The ceremonial vegetables are on our porch; big orange pumpkins and green stalks of corn trying to turn golden in time for Halloween. These are decorative plants...
The ceremonial vegetables are on our porch; big orange pumpkins and green stalks of corn trying to turn golden in time for Halloween.
These are decorative plants, but they are symbolic too, a reminder of our good fortune. We have an abundance of food we sometimes take for granted, and that may be endangered by our growth and efficiency. We got our stalks and pumpkins at a farm that’s wedged between two big streets, both of which lead to our region’s biggest crop — buildings that sprout nearly overnight on any available patch of land.
Each fall there seems to be less space and more stuff along the way, no matter which direction we drive to get our U-pick pumpkins.
We could get pumpkins at the grocery store, but we want to get out into the country and get some dirt under our nails; we want to feel like we’ve been out of the city for a while.
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But the city, like an affectionate pet, just follows its people and does its business wherever we are. So we drive along and remark on buildings that we don’t remember being there before and wonder how long this farm or that farm will last before someone plants buildings on it.
The nation’s farm acreage declined 12 percent between 1982 and 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And agribusiness is increasingly concentrated; big farms, big processing plants.
Eat any spinach or lettuce lately?
We have an abundance of food at prices most of us can afford partly because agriculture has gotten to be such an efficient business.
Instead of close-in farms a lot of food comes from big agricultural businesses. When E. coli shows up in one of the big operations lots of people all over are affected.
Spinach or lettuce from California’s Salinas Valley goes to big processing centers then out to dozens of other states through a swift, well-organized distribution system. If any of the produce comes into the center contaminated, mixing it all together guarantees the problem will be widespread.
For years my biggest complaint about big agribusiness was that it produced tasteless tomatoes, but most folks can foresee worse problems now.
And it isn’t just plant food that is affected by our efficiency. Contaminated beef was the last big worry, and then there are antibiotics and steroids to consider.
Some people have taken to reading labels and looking for meats raised without all that stuff and processed in smaller, more controllable environments.
Even our last wild food sources are suffering from human efficiency. Fisheries are being depleted by overfishing and damaged by pollution. Do you enjoy mercury with your seafood?
Whether to order a plate of fish and chips has become an environmental question. What happens when the Atlantic cod are all gone?
European fishing boats fish off the coast of Africa because catches have declined so much off their own coasts.
Sushi lovers could be the death of Atlantic blue fin tuna. Cod, sole, swordfish and salmon are under pressure. Name the fish, and if people like to eat it, there is a good chance it is being overfished.
I looked up a bunch of charts that show catch levels in numerous sections of oceans around the world over the past 30 or 40 years. The charts look much the same, like the left side of the letter U, a steep downward slide to a new, much lower level than before.
Some people have been worried about these trends for decades, but most folks are just now getting the taste of a crisis.
There is a sustainable agriculture movement, pressure for fisheries reforms, a slow-food movement. Community gardens and farmers markets are popular around here, but their impact is small.
We’ll still pay for a nice piece of salmon and pretend everything will be OK.
Who knows what will be left for our children to eat in a generation?
All I wanted was a few pumpkins, but I left that farm with thoughts scarier than any Halloween ghoul. I’ll be OK once the latest headlines fade. Anyway, who wants spinach? I should have a good supply of candy after Halloween.