"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Monday, August 31, 2009

The High Cost of Cheap Food

The crop dusters are out, billowing clouds of poison over the rich muck fields of the lowlands—the beautiful black soil where carrots and lettuce grow best in Michigan. If you were offered a million dollars to find one weed in one of those carrot fields you wouldn’t be able to collect. Your nails would be black and your back bent but you’d be penniless for your efforts.

My sister is a caseworker at Michigan Works, helping the unemployed and making sure those deserving receive their unemployment checks and have access to online job opportunities. There is one caseworker fluent in Spanish assigned to help a diverse migrant population who come up legally for the summer to do the back-breaking work of weeding and harvesting carrots and lettuce in the low-lying muck (peat) fields in the Imlay City area. There has traditionally been a great deal of summer work here. She (we’ll call her Margaret), recently lamented to my sister how there is no work anymore. All the fields are perfect and weed free. “There are no weeds, Christine!” she says. And more and more harvesting is done by machine. Some would say, well good, maybe they’ll go back home where they belong. Margaret says they work hard and spend money in the local grocery store and the hardware store and are honest and true.

What do we want? The great wall of China on our southern border? Vegetables that have soaked up chemical residue through their root systems to harbor it in the flesh we unwittingly eat? Do we want labor-free vegetable fields? What . . . cheap food? There is no such thing as cheap food. If you factor in the environmental cost and the health cost of our “cheap food” the true expense would far outweigh the cost of certified organic meats and vegetables.

The sun is rising over the treetops, and now the crop dusters are out, spraying the carrots which look beautiful and lush in the distance. The drone of the engines as they swoop over the fields across the road at the back of our farm wafts through my window closed to the 45-degree morning. The land is defenseless, giving back only that which is given.

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