By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

On this day of food activism – Occupy the Food System – I’d like to say, Bravo! to the creative minds behind this event. It makes so much sense for food advocates, environment activists and family farmers to work together.

These groups share many goals and struggles. They all want a cleaner world, with quality food and stronger local economies. And they all operate on a precipice, with limited time left to stop the terminal effects of carbon pollution, and in the case of food, the corporate flattening of options. (Fortunately they have some heavyweight support from farm friend Willie Nelson and food activists like Vandana Shiva, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel and Woody Harrelson.)

Let’s take farming first. In the past 50 years, mega corporations have transformed food production into a chemical-intensive industry. Organic and conventional (call ’em old-fashioned) farmers who want to grow crops without massive chemical inputs, in ways that enrich the soil, minimize fossil fuels and conserve resources are threatened with extinction by the Monsanto-Bayer-Syngenta takeover of the seed supply.

The corporate titans did indeed produce increased yields, for a time, but at the expense of degraded soil and waterways. The genetically modified foods they’ve been flooding with in the last decade have not been proven safe and the pesticides they depend upon have produced super weeds. Their solution to the blind alley they created? Make more GE seeds coupled with more potent chemical treatments.

Mainstays of our food system, like corn and soybeans, are caught in this spiral of rising chemical dependence. More than 80 percent of these crops are genetically modified versions.  Canola and sugar beets are in line to join them. Should we find out that these GE foods are unsafe, that they trigger or contribute to diseases, it could be too late, because GE-seeds also ruin our ability to return to non-chemical farming. GE seed drift fouls organic fields, which must remain free of chemicals to be certified.

The threat from climate change is following a similar path. Humans have a limited time to address this issue before greenhouse gas pollution, ocean warming and ice loss set off a domino effect that cannot be reversed.

Like family farmers, climate action activists face steep institutional resistance by powers that are far better funded and have essentially purchased public policy to maintain the status quo. Washington and Wall Street’s recalcitrance to confront climate change (through laws like a carbon tax or liberal financing for renewable energy) has meant the US is falling behind other nations in responding to climate change.

There are many ways to slow greenhouse gas pollution, among them, a wholesale shift to more sustainable food system that’s cleaner and closer to home. In this effort, food and climate activists have always been entwined.

Likewise, the more specific goals of climate activists are aligned with those of food advocates, because a switch to wind and solar power, networks of high-speed trains and electric cars helps push back climate change and strengthen local economies. Solar and wind power also have good agricultural applications that can move farmers off fossil fuels.

The science tells us that we must curb global warming now or our children and grandchildren will face insurmountable economic and natural calamities. That’s the word from Al Gore, Dr. James E. Hansen and literally thousands of scientists worldwide who have studied aspects of climate change. But so much of the public remains unpersuaded in the US. Not so in other countries, where the consensus of opinion is allowing people to move forward. Many people see the critical difference as the juggernaut of corporate power in America.

Yes, it’s easy to dump on corporations these days. And they are composed of people (as opposed to being people), people with jobs. But they have steamrolled communities that used to be self-reliant, farmers that used to have options, Americans who enjoyed true variety in foods.

Today, I humbly submit that we can take some small helpful steps in our own lives. I’m not talking about an exhaustive list of “green tips” – you’ve heard those as often as you’ve seen Meryl Streep nominated for best actress.

I’m talking about getting up close and incredibly personal with your food.  I’m talking about putting your dollars where they count, and improving your diet at the same time.

Buy Local and Grow Local

First step, start buying organic food. Worried about the cost? Start with the foods that matter most. See this Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Still worried about the cost? Look around carefully, you’ll find some produce that’s cost competitive. You can also buy locally, and though not every local farmer has paid to become organic, many use a lot fewer pesticides because they’re growing foods that grow well in their area, and they just don’t need to apply chemicals. Blueberries are like that in Texas. Ask your local grower and s/he will likely tell you that this crop doesn’t need chemical treatments.

Next step: Grow some of your own organic food, or if time makes this impossible, take a minutes to find the nearest farmer’s market, where you can buy locally grown produce, breads and meat from small providers. You’ll be helping the local economy and you may discover some great new foods, especially tomatoes, that you won’t find at the supermarket. There are now more than 7,000 active Farmer’s Markets in the US, and you can find them listed at this USDA website.

Almost anyone can grow a bit of their own food. Start with herbs in the window sill, or a few containers of tomatoes (the most popular item for home gardeners). If you have a backyard, tear up some of the turf and put the ground to work producing peppers, cucumbers, carrots, onions, squash, beans and eggplant.

Too much work? Plant some herbs in your flower bed. Thyme, rosemary and oregano add an olfactory aspect, and can be plucked for kitchen use. They’re pretty and easy and useful.

Be careful to make sure you’re planting in clean soil – urban gardeners especially may want to test the soil for lead, or install a raised bed to avoid this health hazard.

The revised Plant Hardiness Map has zones edging upward as the climate warms.

And make sure you’re planting edibles that are appropriate for your planting zone. The government recently adjusted the Plant Hardiness Map to reflect how the zones are changing as the climate warms. The good news: You can practically begin planting your spring garden in February across the South. The bad news: It’s more evidence that climate change is real; the oceans are warming and the ice sheets are melting.

If you’re a veteran gardener already, maybe you can expand this year and help preserve some heirloom varieties. We’ve been blown away by the vigorous heirloom spinach we’ve grown, though last year’s extended summer heat did in our heirloom tomatoes.

We found that wonderful large leaf spinach at Local Harvest.

Whether you’re a novice or a master gardener, there’s a way to jump in and help yourself to better food, while contributing in your own small way to a revitalized food system.

So go ahead, Occupy — and Own — Your Food Supply!

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