Q & A
Q&A with Sandor Ellix Katz
1. Globalization has brought unprecedented food choices to American consumers. Why do you think the globalization of food is a problem?
vAlong with providing affluent consumers with a wide variety of food commodities, globalization has increased our dependence on corporations to feed us. People and communities have become disempowered, and the industrial style of farming that corporations practice pollute the soil, water, air, and even the genetic base of the crops and animals that have historically sustained us.
2. What about free trade?
Looking at the legal infrastructure which facilitates global trade, it seems that ďfree tradeĒ has been elevated to the ultimate right, more fundamental even than peoplesí rights to clean water or fresh food. Yet for all the rhetoric about free trade, the local exchange of basic foods such as milk, meat, cheese, cider, and jams are increasingly restricted in the name of public health. Small-scale producers are restricted from trade to protect the markets of the global players.
3. Can you describe what happens at an underground market?
Small underground markets are developing in many places because despite the legal restrictions, there remain small-scale producers devoted to traditional methods, and people concerned about health who want access of traditionally-produced local foods. One market I visited meets in a used bookstore and began as a distribution network for a fellow who loves to bake bread, and diversified from there. Another market I visited rotates locations among participantsí homes and farmsteads. These markets are vibrant community events occurring, by necessity, under the radar.
4. Shouldnít people be worried about getting sick from unregulated food products?
Most food-related illness is caused by the conditions of factory farming. The informal exchange of food is a neighborly tradition that must be carried on; it is the essence of community. If you believe that safety is assured by an inspectorís periodic visits and an investment in expensive facilities, then youíre blindly trusting a corrupt system. When you buy directly from farmers and small-scale producers, you can visit their facilities and judge for yourself. But donít succumb to the paranoid fantasy that only licensed food is safe.
5. You write about the need for greater connection to the sources of our food. Why is that important?
How to feed oneself is among the most vital skills that each generation imparts to its offspring. It is the essence of empowerment, a central aspect of any organismís integration into its environment. We have been seduced into the idea that we have been liberated from drudgery, when instead we have become utterly dependent on a global economic system that damages the earth and provides us with nutritionally-diminished food. The mass disconnection of human beings from the harvesting and cultivation of our own food reflects a broader disconnection from the natural world.
6. What can urban dwellers do?
People in cities can support farmers living around the cities, by patronizing farmers markets and community-supported farms, and encouraging access for folks with fewer resources. Urban dwellers can also become food producers, whether itís just potted herbs in your window or at a more ambitious scale. Cities can produce plenty of food, if land is made available for it. During World Wars I and II, a patriotic movement called Victory Gardens saw cities around the U.S. devote open space and margins to organized cultivation. In the transformation of Cubaís agriculture after the fall of the Soviet Union, cities became important food-producers. In cities with lots of abandoned property, such as Detroit, urban farming is happening at an impressive scale. Community gardeners in many cities are partnering with schools, public housing, and other landed institutions to create more gardens. Urban areas are exciting frontiers of food activism.
7. Donít we need technological intensification in order to feed the worldís growing population?
The multi-national corporations that produce seeds and pesticides and other forms of agricultural biotechnology always promote the lie that only through improved technology can we adequately feed the earthís growing human population. In fact, their technology pollutes and erodes the land, wastes precious water, and creates genetic vulnerability. Rather than maximizing food produced per acre, technological methods maximize food produced per hour of labor. The reality is that an acre of land can produce far more food if itís hand cultivated with diverse crops than if itís monocropped. So if we need more food, we should devolve our agriculture and promote diversified small farms.
8. Why do you think itís important for gardeners and farmers to save their own seeds?
Seeds are a vivid example of the technological seduction of farmers. Government-funded programs developed hybrid seeds in the twentieth century that farmers couldnít save. The seeds could often produce greater yields, but with trade offs; since they werenít adapted to specific local conditions, as saved seeds were, they also required greater inputs, such as water and pesticides. Now many of the old adapted varieties are gone, breeding has shifted from the government to corporations, and farmers are utterly dependent on inputs which they must purchase each year. Thankfully, many farmers and gardeners are reviving seed saving and the informal exchange of saved seeds as a form of taking their power back.
9. You describe the raw milk underground as the largest civil disobedience movement in the United States. Isnít raw milk dangerous?
The milk of animals given adequate space to graze is almost always healthy. The problems develop, as they did in late 19th century America, when you take the animals off pasture, confine them, and feed them primarily grain. Diseased milk is rendered safer by pasteurization, but the pasteurization cannot endow it with the nutritional qualities of healthy milk. Thousands of people around the U.S. are seeking and finding access to healthy, real, raw milk, and not only are they not getting sick from it, they are thriving and their movement is rapidly expanding.
10. Many people with a political critique of factory farming become vegetarians. Are you a vegetarian?
I respect the ideals that motivate people to vegetarianism and veganism. I would say that vegetarianism is the original form of food activism. I have experimented with vegetarianism, but always returned to omnivorousness because I crave meat. Animals can be raised and slaughtered in more humane, conscientious ways, and Iím pleased to be meeting small farmers all over who are doing just that.