Crop and Other Failures

Concern is growing that the crop failures of last year could lead to food shortages and an increase in prices this year. Food supplies are also threatened by high transportation costs, poorly regulated large-scale agriculture, over and misuse of pesticides and chemicals, weather and the use of ingredients specifically created to increase profit rather than promote health. So the concern is twofold: food quantity and food quality.

More and more consumers are finding it difficult to purchase the healthy food they desire for their families. In many cases they buy what is more affordable rather than what is healthier, fresher and more sustainably grown. That’s because the small local farmer receives no subsidies from the government, while big ag is heavily subsidized, with the most money by far going to large corn producers.

Subsidies make it less expensive to produce HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) than either cane or beet sugar, and the cheaper alternative is now used in an increasing number of foods available in the supermarket, from yogurt to cereal to chocolate syrup, and especially in soda. The use of HFCS cuts costs for the manufacturer who incorporates it into its product, giving it an advantage over the producer of greens, carrots, and apples.

HFCS is suspected of being a cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, which has led to the deaths of approximately one third of the honeybees in the United States. In the United States, high-fructose corn syrup has become a sucrose replacement in many honey operations. In 2009, a study found that at temperatures above 113 degrees Fahrenheit, HFCS rapidly begins to form HMF (hydroxymethylfurfural), which is toxic to the honeybees.

An October 14, 2009, American Chemical Society press release cites the study published in their Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The release says in part: “The scientists measured levels of HMF in HFCS products [beverages and processed foods] from different manufacturers over a period of 35 days at different temperatures. As temperatures rose, levels of HMF increased steadily. Levels jumped dramatically at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. ‘The data are important for commercial beekeepers, for manufacturers of HFCS, and for purposes of food storage. Because HFCS is incorporated as a sweetener in many processed foods, the data from this study are important for human health as well,’ the report states. It adds that studies have linked HMF to DNA damage in humans. In addition, HMF breaks down in the body to other substances potentially more harmful than HMF.”

Most commercial corn is now genetically modified. For this reason, if a food is labeled organic, it should not contain HFCS, since organic foods cannot include genetically modified ingredients. HFCS is just one concern, however. The losses in the honey bee population have also been attributed to the use of chemicals and antibiotics. Sound familiar? We need to pay attention to the bees.

I’m afraid that nothing will change until the crisis in food quality and availability becomes so critical that there is no ignoring it. The question then will be: Is it too late? Crops have cycles. They take time and care. There are no quick fixes for a broken food supply chain. In the meantime, what do we do? We do what we can, and we help where we can.

As individuals we can read labels and avoid fast food and highly processed food. We can learn how to prepare meals from vegetables we have never before tried, and others from our childhood that were served by our parents and grandparents, who were also on tight budgets. Some of our most nutritious foods cost little. By preparing home-cooked meals from wholesome ingredients, we are teaching our children about healthy lifestyles, and also about our individual food culture. We can support local growers by visiting farm markets, and we can break ground for a small garden. In inner cities, people are digging up their yards and tending plots in community gardens. In fact, this may be the only way many low-income families can enjoy fresh food. We can also support programs that help those least able to afford healthy local fruits and vegetables.

An example is the Farmers’ Market Coupon Program, which was first established in Massachusetts and has since been adopted by other states. It provides women and children in the Federal Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and low-income elders with coupons redeemable at farmers’ markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Some communities have established farm-to-school programs, so that children can benefit from locally grown. Farmers and gardeners “plant a row for the hungry” and contribute to food pantries and homeless shelters. The trend is growing. We really do care for each other. If only our regulators and policy makers did.

A friend told me of his desire to open a soup kitchen. Al said: “The real joy would be helping others. Down in the Red Fort district in Delhi, India, you see the rich Indians getting a first-hand experience serving the poor homeless, the street kids, the handicapped. The rich buy the food and then cook it (in huge pots supplied by the temple). There is the dahl, the broken rice, the beans etc., and the dried tree leaves that are somehow pressed together to serve as plates. They call this act of service Puja. Take note–hardship can bring the community together. And get this–the rich thank the poor for the opportunity to be the hand of Love, the chance to practice giving and sharing. Acts like this are a chance for all of us to experience our humanity. More of us should try it, wouldn’t you agree.”

I do agree. I also feel that consumers should have an abundance of affordable choices, but that can only happen when love and benevolence replace greed and self-interest. This should extend to the struggling small farmer, as well, so that he can continue his stewardship of the land that feeds us all and adequately care for the family that he loves.

“When the sun rises, I go to work. When the sun goes down, I take my rest. I dig the well from which I drink, I farm the soil that yields my food. I share creation, Kings can do no more.” — Ancient Chinese Proverb, 2500 B.C.

Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in Northwest Massachusetts. Her work is informed by decades of experience with unions, agriculture, public health, politics and her support of populism. She welcomes contact by email: Read other articles by Sheila.