Putting it all together: local food, agricultural policies, and the environment

There’s all sorts of reasons to eat and enjoy local foods:  taste, the satisfaction of contributing to your local food economy, health, opting out of agribusiness.  In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemna guy) knocks it out of the park with a detailed and lenthy essay about why our agribusiness food system is bad for us and bad for the planet, and what we need to do to change it.
Titled Farmer in Chief, the essay acts as an open letter to the presidential candidate elected on November 4th.  The style is a little affected, with lots of second-person and references to ‘sun-food’, but the content is right on.  The basic premise:  “We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

On the environment:

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.

The 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.

On health care:

Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health.

On foreign policy:

In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food.  They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers.

He also provides a good brief history of the industrialization of the U.S. food system. It’s good reading, but repetitive if you’ve read the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Most usefully, Pollan provides a fairly concrete list of things that can be done to improve our current food system, if not transform it.  FUndamentally, he argues that we need to:

1. encourage polyculture farms with a variety of crops and animals on the farm, farmed with far fewer chemical and petroleum-based imputs, with less soil depletion.

2. re-regionalize the food system by doing things like establishing more year-round farmers’ markets, encouraging instutional food buyers to buy locally, and rationalizing the FDA rules regarding small producers and small farms to that they make sense, rather than the one-size-fits-all rules oriented towards industrial agriculture we have today.

3. change the American culture of food.  This is vaguest part of Pollan’s essay, but he argues for a revived victory garden movement, educating kids about healthy eating, and public health campaigns about diabetes and obesity.

Many these ideas are excellent, and would go a long way to encouraging a more sustainable, healthful, regionalized economy of food.  The big obstacle?  The money and power of the agrobusiness lobby.  Monsanto, ADM, the Cattleman’s Association, the grain lobbyists, the hog lobbyists; they are going to work as hard as they can to shut down any kind of reform like this before it becomes a serious threat to their profits.  Reform of the federal farm subsidies and CAFOs, in particular, are going to be a very uncomfortable, protracted battle, if it happens at all.

Many, many senators and representatives have been treated very well by the agriculture lobby, and have received a lot of money and favors.  Reforming the food system in such broad strokes would go a long way to reducing our greenhouse gas emissisons, reducing pollution that makes living near a hog farm unbearable and causes the huge and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, getting Americans to eat more healthily, support small farmers and local economies and communities, and improve our national security.  But achieving it will require the same kind of battle against the lobbyists and vested interests that transforming our healthcare system into a single-payer federal system would.

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for a federal reform to start changing the food system.  Stop buying CAFO meat.  Get your fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets, as much as you can.  There’s more of them then ever before, and they’re growing.  Many of them have meat, dairy and eggs, too.  If you can’t afford to get the majority of your food from the farmers’ market, still go pick up a couple things, whatever you can afford.  Even if its only $2 of apples, thats still $2 that’s going to a nearby farmer, rather than a big company.  Maybe there’s a CSA near you.  Many CSA’s offer subsidized low-cost shares to those who can’t afford a full-price share.

See if your grocery store carries anything made or grown nearby.  Ask the produce manager where the apples or cucumbers come from, and ask them to carry vegetables grown closer than Chile.  Sure, you probably won’t see a display of local apples next week in place of the ones from New Zealand, but it’s another reminder to the big corporations that people care where their food comes from.  Start a garden, and give your extra zucchini and tomatoes to a neighbor who will put them up, or do it youself.    Even if it only happens an inch at a time, each of these things helps to build a local food economy rather than one build around chicken factories in Maryland and  Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans of Monsanto.

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