Thursday, February 7, 2008

Monoculture


If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma, or are aware of big industrial's grasp on agriculture, or pay attention to your food sources, you likely have heard the term "monoculture." Monoculture is defined as "the practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area." You know that animals are separated into feedlots far away from Old MacDonald's farm. You know that corn fields the size of cities sprawl over middle America. You know there is no true variety to be found on the shelves of our supermarkets. Corn is in everything. Corn is king.


You shake your head and say, ahhh, but I don't buy processed any more. I've bought in to a CSA. I grow my own. I shop at the farmer's market. "Monoculture", you say, is bad and I am doing my part to avoid it.

But industrial agriculture is only one form of monoculture that is strangling America. It is the most obvious. The easiest to recognize and therefore to avoid. There is another form far more insidious. Another form in which we, or at least me, willingly participate. I am talking about the monoculture of our marketplace.

A month ago, I relaxed in the Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco. For all intents and purposes, it is still "country" there. Vineyards and undisturbed grassland stretch across the horizon. Cows nibble in the pastures. The sky opens up above you, peppered with soaring hawks and fluttering robins.

The town where I stayed was small. It's main street is comfortingly called "Main Street" and is dotted with a locally owned coffee shop, a mom and pop deli, a single barber - complete with striped barber pole, a family owned bakery, and a host of other unique, non-franchised stores. There is no Home Depot here. You won't find a Starbucks, a WalMart, or an Outback Steakhouse. For the most part, the people who own and work in those storefronts live in town. They know each other, sit on the PTA together,and play Bocce ball together.

At the coffee shop, the coffee is still delicious. The talk amongst neighbors gathered there even better. It is set in a roomy, windowed building overlooking the park and local ice cream store. They serve bagels, muffins, scones - the usual fare but it won't taste exactly the same as the scone that you had at the Starbucks near your house, or the Starbucks at the mall, or the one near Burger King or the one inside your Lucky's. No. These scones, this cup of coffee taste like this particular place.

I reveled in the small town feel. I enjoyed the food and drink that was just a little different than anything else I'd eaten or drank before. I welcomed the discovery of each storefront - who knew what was inside, what they offered, what advice they could provide.

Leaving the country behind, we gradually encountered more and more recognizable signs. A Target here. An Office Max there. Just before reaching the highway, on land once occupied by vineyards, cows or wilderness, slouched an enormous strip mall. WalMart loomed above the other buildings occupied by Starbucks, Bank of America, Barnes and Noble, Jamba Juice, AT&T Cellular - a host of household names plunked down in the middle of wine country. I felt both nauseous and at home.

Have you had that experience before? No matter where you go in this country or even abroad, it's like you never left home. There is Starbucks coffee to quench your thrist, a McDonald's to satisfy your craving. Every place looks the same. There is no adventure, nothing new and undiscovered, on global main street.

So, while I'm doing my part to fight monoculture in my kitchen, I need also to consider monoculture in the downtown. As the authors of Affluenza point out, "a franchise dollar is electronically transferred to corporate headquarters, while a dollar spent at the local hardware stays put in towns or neighborhoods." Indeed, you are more likely to find locally made food and products at a mom and pop store than a chain store. Moreover, local businesses give more to charity than big box stores as well as provide interest, local character and that "personal touch." Biodiveristy is as important in the marketplace as in the field as in nature.

I'm not advocating an all out spending spree at local businesses. After all, I am trimming the fat. I am pledging, though, that the next time I need a new garden tool or a cup of green tea, I'll look local.


17 comments:

Meg said...

Yay! Wonderful post. I completely agree with you and I seem to remember reading a really interesting article on this subject a couple of years ago. I wonder if there's any chance of me remembering who wrote it ... nah.
It's pretty pathetic that chain stores serves as our primary cultural indicator. Ah, and In-n-Out Burger--how exotic!

We should absolutely be looking to (wisely and frugaly) spend our dollars at responsible, local businesses.

BTW, I think I followed you here from Garden Punks a couple weeks ago and have been really enjoying your blog since.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Great post! I love the way you describe the idea of discovering a small town and finding something special about it. That's really one of my favorite things to do, which is why I am also really sick of chain stores taking over the world.

The other day, in fact, I was watching a show about a British family trying to improve their eating habits. To prove that the family had problems, the program showed this little kid in England explaining that Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and McDonald's are his favorite foods. It made me want to cry.

Back to small towns, I'm going skiing in Utah in a week and a half and I'll be staying in a small town outside of Salt Lake City. It sounds like the place has a lot of character so I'm excited. Maybe there won't even be a Target. How cool would that be?!

Burbanmom said...

Ahhh, see I KNEW you brainiacs were right -- it IS best to shop local! :-)

Thanks for the great post and the oodles of references!

- Erin

Jennifer said...

Great post! Fight monoculture everywhere!

On local businesses... there is a local restuarant that gives local groups 33% of gift certificate money sold by the group. Chain restaurants in the area give about 5% to 10% in the same vein. To me, it was a very eye opening look at local business and how they support the community.

I love living 7 blocks from our downtown area... I can go and find a thrift store, a bookstore, a coffeeshop, a toy store, a haircut, and more right down the road... and ALL of it is local.

I do wish for a local hardware store... none in my town. I try to mitigate that by buying used as much as possible!

Green Bean said...

Meg: Thanks for coming by! It's so sad that the "smaller" chains like In N Out are considered unusual these days.

LLP: How fun your trip will be! Can you imagine a town without Target? It's hard these days but those that still exist are so nice.

