Further thoughts on sustainable food systems

(My road trip got pushed back until tomorrow, which gave me time to write this…)

Sunday’s NYT magazine this week was the “Food Issue,” and prominently featured an article by Michael Pollan about what the next president should do to reform the food and agriculture system in America.  He’s rather long-winded, but the basic gist is that food policy should be resolarized (instead of petroleum-based fertilizer and chemicals, farmers should use longer, more diverse rotations, cover cropping, etc), reregionalized (farmers markets, local meat inspection, federal procurement policies) and reculturized (sit at the table with your family and eat).  Pollan ends with a call for a back to the land movement, starting on the White House lawn and ending up in gardens and small farms across America.

Now, I generally like Michael Pollan – even though he says the same things over and over – and I think he’s done a lot to bring a conversation about sustainable food systems to mainstream Americans.  I also think that his basic premises make sense, even though they would be politically impossible to achieve in Congress (no matter if Obama or McCain is president).  Still, I couldn’t help but find the whole thing a little ironic:  Malawi has what Pollan wants for America (smallholder farmers producing most of their own food), but wants nothing more than an export-oriented agricultural sector.  Americans (or at least those left-wing radicals I hang out with) want to know their farmers and buy fresh, local produce, or even grow their own.

I don’t think that Pollan is advocating for 80 percent of the American population to return to the land (as in Malawi), but he does make the fundamental assumption that staple processed foods will be available to supplement those things you grow in your garden or buy from the farm stand.  This is a question that Malawi struggles with, as well, on a different scale:  Malawian farmers produce most of their own corn, but, depending on the year, not all of it.  What do you do when fresh and local doesn’t produce enough?

As much as I like fresh peaches from my farmers market, they’re only around for a few weeks a year.  I suppose I could can them, if I first mined the how-to info from my mom, but my DC apartment had neither the space nor the infrastructure (ie, a canner and glass jars, a robust air flow system) to do so.  And let’s face it – most Americans don’t have moms who spend late summer putting up food for the winter, so getting that information AND performing the task is probably a little out of reach for the majority.  THIS is what I think Pollan is missing, not a treatise on the virtue of the canner, but a discussion of how to promote small and mid-sized processing enterprises that would actually make local, decentralized food systems possible.  The irony is that this same discussion is one of the things that’s missing in Malawi, too.

Foods available in Malawian grocery stores largely come from outside Malawi.  I can’t think of any processed food item that I’ve seen that comes from inside Malawi, except maybe bread, which is baked fresh at the store.  Malawi is also a net importer of wheat, so it’s not even clear that the ingredients for the bread didn’t come from outside the country.  There’s also some Malawian hot sauce, and I’ve seen a few juice and dairy products that are produced internally, but the vast majority of processed foods are transported in.  Malawi is also landlocked and lacks good roads, which means the cost of transportation to bring processed foods in – mainly from South Africa, but also through Mozambique and Tanzania – is quite high.  By way of illustration, I paid $2.50 for a 16 oz can of tomatoes at the grocery store here, and I used to buy a 32 oz can at Whole Foods – WHOLE FOODS – for $1.39.  Malawi produces tomatoes, nice ones, so why is there no infrastructure for processing them in country?

I’ve back my argument into a corner, because I don’t know the answer.  The whole thing has made me curious if anyone here at Bunda is working on small or mid-scale processing, though.  I’m not an economist, but given the abundance of underemployed workers here and food safety regulations that I assume are not as strict and/or idiosyncratic as in the US, it seems like a potentially untapped opportunity for growth with fairly low barriers to entry.  Sure, many Malawians exist outside the realm of grocery stores, but a growing urban population – combined with increasing land pressures that ensure the urban population will only continue to grow – make this a growing market.  While I realize that start-up costs may be more here than in the US, wouldn’t it be nice if some donor agency supplied, instead of maize seeds and a bag of fertilizer, a market for adding value to smallholder produce?

Many parts of the agriculutural systems in Malawi and the US are really incomparable, but I feel like I may have found some common ground here – even if it is a common ground on which both countries struggle.

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