“Ag Gag” laws attempt to stop us from knowing a product’s story: see below.
“We have to remember our source of nourishment. Or we will starve.”
Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs Indian Reservation (A Song to the Creator)
In spite of Elizabeth Woody’s warning, modern consumer society is geared to making us forget the natural sources of our nourishment. Supermarket stacks of saran-wrapped hamburger packages disguise entirely their resemblance to their natural source.
Modern markets also give us the sense that money rather than knowledge is the key to our survival. And in the capitalist system– in the short term– it is.
But in the long term, it isn’t. There is a limit to the ways in which we can force the land to yield more—even though we are still trying, with such schemes as vertical farming. Without healthy water and soil, food will not grow. It comes to market from somewhere and the way in which this happens is a story we need to hear and to tell.
If that story is one of abundance and diversity and continuance, it is also a story of grace. Thus, Wendell Berry once remarked, we should not eat any food we are not willing to pray over.
By contrast, most modern stories of the food we eat are profoundly lonely ones— for humans are the only actors within them. In these stories we are only consuming, not sharing. These stories tells us humans made up the cartoon cows that appear on milk cartoon– and humans can make up our food as if we did not need the cooperation of the land to do this.
Thus I applaud Barack Obama’s proposal for a farmer’s market at the White House: for such market’s tell us a different story.
We can never have too much healthy food, too much of the community created by such markets and the urban gardens like that currently at the White House. Such markets and gardens exude the spontaneous sense of celebration that harvest always engenders.
They illustrate there are human hands and other natural lives involved in producing “the sources of our nourishment”.
At the Eugene Farmer’s Market last year, a booth selling goat cheese and goose eggs displayed a large egg and invited the passing crowd to guess what animal it came from. The farmer was amused at the number of passers-by who blurted out “goats” in answer to this question—evidently since there was a picture of a goat at the booth. Though there was no picture, obviously, of a goat laying an egg!
But perhaps the story of a goat’s egg is better than the story of an egg laid by a corporation with the intersession of a few feathered machines so closely housed that they need antibiotics to survive—and regularly resort to cannibalism. Or formerly grass-eating machines that never move from their engineered milking stations and are turned into cannibals by the food their human managers give them.
And there is the tragic story that tells how both of these animal-machines in factory farms are slaughtered–under conditions in which humans are maimed and (all too often killed) along with the animals they process.
These stories are documented in books like Fast Food Nation and the film Food, Inc.—and in the lively Story of Stuff. But they are not told in that supermarket package, where the stories available to consumers consist of things like ingredients and percentage of fat. These hardly give us the full story.
But this is changing. Grassroots labeling campaigns are a way of telling more of the story of our food. These stories include “sustainably raised” and “humanely raised” beef and “free range” chickens.
“Organic” itself was not originally a government label, but one created and standardized by farmers’ organizations like Tilth in Oregon. There was a considerable battle when this label became a federal standard a few years back—since certain corporate interests wanted to water it down so much it would have been a meaningless label that did not distinguish organic from commercial products. But those who originally instituted it—as well as a vocal percentage of the US public—fought to continue it as a standard that consumers can trust.
The battle continues as Monsanto wants to add genetically engineered foods to the list of those certified as organic.
There is also “fair trade” to combat the “free trade” propagated by the World Trade Organization whose rules specify nations cannot discriminate against products based on the means of production—so that it sued Massachusetts for boycotting products from the terrorist regime in Myanmar.
The label “fair trade” urges us to go more deeply into the stories behind our luxury goods from elsewhere. How many of use would pick up that Hershey bar at the supermarket checkout lane if it had on it the story of the child’s hands that produced it under slave labor conditions in Africa?
There are other stories that the labeling of sustainably raised lumber, the labeling of buildings with LEED certification, and the proposed LEAF program for labeling of fabrics urge us to think about. Some of them are gathered on community-based websites under consumer information links here.
The economic effects of such labeling is indicated by the pitched battle Monsanto has waged against labeling genetically engineered foods in the US for the last two decades—since their research tells them US consumers will buy far fewer gmo foods if they know they are buying them. Monsanto’s dirty tricks included pressure on Fox News to fire two investigative reporters who uncovered the corporation’s unsavory tactics.
Meanwhile, dairy farmers in Oregon collectively agreed to refuse to use the bovine growth hormone—and labeled their products Bgh-free. Monsanto also fought a losing battle to make it against the law to label milk products in this way.
Such labels signal a move to tell the stories of the products we use—stories that are all too often hidden by the corporate interests that manufacture those products. Grassroots labels have standards upheld by transparent community groups—as opposed to the decisions deliberated behind the closed doors at the WTO.
Such labels are an important way of telling the story of the products we buy in a global arena in which consumers are often separated from the products they purchase by geographical and social distance.
They remind us all that we are a living part of a living world: that there are human and natural lives behind all the food we ingest and the clothes we wear—and our houses shelter us with a story that began in the ancient joining of sunlight and trees.
One of the signs of a farm with ethical production practices is its transparency– its willingness to share the story of its production practices with us. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those factory farms lobbying for “Ag Gag” laws, in order to hide their practices from the public, levying jail sentences, for instance, for photographing what is done there.
And here is a great comment on this point that sums it all up, written by Valerie Fowler:
Ethically produced food is important on several levels. As mentioned here, fair trade food protects workers. Organic food protects the land and the consumers. Humanely raised food protects the animals from abuse. There are so many reasons to support “real” food and only one reason not to- which is money. Yet eating industrial food is actually cost-prohibitive because of the negative health effects. How much does diabetes, heart disease or cancer cost a person? Or even a simple doctors visit because the food they eat is so devoid of nutrients?
Filed under: Animals, Contrasting worldviews, environmental philosophy, Ethics, Forest and farm, Health | Tagged: consumerism, fair trade, labeling, LEAF, LEED, Oregon Tilth, white house farmer's market |