Erin: Well, golly gee! Are you calling me smart? Whoppee! ;-)

In my city, at least, it's pretty hard to find a locally owned business. We had a wonderful mom and pop coffee shop on our main street and a Starbucks three blocks down (on the same street). A second Starbucks opened right across the street from the local coffee shop and guess what happened? It's gone! We now have two Starbucks in three blocks and nowhere to get a "local" hot chocolate.

Honestly, small businesses are like endangered species these days and we need to treat them accordingly. If you can find one and need something, shop there!

Green Bean said...

Right on, Jennifer. Sometimes, it's hard to remember and I revert to habit or order online but I'm making a concerted effort to buy local or, like you said, by used.

CindyW said...

I had a conversation about pros and cons of Starbucks with a friend not long ago. He insisted that the merit of Starbucks was the consistency. You step into a Starbucks, you always know what the coffee is like, no matter which city you are in. The same goes for Target and McD. While I understood his desire not to be surprised, I could not help myself from saying, "come on, David, live a little. Be surprised sometimes. It may just make your day." A few years ago, I was traveling by myself in Australia. I stopped at a local coffee shop. A cup of coffee later, I was invited to join the owner's family for lunch. It turned out to be a part of my best travel experience. Had I stepped into Starbucks, I would not have remembered any of it. This one good cup of local Tasmanian coffee has made the 10 "inconsistent" cups of coffee totally worth it.

kale for sale said...

Amen! We do our best to shop the down town and independent stores first. There's a wonderful old hardware store on Caledonia Street in Sausalito, a food bank Thrift Shop on Fourth Street in San Rafael and independent book store with used books a short walk from our home in San Anselmo. They are miniature adventures for their personality alone. I don't even need to buy anything although their great when there's something I need too.

Okay - my biggest gripe on the chain versus independent are the bookstores. My friends actually apologize when they buy something from Amazon. I do my best not to scowl but it's difficult. I LOVE independent bookstores and they are one of the first places I visit any time I'm in a near area.

Thanks for another great blog green bean.

~mel said...

I totally agree with you. I'm doing my best to support local businesses, but unfortunately, there just aren't that many near me.

My grandad used to be a small business owner (clothing stores) in the small town I grew up in. He was, of course, very pro-local business. He absolutely hated to see Walmart come into our town, and to the best of my knowledge, never stepped foot in the store. I think of him everytime I'm able to support small, local business and only wish I had more opportunity to do so.

Chile said...

You are right on, as usual Green Bean, and now I feel even worse for my lapse this past week that found me drinking a Starbucks coffee. My only excuse is that point that Cindy mentioned, but in my case it's about headaches. Most of the local coffee shops use flavored syrups that contain sodium benzoate. One sip of that and I'm guaranteed a head-splitting headache. Starbucks' vanilla syrup does not have it so I'm safe there.

Excuses, excuses. I make a better cup of coffee at home. I will stay truly local next time!

arduous said...

What a great post! This is one of the wonderful things about living in a city ... there are just so many local businesses and local restaurants, and some of my favorite local restaurants use local ingredients! Win, win, win!

adrian2514 said...

I really enjoy reading your blog, it always has great insight. But I am very frustrated with the fact that so few people are talking about presidential candidates and their thoughts on global warming. Now that it is down to just a few candidates I would think that this would be a bigger issue.

Live Earth just picked up this topic and put out an article ( http://www.liveearth.org/news.php ) live earth is also asking why the presidential candidates are not being solicited for their stance on the issue of the climate change. I just saw a poll on www.EarthLab.com that says people care a lot about what their next leader thinks of global warming. Does anyone know of another poll or other results about this subject?

Here is the page where I saw the EarthLab poll: http://www.earthlab.com/life.aspx. This is a pretty legit website; they are endorsed by Al Gore and the alliance for climate protection and they have a carbon footprint calculator. Does anyone have a strong opinion about this like I do? No matter what your political affiliation is or who you vote for this is an important issue for our environment, our economy and for homeland security.

Chile said...

Green Bean, it's time you were honored for your good writing. Come see the details about your Excellent Blog Award nomination here.

Shannon Hodgins said...

Durn, you did it again. I find myself thinking about something you said in quiet moments as you truly strike a chord with me.

I do absolutely detest where I live right now. I'm not meant for the suburbs and I'm crying out for a local culture. The fav place I've lived so far is in the Asheville region.

Right now I live in suburban hell and it's killing my soul. Sigh. You think I jest. It isn't just about shopping, it's about community spirit. Shannon

~summer~ said...

I call those megastore complexes and surrounding pseudo-communities "podville". Each chain store in the complex is a "pod".

Up in Sacramento you can really notice it: Roseville could be Folsom could be Woodland could be Lincoln could be Natomas...no character fer sure.

Tameson O'Brien said...

I'm so glad I live where I do. We have 3 restaurants , a pizza place, a coffee shop and a cafe. All locally owned. All with their own unique menu items, and homemade qualitites. You have to travel a few towns away to even get to a chain.

Tina said...

Hi Green Bean. I enjoyed your post and wanted to add my feelings about the 'beautiful' Napa Valley. Yes, the up-valley, smaller towns are quaint. Unfortunately they are quite expensive as well. They are surrounded by the vineyards that have replaced all the other crops that were grown here at one time. The county website shows that in 1928 crops grown and sold (by the tons) were: cherries, apricots, apples, gapes, pears, prunes, peaches, plums, walnuts and tomatoes. Now go the report for 2006: 42,000 acres in winegrapes and 500 for all others. Talk about a monoculture! To me, a winery doesnt look much different than yet another Starbucks!
I work for a mom and pop business and believe me Wal Mart is not our friend, so Im not defending them....I just want people to see the reality behind the grapevines and mustard here too.

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