yields but often at an expense, we want to sustain our natural resources but exploit them at the same time,  we want to create more jobs but our farms require less workers. For the purpose of this exercise, I'll pull in some visuals to relate all three principles (if I only had an overhead projector and some transparencies). Imagine a scale with food production on the left (representing the environment) and food access  on the right (representing social). And at the fulcrum point is the economy. When you strip down the food economy, producing and access are at the core - food has to be grown and eaten. Equitable food production and food access creates a fair and balanced economy because value is built all the way through the supply chain. The focus is not on the profit but investment in the land and people...the two things at either end of the food system. Place ecologically sound farming practices in a regional food system and local economies will strengthen. More money stays in the community which in turn creates jobs, improves food access and develops infrastructure for a new food system. Healthy land management leads to healthy economies.

p.s. I'm not sure what I can footnote but somewhere between pages 126-208 of Oran Hesterman's book, Fair Food, I came up with this theory so it must be his or those of the people he interviewed. Thanks guys!