Imagine if you grow your own food, then cook it using your own wood, then your food is going to be considered relatively safe. In reality, food systems are highly complex. The inter-relationships that have arisen as a result are dependent on a variety of factors.
If we consider maize, a fairly innocuous grain, which variety will be chosen and why it will be chosen by farmers will be dependent on its needs. Is the climate a factor, is soil good enough, would the crop be resistant to pests and diseases? Should the farmer till the soil? If not, then would weeds take over. If weeds are an issue, chemicals and fertilizers will be applied. Run-offs from fields would lead to water pollution, threaten biodiversity and contribute to greenhouse emissions. To add to the complex chain, farmers have to take into consideration subsidies offered by the government, commodity prices in the market, and, setting aside land for bio-conservation otherwise pristine rainforests are clear-cut and used for growing maize. Moreover, maize growers operate large networks of logistics, and prices in the market are determined by the demands and that in turn determines production.
When maize was grown 7 to 9,000 years ago, the priorities had been different. The heritage varieties would have been stronger, resistant, and well suited to their environment. In recent times, commercial demand seems to be the determinant. It is valued as a fuel, cattle feed and remaining for consumption as corn syrup which led to health issues.
Our food culture has shifted and so has our connection with land and growing food. Food has been traded for millennia but food crops were more diverse and varied. Unfortunately, for the sake of convenience, commodification of foods and to take control of food systems, homogenization of foods has been given precedence and completely cut us off from our food systems.
Maize, rice, soya and wheat are grown on industrial scales and have replaced the traditional varieties that were grown. This has led to widescale damage affecting our environment, putting a strain on our water supplies and increased food miles. One would argue that the demand for these foods year-round has brought not only different varieties to the table but also brought along more choices. Earlier, poorer segments of society had few choices and variety and led to health issues. However, the associated risks and demands the modern food system puts on our planet cannot be dismissed.
The pandemic has shown us the fragility of the food systems, heavily dependent on inputs that could come to a complete standstill if not managed properly. The weaknesses exposed have given the proponents of a more just food system a voice, and, lent some credibility to their cause.
To take greater control of our system, we need to find ways to engage with our food systems and to create alternatives to withstand shocks to food supplies. Here are some ways to regain greater control over our food systems:
Encouraging and protecting local farmers is one way to bolster the fragile food system. Building meaningful relationships and promoting farmers markets, locally sourced foods, will provide impetus to the farmers to sustain their operations. Connections with consumers will also promote engagement between farmers and end users, and consumers will appreciate the hard work associated with bringing flavorful and tasty foods to the marketplace.
Consumers themselves can determine greater control by growing food themselves in local community gardens or their backyards. Seasonal varieties grown are decidedly tastier, bursting with flavor and a much healthier option. It is easy on the pocket, if resistant and heirloom varieties are grown, cuts down on food miles, and can provide a great habitat for pollinators if traditional planting techniques are used.
Schools can be engaged to teach the children the importance of growing food locally and to partake in projects where school gardens serve as a source of locally grown food. Children can use the fresh vegetables and prepare their own school meals, leading to healthier choices, and helping them cut back on processed foods and sugars. This in turn will help reduce the problem of obesity and hunger. In Neighborhood Improvement Areas (NIA) and Business Improvement Areas (BIA), school garden could contribute a share of food grown to food banks. These gardens could serve as training grounds for children and teach them lifelong transferable skills and make them future stewards of our land.
Maize or no maize, we need to get back to the table and redefine our goals and get back the food systems from which we have been cut off for too long. It is time to take back the age-old practice of growing food ourselves, adapting it to our needs, and building resilience. So, next time, if faced with disaster, we will not be thinking of high food prices, or disappearance of food from the shelves, instead we will be dealing with an abundance of food grown locally and sustainably and we will be thinking of how to distribute it to those in need around us.