It is no longer novel to discover that the American food system has a “fat-sugar-additive” problem, nor a shock to hear people who in complete acknowledgement of such an issue, continue consuming chips and Coke whenever possible. Today the American food campaign is about “making a change”: grassroots movements are voyaging into the mainstream media and even Paula Deen, the “butter queen,” has begun to produce healthier recipes with local produce.
However, while Americans are busy making dietary changes at home, we have also been oblivious to how the U.S. industrial food system is invading developing countries. Ecuador, for example, is one of a few countries that are fighting for its “food sovereignty.”
In this small, agricultural country, “food is produced in every nook and cranny, and available in markets and every village with no plastic wraps,” as described by Gary Scott, an American entrepreneur and investment publisher who has been residing in Ecuador since the 1990s. In such a country, a huge national food distribution system is not required, neither is the application of preservatives.
About 20 years ago, however, the industrialized agriculture arrived in Ecuador. “It came through corporate agriculture companies like Monsanto and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs),” Emma Frisch explains. A researcher at Cornell University’s Collaborative Crop Research Program, Frisch traveled to Ecuador in 2007 as a Fulbright scholar and conducted a long-term study on its food system.
Based on her interactions with the Ecuador locals, Frisch learned that agricultural development workers from the U.S. and Europe introduced fertilizer and pesticide packages to farmers and promised higher crop yields. As a result, the farmers could make a fortune out of the quantity.
Many farmers took the packages and applied the chemicals. This worked for a few years – until the ground stopped being able to produce. The fertilizer and pesticides had washed away the majority of nutritional components in the soil and led to erosion, as well as soil nutrient deficiency.
“Today small farmers are struggling,” Frisch says. “They are only able to squeeze out small quantities of commercial crops from their land, like potatoes, which are usually exported to other countries. They sell their harvest for a very little amount of money at the market, and then buy noodles or white rice for their family at the corner store or terminal market.”
In addition to being disrupted by the U.S. agriculture system, Ecuador is also facing an increasing appetite for American fast food.
“There’s a surge of people wanting to be more modern, which translates to eating American food,” Frisch says.
While some may argue that adopting modern agriculture system signifies development, it’s crucial to recognize the potential harm of such a system to Ecuador’s traditional, small-scale farming culture, as well as the undesirable health problems that accompany the popularization of junk foods.
The good news is that some Ecuadorians are realizing the possible destructive outcomes and starting to take action. In research on Ecuadorian grassroots food movements published in LEISA magazine, Frisch discussed “Canastas Comunitarias,” an urban-rural grassroots movement for healthy, affordable food in Ecuador.
Canastas Comunitarias first appeared in 1987. Groups of low-income families organize themselves to pool funds for bi-weekly wholesale produce purchases in the public marketplace, which are then divided among the families in the group. This serves three purposes: supporting local farmers, saving money for the poor and enabling them to eat fresher and healthier.
“Ecuador has one of the strongest grassroots food movements, and it has changed the constitution of Ecuador there,” Frisch says. Because of such movements, there’s now a constitutional law for food sovereignty.
In Ecuador, tariffs imposed on imported goods range from 10% to 20%, with low-tech and mass consumption goods on the higher margin. As a report from the ministry of the Committee of Foreign Trade in Ecuador on June 18, 2012 explained, such a high tariff on imported goods is to ensure “Que la industria ecuatoriana puede fabricar promoviendo el desarrollo de empresas nacionales” (that the Ecuadorian industry can manufacture by promoting the development of national companies).
As an American, Frisch acknowledges the U.S. food system deserves credit for its technological innovations, but by contrast, we also lack “the power in the people demanding something different.”
“Consumers dictate how food is grown,” Frisch says. “We spend a lot of time trying to teach farmers how to grow food, but they won’t change their production practices until consumers demand food that is healthier for themselves and the environment.”
Ecuador’s constitution was adapted as a result of the public’s demands, and this is a good lesson for Americans. Perhaps it’s time for us to adjust our attitudes and learn beneficial experiences from some third world countries.