Wednesday, September 23, 2009

You are what you eat.

Where to begin?! It has been a long time since I last blogged, and a lot has been happening. Before I dive into some of the interesting issues that we have been studying this semester I think it will be helpful if I explain the program structure.

CIEE Thailand uses an alternative approach to educating students where the majority of learning is experiential and the relationship between teachers and students is a two way street. Teaching and learning is done by everyone. The first month of the semester is orientation, during which we learned about each other and how to work with each other in large and small groups. We took courses on Thai language, culture and politics; we began living with a Thai roommate; and we completed a mock unit on HIV/AIDS in Thailand to prepare us for our first unit.

Once orientation was completed we began our first unit on rural food production and health. There are four units in total. The other three will cover urban development issues, water and mining. For each unit we receive two packets of background readings and conduct briefings (which are ran by the students) to start generating questions and ideas regarding the issues studied. Following the briefing we go out in live with Thai people working with or affected by the issue being studied for 5 or 6 days. We eat, work and sleep with these people with the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the daily challenges they face. We also conduct a series of exchanges with different interest groups and NGOs working for social change on the issue being studied. An exchange usually consists of us 27 students sitting in a large circle, joined by whoever we are speaking with and Ajaan John, our must needed interpreter.

We just recently returned from our first unit home stay where we were living with organic Thai farmers. Northeast Thailand, also known as Issan, is primarily made up of small farmers. Their traditional way of life, however, is being threatened by the push for large scale farming and monocropping. For generations, the people of Issan prided themselves on self sustainability, or the ability to produce all that they need to survive. Globalization, however, threatens to destroy this way of life as corporations are concerned with yield per hectare and not the quality of the food being produced.

In the 1960s the Green Revolution took the world by storm. The Green Revolution was the development of genetically modified (GMO) seeds that are designed to better withstand less favorable growing conditions. The Green Revolution was heralded as the solution to world hunger, as it dramatically increased crop yields, but 40 years later we still have starving people in this world and greater environmental degradation due to the massive amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers used with GMOs.

Reflecting on what I learned this past week; experiences, exchanges and discussions with other students; I am convinced that world hunger is not the result of a lack of food, but a food distribution problem. We have enough food to feed everyone in the world, even before the Green Revolution we had enough food to feed everyone, but our current food distribution system, based on capitalist principles, does not recognize the right to food as a basic human right. How can safe, chemical free food, be distributed to ensure that no one goes hungry? Should food be considered a basic human right? These are some of the questions we came up with during this unit.

If I were to address these questions in a traditional classroom setting in the United States, from an economic perspective, my answer would be free trade is the only way to go. When countries specialize in producing the product in which they hold a comparative advantage, in a free market, economies operate efficiently and living standards increase. My experiences in Thailand however make me seriously question some of the basic economic concepts I learned. I come out of each exchange and home-stay with a completely new outlook on what globalization means for people that do not live in the “Western World.”

I spent the past 6 days living with organic farmers in Thailand. They are farmers that once used chemicals to grow their crops but have since switched back to organic farming because of the negative health effects that using chemicals has on their crops, the environmental degradation caused by the chemicals, the endless cycle of debt that chemical use perpetuates and their quest for self-reliance and self-sustainability.

The switch was not easy because at first there is a decline in crop yields, as it takes time to replenish the soil with natural fertilizers. The organic farmers, however, are now able to do integrated agriculture, where they grow many different things (such as beans, leafy greens, root vegetables, etc.) whose growth complements each other naturally. This allows them to grow enough rice, as well as other things, to feed their families and sell at the market. Many of them also raise pigs, buffalo, chicken, frogs and cows organically.

These farmers are also pushing for other farmers to adopt organic and integrated farming techniques. They have established the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) and the Yasothon Green Market to help promote their cause. We had exchanges with both organizations to learn more about what they do and the challenges they face. The AAN teaches and supports farmers that want to make the transition to organic farming, and the Yasothon Green Market is a project that both the AAN and past CIEE students helped develop.

The Green Market was started in May 2008 and is held on weekends in the city of Yasothon for farmers that farm organically to come and sell their goods. We woke up bright and early (4 a.m.) to help set up the market last Saturday and sell goods with the families we were staying with. It was a really cool experience, however, the market location is not very good and many people in the city have not heard of it yet. During our exchange with Green Market producers we discussed ideas that we had for them on how they could improve the market.

My involvement this past week working with organic farmers forced me to think about my eating habits and purchasing habits as a consumer. Every time I buy something produced by a large corporation it is almost guaranteed to have been grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers and stuffed with more chemicals to keep it fresh. Is this what I want to be eating? The answer is obviously no, but what choice do I have given that it is very difficult to avoid purchasing food at supermarkets? I do not have the means or the knowledge to grow everything I eat, nor do I really want to. I do go to the Athens Farmers Market most Saturdays, but I cannot get enough food there, year round, to feed me. I could buy all organic products, but even then my efforts will be thwarted by companies that are deceptive and cheat the system by attaining “organic” or “fair trade” labels under ridiculous qualifications.

For example, in order for coffee to be fair trade certified by Transfair only 2 percent of a company’s total coffee purchase has to be fair trade. It used to be 5 percent of the total purchase but Starbucks was instrumental in lobbying to push it down to 2 percent. I was thinking it should be more like 100 percent!

So it seems as if the cards are stacked against us, even if we want to be conscious consumers. What do we as consumers do? Well first, it is important to recognize that we, as consumers are the only ones that can change the system, through small steps and small demands. Do you care enough to change your habits, even if they are inconvenient? Do you care how mass production affects the lives and cultures of others? It is easy to shield ourselves from the reality of our actions and consumer choices when we live in the United States, or the Western World for that matter, but I cannot deny the negative impact that globalization and mass production has on other cultures after living and learning with the local communities here in Thailand.

The other day I interviewed a very influential community leader in Issan, P’Bamrung, and I asked him how he went about eliminating corruption in his community that has been praised by the national government as a model community, and he told me “I lead by example.” It is a very simple response, but he really did not need to say more. Often times we wait for others to take the reins on global problems that seem too large to tackle, but the only way change can be made is through individuals making conscious choices every day to act on their values and beliefs. I am not saying that we should all become farmers, or that we should feel guilty about our daily purchases, but just to remember that we can make little choices on a daily basis that work towards achieving chemical free food and food as a human right for all.

After all, where did the food you ate today come from?

1 comment:

  1. Jordan,
    The blog is great and your insight into life in a foreign country opens all of our eyes. I know what its like to write one of these things having no comments or followers, so I figured I would leave something to encourage you to keep it up. Take Care & Best of Luck in your studies, travels, and any endeavors that you might take on in Thailand.

    Your Friend,