Where does our food come from?

by Michelle Nay, Switzerland, ELP 2014
Written on July 25, 2014.

 
One of my favorite, and I believe also one of the most effective, methods of education is to learn out in the field. During the ELP we visited two agricultural areas: the organic and biodiverse Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley and the intensive production system around Salinas.

In the Salinas, everything is focused on efficiency. The land is very valuable and expensive to rent, therefore the output needs to offset the rent of the land. Everything needs to be efficient, from the harvesting to the processing to the distribution. Farming is high tech, with fields being leveled with GPS and laser technology to a maximum of 1mm deviation. Farm workers work for six days a week on the fields and the harvesting of salad, for example, is done with specially developed tractors, where men pick the salad and women take care of the packaging. The filled boxes are collected throughout the harvesting process and taken to the cooling and storage within two hours of picking. One of the most valuable crops grown in California is strawberries, which are very labor intensive and need to be picked every three days. Afterwards they are transported all around the country and even exported to Canada, Japan and Hong Kong.

But this high efficiency farming leads to various problems. Agriculture needs a lot of water and California was facing a drought the last years, where precipitation levels dropped to half the average level. Now most of the water is pumped from the aquifer below, but because of the insufficient recharge, water scarcity will become one of the biggest challenges in the future.

Because of abundant monocultures and insufficient natural enemy abundances that keep the agroecosystem in balance, pests are a problem. To combat pests, several pesticides are used or natural enemies are released.

This highly efficient production system also has impacts on people’s health. People picking strawberries, for example, need to be short because their back wouldn’t sustain the bent position for long. Further, the field workers are exposed to various pesticides and employment is only available part of the year.

But in California, not only high efficiency agriculture is found. During the ELP we visited the certified organic Full Belly farm, a 350-acre farm where over 80 different crops and varieties are planted. Besides production of crops, the farm provides food and habitats for beneficial insects and other wildlife and work on outreach activities such as educating children and adults about sustainable food production. At the end of our visit, we experienced the superior taste of the products grown on the farm through a tasting of the melons and tomatoes that were harvested.

Today we often forget where the food we eat comes from. It needs to be cheap, available year-round and we don’t care how it affects the people producing it. But there’s hope that this changes! During the ELP we visited an Edible Schoolyard project, where middle school kids are educated about how food grows and how you can prepare it. Further, we experienced what is possible with urban gardening and how community gardens are becoming more popular. I hope this helps making people realize that there is more behind food than what we see at the supermarket!

Image iconmichelle-3_2.png Salad farming in the Salinas (left), biodiverse Full Belly Farm (middle) and the Edible Schoolyard project (right)

Image iconNay-Michelle-Blog-3-1-1024x683_2.jpeg ELP participants enjoying the fresh melons and tomatoes at the Full Belly Farm