Articles by Sharon Astyk
So, I spent almost $2,000 today ... to fill up our oil tank. We heat primarily with wood, but we use oil as a backup system to keep the pipes from freezing and occasionally on days when we're going to be out for an extended period. Our hot water is also heated with oil. For whatever reason, most oil heat in the U.S. is in the Northeast, mostly in towns beyond gas lines like mine. I suspect today's purchase may well be the last tank of heating oil we ever buy. Unfortunately, that's not true for most Americans.
Perhaps you saw the recent UNESCO report on the future of agriculture. It calls for a major paradigm shift in agriculture away from fossil fuels toward organic agriculture and greater equity of distribution. Wow, I wonder why no one ever thought of that before?
Seriously, this is the largest single report ever to tell us what we already knew: the status quo is not an option. That is, we cannot go into the future as we are. We all know this on some level.
One of the problems people have discussing sustainable agriculture is the question of language. I was trained originally in English literature and hold as an article of faith that language matters -- deeply. That is, I believe that we can only come to an honest vision for the future with a shared language that accurately describes our world.
Agriculture is in the news, obviously -- and the future of farming is a big question. But we keep running up against the question of what, precisely, a farm is. There's a lot of debate about where our farmers should come from, where they will grow, and who we will count as a farmer. Often, I find, even those who believe in the future of local food systems are talking past each other.
That is, when we talk about "farmers," who are we actually talking about? What's "agriculture" and what's "gardening"? Where does "homesteading," "smallholding," "horticulture," and "subsistence farming" fall in the mess? Yesterday's Wall Street Journal article about suburban farmers is inspiring -- and it further enhances the need for a shared public language of agriculture.
There is no doubt whatsoever that rising food costs are hurting people all over the world. More than half of the world's population spends 50 percent of their income or more on food, and the massive rise in staple prices threatens to increase famine rates drastically. We are already seeing the early signs of this in Haiti and in other poor nations.
It is also undoubtedly true that rising food prices are digging into the budgets of average people, including me. And I've got it easy. The 35 million Americans who are food insecure (that is, they may or may not go hungry in any given month, but they aren't sure there's going to be food) are increasingly stretched. Supportive resources like food pantries are increasingly tapped. And regular folks are finding that food and energy inflation are cutting into their budgets substantially. The rises in food and energy prices alone have eroded real wages by 1.2 percent. The USDA chief economist has announced that overall food prices will probably rise by another 3 to 4 percent this year, and grain products will rise considerably more.
But there's another side to this coin. Rising food prices are, to some extent, good for farmers. Certainly, large grain farmers in the U.S., Canada, and many other rich nations have been experiencing a well deserved boom. And there are plenty of people, myself included, who have been arguing for years that we don't pay enough of the true costs of our food. Who is right? How do you balance the merits and demerits of food prices?