In June of 2008, 2500 people stood in line, desperately waiting for free food vouchers in Wisconsin. Their need was so urgent and their frustration so violent that fights broke out and at least one person was trampled, stepped on as other Americans tried to get food. Just the week before an e-coli scare caused the recall of millions of tomatoes. Almost 2 million more Americans will depend on food stamps this year than last - as many as 1 in 7 in some states.
What more evidence do we need that our food system is fundamentally broken and that we are facing growing hunger and insecurity in what was once the richest nation of the world? The food crisis that has people rioting across the globe has come home and threatens us all.
There are no slight refinements on this system that will enable us to continue as we have been - more fertilizer on the ground means more climate change, and the destruction of our future food growing capacity. There is no magical technical solution awaiting us in the wings - just hunger and increasingly high prices for very basic foods. But there is an answer - an answer that can give us more than just freedom from want - it can give us hope for power in the political system that has disenfranchised us, and a return to an America most of us might want to live in. But it requires a deep and fundamental transformation - most of us will have to return to engaging with our food - we will have to help grow it, to cook it, and to know where it comes from and how it is produced. We need to shift away from being, as Wendell Berry puts it, "the most thoughtless eaters in history" and towards a new vision in which self-provisioning, that most ordinary of human activities, again comes back to the center of our lives. The good news is that this work gives us better food, better health, greater security and a way back to what Thomas Jefferson called "A Nation of Farmers" - a nation of people independent from corporations that do not have their interests at heart.100 Million New Farmers?
This book begins from the simple premise that it is both possible and necessary to stop the harm that industrial agriculture is doing-resource depletion, global warming, global poverty, increased food insecurity and hunger, and unsafe, low-quality food-and that we can do so simply by choosing to change the nature of what we grow and what we eat. It is a call for more participation in the food system, for millions of new farmers and hundreds of millions of new cooks in the US and worldwide. It begins with the recognition that for a host of reasons, we simply have no choice but to radically alter our food system, to end its dependency on fossil fuels and to bring food security to the table as a central issue of our times.
We can almost hear your voices now: "Did they say millions of new farmers?" It sounds like madness if you grew up in an industrial society where there was always plenty of food in the stores and on the table, where too much food, rather than too little, was often the problem. Why on earth would we need millions of new farmers and cooks? Aren't we living in the richest country in the world, the land of milk and honey, the land where mothers don't have to let their babies grow up to be cowboys or farmers anymore? Even if you know that the food system is falling apart, it represents a huge psychological shift to say that this means that we must change our lives so radically that we must participate in the food system. After all, wasn't that what modernity was for-to free us from the endless drudgery of growing and cooking food?
Believe it or not, what we are describing is a call for a return to human norms and human community, to living in a way that is connected to our land and our food, much as all human societies before ours have. We argue that not only can we cease to do the harm that industrial agriculture does but we can replace it with something better-a better way of growing and preparing food and also a democracy of the sort that Thomas Jefferson imagined for his nation (more on this further on), a democracy that is not vulnerable to being stolen or sold, as our present one is. .
Moreover, we think most of us have a rapidly growing sense of unease about our own security. More and more of us are struggling to put food on our tables. Food pantries are seeing more and more middle-class families show up at their doors. And most of us have the sneaking suspicion that there's no magical way of preventing the disaster from coming to us. So perhaps, just perhaps, it isn't quite so crazy to suggest that something about our food system is broken. Understanding this is essential-and we need to learn it quickly. Right now, we are seeing the confluence of multiple crises destabilizing both the economy and the food supply. We face the very real possibility that we and our children may be poorer and hungrier and less healthy than we were-and what parent or grandparent or anyone who cares about the future would not do everything necessary to prevent such a disaster?
So what are those problems? What is causing these shifts in the world we knew? We've touched a little on the immediate causes, but what is at the root of the difficulty? Does it really mean we cannot go on the way we are?