Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
By Kamyar Enshayan

I was born in northern Iran, on what some call the “axis of evil,” and I want to tell you about a kind of true homeland security.

There is much talk about bioterrorism and how to safeguard our system of food and agriculture from terrorists. But if we look around us, we see that the forces systematically destroying American agriculture are almost entirely domestic: nitrogen pollution of our streams, atrazine in our drinking water, farm policies that kill independent businesses and small towns, genetic manipulation for profits and power, and monopolization of agricultural markets by a few global corporations.

One clear and troubling example of a domestic biological threat to our system of food and agriculture is the way the industrial meat giants raise and process livestock. Last year, roughly during the same time that snipers killed 12 people around the nation’s capital, contaminated lunch meat killed more than eight people and sickened many more in New England, prompting a record recall of 27 million pounds of meat. I asked my students how the two tragedies differed. The class had just read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which documents how packing giants repeatedly evade public health laws, leading to meat contamination and death. The only differences my class saw were that the shootings received massive news coverage, but the poisoning victims died quietly in hospitals with little media attention, and while an extensive search for the snipers took place, no arrests occurred in the meat industry.

There are other ways of protecting our food and agriculture. My friend Mary Berry Smith who farms in Kentucky says, “Our country, through its ruinous desire for cheap food, has nearly destroyed the safest food system we could have: farmers feeding the people closest to them.” Her family sells most of their farm products directly to customers: “Our customers trust us to provide delicious, healthy, safe food; we trust them to pay us a fair price.”

The people of Black Hawk County, Iowa, annually spend nearly $240 million on groceries and another $130 million on eating out. Most of these food dollars leave our county and state. Six years ago, I approached the dining services directors of our university, our local hospital and the owner of a locally owned restaurant about buying a greater portion of their food from nearby farms. The aim was to keep a significant part of these dollars in our community and region, as well as to build local relationships. “Value-subtracting” industrial agriculture and the resulting “value-missing” markets create insecurities for the very people who grow our food.

Ten institutions we have worked with over five years have spent nearly $780,000 of their food purchases locally. At Rudys Tacos, one of our partners in Waterloo, 71% of the restaurant’s food budget, $143,000, goes for fresh, locally grown ingredients. For most restaurants, that percentage would be in single digits, if any. Bartels Lutheran Home in Waverly, another partner, buys two to three cattle each month, raised locally and processed at a local meat locker. Last year Bartels bought $40,000 worth of locally raised beef and vegetables. Three years ago the beef came from an unknown source, and the $40,000 left the region. The University of Northern Iowa, where I work, recently bought its first local cow!

This is “value-retained” agriculture, and we need more of it. If our county set a goal of retaining just 10% of our food dollars, that would amount to $37 million every year. And that would be real community economic development based on our best assets: our people and our land.

These institutional food buyers have come to understand that their decisions crucially affect the vitality of nearby farms and businesses. They have decided to buy their meats from farmers they know for this reason, and because they can find out what the animals were fed and how they were raised. Through local, inspected lockers, they are assured that their ground beef came from that cow and not from a mixture of thousands of other cattle from unknown (and often unknowable) places.

This work has expanded the web of local relationships, which is the essence of local economy and local life. This is the kind of homeland security I think about.

Kamyar Enshayan works at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa. Many thanks to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and USDA-SARE for supporting the institutional marketing project.
MOF&G Cover Summer 2003