by Maria Deloso, ’15
Farming directly determines what foods are available to us, which, in turn affects our own cultures and social norms. Looking at different ethnic foods, we can see certain trends. East Asian food tends to incorporate bok choy frequently, Indian foods lentils, and American food potatoes. While some of these choices may be attributed to the plant’s native land, others can be traced all the way back to history. But what is grown is just as important as how the crop is grown. The widespread use of conventional pesticides in lieu of a biointensive integrated pest management system (IPM) limits the consumer’s options in purchasing healthy, risk-free food. In essence, farms control our cultures and choices.
The case of Hawaii demonstrates the influence that Westerners had on the native diet, creating a trend that even exists now, centuries later. The Hawaiians preferred dog meat, a delicacy that the mutton and beef-loving Westerners were unused to. Cattle and sheep were soon brought in to satisfy these cravings. With a lower population density than usual, thanks to the diseases brought in by the Westerners, the cattle soon took over the cultivated fields. Although the fields were supposed to be protected by walls, the lack of human capital to keep the walls in good shape lead to the takeover of cattle in lieu of the fields. This lead to a switch to cattle ranching which continues to be practiced today. Taro suffered a similar fate– the Western preference for sweet and Irish potatoes lead to the increase in potato planting instead of the native-preferred taro. Even now, potatoes and cattle serve as a major sector of agriculture in the Waimea region of Hawaii. As a result of the Western takeover in the past, future generations of native people were raised mostly eating beef and potatoes instead of the previous plants, adding monotony to the international palate. One might even argue that their cultural heritage has been hijacked by the effects of past agricultural preferences, as cultural norms change to incorporate the meat and potatoes grown.
Similarly enough, farms are able to control consumers’ purchases through the quality of their produce. Not everyone has access to pesticide-free foods from a local grocery store. In effect, the consumer is forced into purchasing the chemical-laced produce for lack of a better option. While it may be argued that the potential health problems associated with conventional produced are only hypothetical, the element of doubt still offers some worries. Those without access to organic food are disempowered and made to purchase produce that may contribute to later illnesses. Although there have been attempts by the government to incorporate natural pest management strategies into crops such as sugar beets and the sugar beet cyst nematode, the continued widespread use of pesticides in agricultural systems means that there is still room for improvement. Considering the cost barriers that farmers face in changing their current methods of production, there is evidently a space for an outside organization to start the change, a role that both the government and environmental nonprofits have a role to play.
We all eat food and depend on it for sustenance. To wholly rely on a potentially dangerous and oil-dependent method of farming could prove ruinous for future food production, considering the coming rise in oil prices, much less future healthcare costs. Should the government have to bear the whole cost of switching to a more sustainable approach to agriculture? How much should they contribute to testing and crop insurance as the transition comes? How much is good food worth to a society when compared to national security and social infrastructure?
Maria is a freshman fascinated by the stuff we put into our mouths three times a day, seven days a week. Send her your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.