Food’s What’s Been Eating Me
I’ve been thinking a lot about food this year. Much of it started in the mountains near Chiang Rai, Thailand, and continued in a series of books and movies. In January I joined a homestay weekend trip to a Akha hill-tribe village coffee where coffee is grown. Lee, a twenty-something son of the village, returned from his university education, passing up opportunities abroad, to dedicate himself to not just the survival, but the success of his family and neighbors. A periodic educational homestay program and a coffee shop in Chiang Mai were part of his plan.
A couple hours north of Chiang Mai via public pickup trucks hired for segments of the journey, a group of fellow travelers and I headed up winding dirt roads through cool mountain air, a relief from the heat of Chiang Mai, and past scenic overlooks until we arrived amid a cluster of simple tin-roofed homes within national park land. The Thai government would love to have them out of here, but deals were made and the people continue to live and farm there though they do not own the earth under their feet.
The Thai government had brought in solar power but rather than teaching the villagers to operate it, they had wrapped it in barbed wire. And that’s where it sits now, broken and useless with no one who can fix it. (A few houses have their own little working systems for household power.)
Lee led us through the harvest process and we witnessed the care in which the beans were sorted, and, in some cases, rejected. Out in the fields, a half hour walk through the forest to a sheltered but grassy valley, we saw where the coffee grows. With the Western craze for free-trade and organic products growing, I was compelled to wonder: Is this “organic”? Is it “shade-grown”? The answer isn’t so simple and a frustration for a village that is ready to move beyond the Thai market with some really outstanding coffee.
What Does Organic Look Like?
An organic label would require them to pay for the certification. But the problem for the growers is that they don’t have such capital. They struggle to survive the growing season when the crop is harvested and put on a market that may or may not be especially profitable months in the future. The situation leaves them tempted by buyers who show up with money in hand at the beginning of the season and offer much needed cash — but very low prices.
Lee’s family and several others are, in fact, growing organically. No chemicals. And the coffee bushes are gradually becoming shaded as the fruit trees they are growing amongst become taller and fuller. Lee’s family’s continued success has led other families to follow their lead. Cherry trees, papaya, plums are scattered throughout. At the bottom of the hill in a low area is an unlikely rice paddy. The farmers bring in some compost along that long walk. Carefully loaded and balanced motorbikes help, but a lot of the compost is left right where it originated. Composting in situ. What’s going on here?
A coffee junkie and Internet-dependent, I spent a bit of time at Lee’s Akha Ama Coffee Shop in Chiang Mai. Making me a cappuccino, he asked me if I had read The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. I hadn’t, but promised I would when I returned to home base back in Madison. The hold at the library was waiting for me when I returned: a very old book, wanting some fingers ruffling the pages. As I pored through it, I felt like archaeologist or historian finding an unknown scroll of wisdom. The book was published in 1978 yet seemed to be addressing the agricultural world of 2011. Fukuoka, who once worked for the Japanese state in agricultural, had abandoned the modern approach and looked to nature for a better model. His “do-nothing” method proved to be capable of outdoing the industrial/chemical methods of his time being pushed by government and agribusiness. The book, an eye-opener, rises above just the chronicles of his success and methods, and becomes almost a philosophy on life. The title comes from one of Fukuoka’s anecdotes of a poor man who eventually becomes well off by collecting stray straws over the years, and suggests the power of tiny efforts repeated over and over again. It’s amazing and I had to tell people.
I posted my recommendation of The One-Straw Revolution on Facebook and someone saw it and raised me another: The Plowman’s Folly by Edward Faulkner. 1940s, this time. An American farmer discovered he could not only skip plowing – an unnatural and soil-damaging process whose effectiveness has no scientific support — but he could also create fertile, productive cropland out of parcels that no one felt were usable. Was this not revolutionary? In fact, someone in Wisconsin is currently using this non-plow method with success. My neighbor told me of her Peace Corp friend’s experience in Northern Africa, about the Western methods being introduced and screwing up the land, bringing in a dependence on machines and chemicals, creating erosion issues where none were before.
For me, this reading material was obscure, but in a mountain village in Thailand, it was the new mode of production, a look to the future, even as back in the USA we are dumping loads of chemicals, messing with genes, squeezing crazy amounts of produce out of a square foot, and getting sick or even dying from cantaloupe or spinach. How could we have arrived at this?
Science Fiction from Frankenfood
The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, another great recent read, scared me more than inspired. It is a page-turner, a sort of science fiction myserty. It presents a Bangkok of the future based on disturbing extrapolations of current issues in Thailand (especially fitting during this time of Thailand floods). Cultural tensions in the south of Thailand, monoculture GMO crops eliminating the variety nature offers, food-quality health problems for humans, the end of oil, the rising waters — tt’s quite a breathtaking and plausible story. We join the story at a time when GMO crops pushed by the powerful and corrupt “calorie men” have failed, leaving mass starvation and some deadly ailments – both plant and human — that emerged from the foods themselves. Having reached a genetic dead end, the calorie men are searching for what few original seeds may be left hidden somewhere.
Doesn’t sound familiar yet? GMOs are being touted as superfoods. Supercorn, supersoy. Plants that pretend to be the final solution for pests and climate changes and alleging to answer the world’s food needs. And of course they are also pulling huge profits as corporations try to control the market, at the same time they are eliminating competition – not just the corporate kind, but the plant kind.
Nature survives by constantly changing. Create the so-called perfect plant, and the pests these magic plants claim to be invincible against will eventually come up with a way to eat them. Monsanto’s magic corn, which has replaced 35% of the corn in the USA (where 2/3 of all corn is GMO) is already beginning to fail to deliver what it promised. The bugs already adapted, while nearly all of us are now daily consuming GMO food that has been only superficially tested to be safe. And even that little myth is being busted in a recent study that shows kidney and liver damage in only 90 days of consumption. What have we gained?
There are humble lessons being missed. Faulkner and Fukuoka offered to share them, but an agribusiness economic model that benefits not the farmers themselves but seed companies has triumphed. Greed and arrogance have trumped the market but are unlikely to bluff their way past Mother Nature. People like Lee and his family, on the other hand, are the hope of the future. Local family farms in Wisconsin rejecting Monsanto and other seed pushers are also offering alternatives to consumers. It all just scratches the surface. Until more and more people are aware that there’s even a fight going on here, things aren’t going to get better. Meanwhile Lee, with his one-cup revolution, is making the world better one cappuccino at a time.
Farmageddon, a new documentary making the rounds, shows that even government in some cases is working against the family farms that aren’t falling in line with the industrial farm model. (Find out where you can see this film. Madison can see it November 17 at the Barrymore Theater).