A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak about my career along with some other sustainability professionals at a 7th grade sustainability class at Columbia Secondary School in NYC. First, let’s take a step back: Isn’t it amazing that there even IS a 7th grade sustainability class? When I was in 7th grade, I don’t think I knew what the word meant! Anyway, the kids had been given a budget and asked to go shopping for organic food to make salads for lunch for all the guests. After eating this delicious lunch, we gave a brief overview of our work in sustainability, and then broke up into groups so the kids could interview us for a magazine they were putting together for the class. Two of the children asked me some very poignant questions. I did my best to answer them without cynicism, trying to keep things as positive as possible. But when ‘Albert’, an intelligent and perceptive young man, asked me this question, I could no longer hide the sad truth about the role of money and power in our daily lives: “Why does organic food cost so much more than conventional food?”
Well, I went on to explain that government subsidies to large agribusinesses help keep the cost of conventional food down. “But why do these industries get subsidies?”, the kids wanted to know. I continued, “Because these companies have a lot of money and, well, money can buy a lot of influence through lobbying and other contributions.” Then I stepped back and listened to myself. Is this really true? I should be careful about what I say to 13 year old children. Do I want them thinking that in a democracy such as ours the power of big corporations and big wallets counts more than our collective voices and their votes? Is it right for them to think that money can buy anything, including government policy and federal subsidies?
I was, after all, over simplifying a very complex situation. And it’s important to note that the food subsidies originated as a way to support small farmers and protect them from precipitous falling prices, while also protecting consumers from soaring prices in times of drought and bad crops. But somewhere along the way, big business commandeered the subsidies which resulted in making healthy and organic alternative use of that land more expensive. And while I didn’t mention it, it is also costly for a farmer to seek out Organic certification. There are no subsidies for that.
A week later, I was attending a fantastic panel titled: Green and the 2012 Election: Does Anybody Really Care? So I asked the panelists: former NJ Governor Christine Todd Whitman, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and businessman Yetsuh Frank of YR&G, what they would have said to the kids if they were in my position. Yetsuh Frank said he would have told them exactly what I told them. Even kids should know this sad reality. The more people who know, the more capable we are of making our voices heard though organized protests, boycotts, petitions and other means. The Occupy Wall Street movement is just the beginning of people saying “I’m fed up, I’m angry, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know about government subsidies to agribusiness until well into my adulthood. I mean, I knew that an apple was healthier than a Twinkie, but we didn’t discuss big business affecting the availability of healthy food, or its price. Had I known, when I was in 7th grade, about the influence of money and power on MY OWN HEALTH and food choices, I probably would have been a little angry at the control these giant companies exert over agriculture, with massive government support**. It is time to inform our youth. It is time to make sure good food, organic food, is not more expensive because of massive subsidies to agribusiness. Let’s give the power back to the people! What do you think?
** Of course I was in 7th grade in 1977 and the policy changes that favored and even encouraged the consolidation and growth of these mega corporations weren’t enacted until 1996. However, the point is, these types of issues didn’t come up in school or in family conversations…and they should if we’d like to see a change.