Who will feed us?

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By Sherry Robinson

It all started, for me, with The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 1973.

It was a genuine panic, with shoppers wiping the shelves clean of TP (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) and even driving to the next town in search of more. We didn’t learn until later that it started with a Johnny Carson joke on the Tonight Show. Even though Carson apologized and the Scott Paper Co. ran ads showing its factories in full production, the panic continued; it took manufacturers three weeks to restock shelves.

Ever since, I’ve wondered about the food supply chain. If one joke could upend the system, imagine what energy shortages, transportation problems and terrorist attacks or war could do. And it doesn’t make sense that we buy meat or produce transported here from other states or other countries, when New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers are trying to survive.

So the New Mexico Food System Summit held last week in Santa Fe grabbed my attention. The organizer was Dreaming New Mexico, a project of Bioneers, a Santa Fe nonprofit. Peter Warshall, a polymath biologist and project co-director, has been studying our food system. One revealing statistic: In New Mexico we import 95 percent of the food we eat and export 95 percent of the food we produce. From an energy perspective alone, that’s crazy. He also worries about the loss of farm and ranch land.

Warshall’s research isn’t news in the rural areas, where everybody knows grandma and grandpa made more by selling their land or water rights than they ever made ranching or farming and public policy works against the small or medium-sized farmer and rancher.

A few cases in point.

Case one: We pride ourselves on our chile. What other state has an Official Question: Red or green? And yet New Mexico growers are losing ground, literally. China, India, Peru and Mexico sell red chile cheaper than New Mexicans can grow it. Full and part-time jobs here are half what they were in 2005 and production is down by two-thirds. New Mexico growers are responding with technology and new varieties, but consumers must do their part. Free trade is well and good, but we should be asking who will feed us in the future? China?

Case two: The U.S. Department of Agriculture for three decades has discriminated against Hispanic farmers and ranchers seeking loans and disaster benefits. More than 90 percent of this demographic are family or individually owned operations; in New Mexico, they number more than 8,000. A lawsuit, Garcia v. Vilsack has dragged on for 10 years and the Justice Department isn’t inclined to negotiate, even after similar lawsuits by Black and Native American farmers moved forward.

Case three: The agricultural bully Monsanto has sued farmers for collecting seeds that were unintentionally cross-pollinated by patented, genetically engineered plants. The New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance, which includes three Native American farm groups and the New Mexico Acequia Association, has no use for such seeds and, in fact, tries to preserve their own heirloom seeds against the likes of Monsanto. The alliance has tried three times to protect New Mexico farmers from such actions.

This year, SB 303, the Farmer Protection Act by Sen. John Pinto, a Tohatchi Democrat, would have eliminated buffer zones around fields to insure against cross-pollination by a patented crop, protected against damages and court costs if farmers unknowingly collect a genetically engineered seed and established ground rules for field inspections by seed companies. The bill didn’t get out of committee.

Dreaming New Mexico (dreamingnewmexico.org) is cultivating a broad agenda that includes eating local food and preserving farm and ranch lands. And they deserve credit for involving a diverse group of players. In a down economy, in a can’t-do state, it’s refreshing to hear somebody dream big.