Unite and Conquer

Eat locally—and raise your voice.

By Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

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Strive for food that is natural, healthful, organic, and local.It's all about my children. Sadly, as things stand, I can't advise them to become farmers. Not that they've given me any inclination they would want to be. As we dance around the room to "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," my 3-year-old laughs and pleads with me to take her to Old McDonald's Playland for a Happy Meal. What irony.

During the past 60 years, our food system has become industrialized, homogenized, and corporatized. Family farmers are close to becoming relics. Farm-based rural communities have been replaced by huge suburban rings of commuters who spend hours a day burning fossil fuel.

To serve the belief that convenience is our birthright, ecological harmony has been irreparably disrupted by agrichemicals, aggressive tillage, huge herds of confined animals, and drifting transgenic crops. And despite "modernization," 10 percent of Americans remain "food insecure"—unsure of where their next meal is coming from.

Should we give in, order the Big Mac, and go with the flow? The answer, of course, is no.

Maybe the odds are against us, but I believe individuals can make a difference. In my hometown, by referendum, my neighbors and I defeated a Walmart megastore. If one little town, united in its drive, can beat back the world's largest corporation, just think what all of us together can accomplish.

We must go beyond organic, as it is currently defined in the National Organic Standards, and strive for food that is not only healthful and natural but also local. If you live in South Carolina, the locally grown peach you buy in your supermarket may have traveled halfway across the country to a distribution center before returning home for sale. Or worse, the peach you assume was grown in the orchards outside your town actually may have come from an orchard in California.

The food distribution system is broken. We must develop a consciousness for what has come to be termed food miles—the distance food travels from the farm to the mouth. Buying locally means farmers get more of the food dollar, we get better nutrition, and less fuel is consumed in transport. It also means a return to seasonality in our diets. No more blueberries or asparagus year-round.

We also need to take action through government. Too few exercise their right to vote, and fewer still engage in direct advocacy, such as writing to Congress. And advocacy works. I watched it happen when I joined with 275,602 other angry citizens who wrote letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, through sheer grassroots power, toppled its first weak-willed attempt at a rule for national organic standards.

Earlier this year, small handfuls of people succeeded in getting Congress—for the first time ever—to set aside $15 million for organic-production research. Sounds good, until you consider it within the context of the $190 billion farm bill. If a few people could secure $15 million, what could tens of thousands of us do?

It will take great effort. But 60 years hence, my crystal ball has our great-grandchildren singing, "Old MacDonald has a farm—a locally supported, sustainable, organic farm."

To which I can only say, "E-I-E-I-O!'

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Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D., helped draft Congress's Organic Food Production Act of 1990 and later represented environmental interests on the National Organic Standards Board. She is the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This article originally appeared in Organic Gardening, Vol. 49, No. 5 (September/October 2002), p. 42.

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