Exemplary Food Activists

This article is inspired from speaking to a high school class recently about the impact of our food choices. Seeing more of any of the following three people is well worth a visit to you-tube video.

CESAR CHAVEZ: Farm Workers Rights Activist

Photo from photobucket.com

Born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona to a poor Mexican-American family who lost their farm during the depression, Cesar Chavez became a champion of farm workers’ rights. Chavez became a migrant farm worker at age 15, leaving school when his father could no longer work, a lifestyle that meant moving from farm to farm, and town to town. At age 21 he married, and he and his wife raised 8 children.

My personal introduction to Chavez was through the boycott of table grapes in the mid 1960s, which became known as “La Causa”. Pesticides sprayed on the grapes were having a terrible effect on the health of farm workers; as well, working conditions were unsanitary and wages were very low. In looking at the history of racism in the United States, desperately poor Hispanics were also exploited. Knowing this, I vowed to only buy unsprayed grapes and raisins.

In 1962, Chavez organized a union along with Dolores Huerta, which came to be called the United Farm Workers Association. When Mexican and Filipino grape workers decided (independently of a union) to walk out from work in 1965, Chavez, in solidarity with their action, seized the moment to organize a 340-mile march to California’s state capitol to inspire more workers to join the union. Bolstered by so much support, UFWA called for a boycott of a company that owned the majority of vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley, a strategy that was successful, and soon other grape producers were forced to sign contracts. Eventually, through Chavez’ leadership, union reps travelled the country, generating a boycott of all table grapes, which did lead to improved contracts with significant benefits to farm workers.

Like many others who are motivated to take action against injustice, Chavez was influenced by the peaceful philosophy of both St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi. Following in the latter’s footsteps, Chavez went on several hunger strikes, drinking only water for 25 days, 24 days and in 1988 for 36 days to call attention to the continued health hazards of exposure to pesticides. It is truly inspiring to realize the sacrifices he made for the cause, including being jailed many times for all of his actions. Still, he always faced his formidable foes with non-violence and dignity.

Chavez’ motto was “Si, se puede”, meaning “Yes, it can be done”.  When he died at the age of 66 in 1993, more than 50,000 mourners came to honour the charismatic labor leader and respected civil rights activist at the site of his first public fast.

VANDANA SHIVA: Seed-Saving Environmentalist

Photo from ifg.org/events/soil_not_oil-Vandana_Shiva-2008

Born in 1952 in Dehrudun, in northern India, Vandana Shiva trained to be a nuclear physicist, but to the world she has become one of the world’s most potent advocates of small-scale sustainable agriculture and seed-saving.

Her achievements are many. She has applied her penetrating intellect to author more than 20 books and over 500 publications about the impact of our economic, political and food-buying decisions. At universities and international conventions, she lectures on ecology, feminism and the harsh impacts of globalization, yet she is equally at ease working with peasants in rural India where she has made a considerable impact.

Several years ago I showed a documentary following her fearless actions around the world: at a WTO summit in Mexico, inside US biotech giant Monsanto in Missouri, at the European Patents Office in Munich, and protesting with peasant women in Kerala, India, to close down a Coca-Cola plant that polluted the local groundwater. The film’s title is Bullshit, named because she was awarded the “Bullshit Award” by a Monsanto lobbyist, who claimed she lies about the negative effects of globalization, yet to Shiva, in her native India “cow dung is the most beautiful of materials”.

In 1991, she founded a national movement called Navdanya that promotes organic farming and fair trade, and protects the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seeds. Navdanya has established 65 seed banks across the country, providing poor farmers with 1 kg. of seed; if they return a good harvest, they give back 1.25 kg, or they pass it on to another farmer, thus sustaining the cycle. They operate within many Gandhian non-violence principles, mainly the idea of “swaraj”, which means the ability to self-sustain.

Some seeds conserved by Navdanya have climate resilient properties developed through hundreds of years of farmer selection, such as seeds that are drought, flood and saline resistant. More than 5,000 crop varieties of seeds have been conserved, including 3,000 of rice, 95 of wheat, 150 of kidney beans, and so on, including medicinal plants. This seed-saving work is a vital response to agricultural biodiversity crises caused by climate instability.

As Navdanya’s chief spokesperson, Dr. Shiva is eloquent about the harmful ecological and health impacts of GMOs. She has seen first-hand the deepening crisis caused by the unreliability of GMO seed — and how the high cost of GMO seed creates debts that poor farmers can never repay, leading to over 250,000 farmer suicides in India, and exposing the deceit of the myth put forth by Monsanto claiming that GMOs feed the world.

Vandana Shiva combines sharp intellectual enquiry with courageous activism. She is one of the world’s most dynamic and provocative speakers, and it can be truly exciting to hear her speak, especially when she stands up to bullies.

JOEL SALATIN: Grass Farmer Guru

Photo by Nick V.

Joel Salatin is a 54 year-old, third generation, full-time farmer whose 550 acre Polyface Farm (“the farm of many faces”) rests at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Salatin has become a brilliant prophet to a growing movement of back-to-nature farmers in North America.

I first read about him in the New York Times best-seller Omnivore’s Dilemma by food writer Michael Pollan, who visited Salatin to explore what is possible beyond Industrial Farming. (He also appears in the world-acclaimed documentary Food, Inc.) As an old foodie, I was hungry for this information; it was exciting to read Salatin’s story of reclaiming some less than ideal land, to make it much more than an economically viable farm. In his book, Sheer Ecstacy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, he shares stories of his 50 years as a localized, compost-fertilized, pasture-based farmer, and explains the differences in how farmers view soil and water, how they build fences, market their products or involve their families… and how this alleged lunacy actually offers a life of ecstasy.

Many say that Salatin makes lectures about farming feel like religious revival meetings where people who have never farmed before are inspired to become farmers. He loves to explain how at Polyface Farm, the animals interact ecologically to create a powerfully effective farming ecosystem. Cattle graze different areas of pasture every day; then chickens pick through the same fields, eating bugs and spreading cow manure around the field, before they return to their mobile coops. The pigs generate fertilizer by rooting around the floor of the barn, and aerate the mix of hay, cow manure and wood chips. This process takes nothing out of the environment, and when this compost mix is spread on fields, it puts nutrients back in.

The farm services more than 3,000 families, 10 retail outlets, and 50 restaurants, selling pastured poultry from Salatin’s “happy hens”, eggmobile eggs, pigaerator pork, forage-based rabbits, pastured turkey, and forestry products. Polyface only sells its products within a roughly 4-hour drive from the farm.

Salatin is deeply dismayed by how farm animals are treated on most farms today, believing it speaks ill of a nation’s moral health. That is why he has dedicated his life to creating a more righteous way to farm, and sees Polyface as being “in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, and healing the culture.”

With passionate conviction and his unique humor, Salatin believes that small-scale sustainable farming is the only system that can feed the world. His work shines a light for those who want to reclaim the wonder of the small farm and local food systems.

Tsiporah is a Gabriolan of 37 years, and keen observer of our times and evolutionary potential as compassionate human beings.