Friday, November 13, 2009

Obama, Pesticides, and Food Interdepence

I'm aware that Buddhist practitioners come of all political persuasions, and clearly the teachings don't lead anyone to any particular set of views when it comes to governments, social structures, and laws. However, maybe we share a collective interest in a healthy, sustainable food supply? Naw, I doubt it. I can imagine there are practicing Buddhists out there who have no major qualms with things like GMOs and toxic pesticide use.

This morning, I came across this article about U.S. President Obama's nominee for a major post in the Department of Agriculture. You'd think that after his wife planted an organic garden at the White House, and after all the talk about "Change We Can Believe In," that at least there would be a shift in the way we handle food. Unfortunately, like so many other issues during the first year of the Obama Administration, we've gotten a lot of pretty talk, but no real change. (Full disclosure: I voted for the Green Party's Presidential Nominee Cynthia McKinney last year, having long ago given up on the Democratic Party to represent the kind of change I desire to see.)

The reason why I have had fantasies about a collective Buddhist food policy is that the way we approach the growing and distributing of food impacts everyone, and everything. In some ways, it is the most obvious manifestation of interdependence.

Here is the first paragraph from the article written by Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones magazine:

When Michelle Obama announced plans to plant an organic garden at the White House, nearly everybody thought it was a great idea. Everybody except for the pesticide industry. Representatives from a branch of the industry's main trade association, CropLife America (CLA), wrote to the First Lady asking her to respect the role of "conventional agriculture;" they added in a separate note to supporters that the thought of the White House's chemical-free vegetables made them "shudder." But the public swipe at the president's wife didn't stop the administration from nominating senior CLA executive Islam "Isi" Siddiqui to a key post: chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR). If confirmed, Siddiqui will be responsible for, among other things, negotiating international agreements governing the use of pesticides.

It is impossible to use the large quantities of pesticide that modern, corporate level farms do and not negatively impact not only people, but planet. Groups like United Farm Workers, started by Cesar Chavez as political movement to illuminate the human side of the equation, regularly highlights the cases of worker poisonings, increased cancer rates, and other negative health impacts that plague farm workers who spray the produce many of us eat. Numerous groups, including Organic Consumers Association,have examined in great detail the impacts of pesticides on people eating chemically-enhanced foods. Still others have examined environmental impact of the use of pesticides, including many University agricultural researchers. Hell, even the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has it's own Ecological Risk Assessment because it's impossible to ignore the damage that is being done.

However, when it comes to leadership, Obama's choice of a pesticide-loving, pro-big agribusiness representative is very much in line with the way things are, and have been for decades, when it comes to food policy. Again and again, the interconnectedness of food with everything else is denied, ignored, or sold to the highest bidder. It never ceases to amaze me how little public outcry there is about these kinds of issues, and how easily people swallow lines like "We have to use pesticides to have enough food to feed the world's people."

What I find extremely interesting about arguments like that is the great lack of trust and faith many people now have in the planet. People rightly point to the population explosion of the past century as a cause of concern, and yet at the same time, have accepted apocalyptic stories linking organic (i.e. traditional) agriculture with the world's starving, as if somehow the earth has betrayed it's populations by being too limited. What's challenging about all this is that there are limits, and there are serious problems environmental problems that could end in catastrophe. Global Warming, rain forest destruction, and desertification are just a few of the many major issues we'll be facing in the coming century and probably for much longer. And yet, when it comes to food, ignorance is powerful and pervasive.

How many of you know where our food came from, how it was grown, and what impact that method of growth had on the workers and the planet? Probably more of us than thirty years ago, thanks to efforts of groups like those mentioned above, but still not the critical mass needed to transform all of this. How many of you have actually grown your own food, even just a little of it? Maybe a fair amount, but again not enough for that kind of knowledge to be wide spread and commonplace.

President Obama is like many of us, simply acting out of the money-driven, capitalist mentality that has become collectively accepted as "common sense." He's no different than anyone who chooses the bottom line over all else out of a desire for some tangle sense of security. The only real difference is that when someone like me chooses the bottom line over ethical, environmental, and spiritual wisdom, the impact is kind of small. But when the President makes that choice, the impact is much greater. But all of these acts are acts of destruction, great failures to see and embody our lives in a fully awake way.

I, personally, desire my practice to be one that continues to spark questions about ALL forms of "common sense," and to lead me to make changes based on those questionings. Ah, a goal for your practice, you might say - isn't that "against the rules"? Well, anyone that says they have no goals for their practice should be - questioned!


spldbch said...

I know very little about this issue so your post was very informative!

Adam said...

Thanks for pointing this out Nathan. I am of a like mind, in that I voted for Nader, and have found this President's idea of "change" to be mediocre at best.

I'm also deeply concerned about the amount of GMO foods and the amount of pesticides that we are consuming daily. My wife and I subscribe to a local CSA, where they deliver us fresh organic produce. At least 90% of the food is local and it is all organic. It's a very nice alternative to shopping for produce in the mega-stores.

Algernon said...

"Having no goal" is a goal. I enjoyed this post very much -- and I read the Organic Consumers website regularly, too. It's an excellent news source on food and agriculture.

Unknown said...

If you check out who our Food Safety Czar is, you'll be "pleased" to know that he used to be lead attorney for Monsanto Corp.. whose CEO by the way, in an interview on NPR's Marketplace admitted to only eating organic.
I voted for hope, all i'm gettin is hype.