Recalling the Famine

By Shawn Dell Joyce
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to take a moment to remember the one of every eight Irish people who starved to death in the Great Potato Famine of 1840.

While there were many political reasons behind that genocide, one of the greatest preventable mistakes was monocropping, or the practice of planting the same potato variety in the same fields year after year. This made it easy for a blight to wipe out nearly an entire crop in one season, and decimate a country over three years.

A new independent documentary film called Fresh examines the American food system and how we are committing the same preventable mistake, along with many others, by placing all our proverbial eggs in one basket. Fresh points out that essentially two American corporations, Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, process almost every bite of food we put in our mouths that we do not purchase from local farmers. The dangers in this are to our health, soil fertility, economic health of family farms, and the long term health of the environment.

You probably never heard of Cargill and Archer, or the farming practice that holds sway today, but you are directly and adversely affected by them this very moment. Their main products are high fructose corn syrup and soy bean oil, which are present in almost every food on supermarket shelves. You would be hard pressed to put together a conventional meal without one or both of these ingredients. The rest of their profit comes from converting government-subsidized commodity crops into animal products commonly known as meats.

Farmers, if they want to deal with these Big Ag corporations, must play by certain rules, which often include monoculture and using genetically modified seeds and chemical inputs that destroy human and environmental health. Fresh examines the fact that a medium size organic farm is more profitable than any size industrial agriculture operation (including CAFO’s or Confined Animal Feeding Operations). The film also suggests that feeding the world lots of high fructose corn syrup may not curb world hunger quite as much as creating localized food systems that feed local populations.

In other words, less emphasis on cheap food, more emphasis on nutrition.
Some areas in our country as well as other parts of the world are considered “food deserts” because you could buy a soda there but not a fresh apple. In these food deserts, cheap food reigns supreme in fast food restaurants, stores carrying mainly processed foods, but no fresh vegetables, fruits or organic anything. Such deserts are often in poverty-stricken communities like Native American reservations and inner cities where families must often choose between food and utilities.

Less extreme are areas where people are so acclimated to cheap food that they balk at the higher cost of local produce. This happens where people purchase groceries primarily in big box stores that pay farmers the cheapest possible prices for food produced with little regard for anything but a lower price tag. What we don’t pay for at the cash register, we leave as a “balance due” to future generations in the form of depleted soils, polluted lakes and streams, and lost livelihoods of small farms.

Fresh calls for good food, not cheap food, and a localized food system that feeds your body and the community, and preserves our planet. The film examines real farmers using polyculture farming methods to produce real food, and the real food eaters who love them. Come see Fresh and decide for yourself how to best feed our friends and neighbors here and around the planet.

The Wallkill River School of Art in Montgomery will offer a free screening of Fresh in honor of Earth Day on April 22nd at 3 p.m. Bring a local food dish to share (optional) and meet local grass farmers (meat producers), and spin farmers (veggie producers) while enjoying fresh apples and cider. RSVP 845-457-2787.

Shawn Dell Joyce is the director of the Wallkill River School of Art, and author of “Orange County Bounty,” a local foods cookbook.

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