Monday, March 1, 2010

Food Glorious(?) Food

I have made it back from our first Unit trip of the semester, which focused on rural and agricultural trends and issues in Isaan (northeastern Thailand). There are two aspects of this trip to analyze and reflect on, as it was a powerful unit content-wise, but I was also in the position of one of five Unit Facilitators, so my role was different than the majority of the group's over the past week.

We spent five nights in 3 different homes in 3 different provinces. In Roi Et province, we stayed with sugar cane and casava farmers who were transitioning (or already transitioned) away from chemical farming to organic methods. Megan, Maggie, Barrie, and I stayed together and our Pa drove us tuk-tuk style to his farm where we took his buffalo out for some play time in the water. 

I adopted a new nickname, La, in my next homestay in for three nights, spent in Yasothon province. There was no way April, Bijal, and Larissa were going to fly so we became known as A, B, and La, collectively ABLA. We had a huge family; it took us our whole first night to figure out who was who. We slept in the house of Pa Wan and Me Meow, and their 26 year old teacher daughter, whose name I never really got. We also spent our time with our aunt, Me Gao  (kind of pronounced like Gail, without the l), policeman uncle Pa Gon, and their children, 11-year- old Om, and 7 year old Im. Additionally, there was Tha and Yai, our grandparents. Yai was a crazy, making huge fires with this absurdly long knife and talking to herself without end. She always seemed to be everywhere, when I thought I just left her in the kitchen, we'd go to the farm and she was already herding some cows. Grandmothers in this country are incredible people. 

Me Meow and Pa Wan started growing organically 9 years ago, and have become well-known proponents and advocates of the cause in the area through the AAN (Alternative Agricultural Network). Pa went to Khon Kaen to give a presentation of the health benefits of organic farming while we were there, and he was heading out to Laos the day we left with Bennett, a '08 Bowdoin grad who came on this program his junior fall and has lived in Yasothon and has been working with the AAN every since leaving Maine. 

While in Yasothon, we had exchanges with our families, a young farmer and engaged Buddhist who is the quintessential model of self-sufficiency, a specialist in herbal medicines, and leaders from the AAN (all within 24 hours, btw). The role of small scale farmers such as our families in the global food system was beginning to become clearer. Over the course of this homestay, we began to all be more conscious regarding our own consumption, and everyone we heard from was another piece of the puzzle. 

We received the last piece of the puzzle from P'Thoy and P'Ubon in Mahasarakham Province. However, think of it this way: the puzzle is comparable to a puzzle of the Beatles' White Album (which is just a white square, ps) and all these white pieces are still all scrambeled in the box, never mind that the Beatles have many more albums and without puzzles of the rest of them, it's not really complete. I mean what's the point of doing a puzzle of the White Album if you can't do Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper's, Magical Mystery Tour, and Revolver. Everything needs context. Confused? That was the point.

So what's going on? Don't actually think I can answer this before you start reading.

Huge transnational corporations are exploiting all of these small scale vegetable, rice, and fish farmers in northeast Thailand, and all over the world really. They come in and convince farmers that growing with conventional methods will give them higher yields and therefore, higher profit. In some cases, the former may be true, but the latter, rarely. The farmers become so in debt to the companies because they need to buy so many inputs in order to grow their crops. Additionally, as they are growing cash crops such as sugar cane, cassava, and GM rice for the company's exports, as opposed to a variety of integrated crops that they could eat, they now need to buy food in order to sustain themselves. As you might have guessed, they don't make nearly enough money to pay for all of these things, while with every kilo of crop they sell to the factory, a multi-millionaire is making a huge amount of money. Never mind that the chemicals are causing many terrible health problems, soil and water degradation, cultural destruction of certain foods, and labor shortages. The fish farmers we visited were so in debt to CP, an Asian company that owns all the 7-11s here, because they had to give their land titles to the store who sells the fish feed as a downpayment for the food. We visited them around 9 am and they had been up since 8 pm the previous night harvesting thousands of fish from these small nets in a river. In order to stay up, they alternated beer and red bulls, so they were trashed by the time we got to them. For all that, they make $120 dollars per net every four months.  

The Thai's have this value of self-sufficiency, as do Americans, but in this case, they have the compete opposite meaning. Self-sufficiency to us is being able to monetarily support yourself, to have the ability to choose where you want to live, what job you want to have, and what you want to eat, no matter where it came from. If you want broccoli from the farmer's market, you can have it, but if you want McDonald's, so be it, too. To Thais, self- sufficiency is the freedom from reliance on anyone else. The main goal Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) is to get farmers to farm organically so they don't ever need to buy anything especially food related, and can supply their family with whatever needs they might have. Try to get those on the same page.

Now here's just the beginning of my issue, what I'm really trying to wrap my head around. So this is a huge injustice obviously and what do I do about it is the obvious question 31 American students over in Thailand are struggling with as I write. So we protest 7-11 or we refuse to buy CP fish at restaurants or Jasmine105 rice at the supermarket. But then what happens? Those companies don't need as many products from the Thai farmers and prices drop and farmers lose even more money. When we asked one exchangee how we could help the system, he said "Support Thai products." Now I'm sure he was talking about organic, fair trade Thai products, but still- why am I going to demand organic Thai products if I can get say the same organic product from the states, that didn't have to travel halfway around the world? Now the kicker: What if I'm posed with the option of choosing organic/ fair trade or local? That brings in a whole other climate change debate. Is it better to use your dollar vote to support soil erosion in your own community because you're demanding local products or greenhouse gas emissions globally because you're demanding fair trade products from countries such as Thailand? And a slightly less related issue but still important... Let's look at WalMart, a terrible huge company that treats its workers like crap and is very exploitative. However, WalMart, to respond to the demands of consumers/ the market, really just another way to make an extra buck, sells organic labels, such as Stonyfield yogurts. Every time you buy a Stonyfield at WalMart, you are yes, shopping at WalMart, but you're also dollar voting for this huge company to use more of its share of the market for organic products. There are WalMarts everywhere, farmers markets, not so much. Look at Starbucks - 4% of Starbucks coffee is Fair Trade. That 4% is responsible 10% of THE ENTIRE COFFEE INDUSTRY. Every time Starbucks introduces a new fair trade coffee product, the percentage of fair trade coffee in the industry skyrockets. However, this pushes out all the little guys, but unfortunately or fortunately (I still can't decide), more people buy coffee from Starbucks than from the little guys, and therefore, their campaigns can me more widespread.

I'm sure I've stopped making sense, and you think I've completely lost it, but just beginning to think of the complexities of the global food system will drive you insane. As a unit facilitator, I am planning our concluding workshop for the unit, and we're attempting to use a variety of activities to clarify many of these complexities. I really want to make sure we get a grip of what we can do as personal consumers, and then as activists. People spend their lives on this issue- it's nothing we can fix on a global scale over our two-week project period in May. However, we can make better consumption choices, and really try to understand where our food is coming from every meal. We can know the difference between organic, fair trade, and local labels, and realize in which context it is appropriate to buy one versus the other. We can make individual choices regarding where we will shop and what we will buy when we shop there, but we must also understand the limitations of the system and of ourselves, and hopefully work to overcome both.

P.S. Watch Food, Inc. 

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