Thursday, October 30, 2008

Farmer in Chief

Here is the counterpoint to yesterday's post, Nutrients for Life. "Farmer in Chief" is an open letter to our next President, written by Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food. He outlines his vision for modifying American agricultural policy to positively influence three of our most pressing issues. No doubt you have heard the presidential candidates debate over how to solve our dependence on foreign energy, our health care system and the specter of global climate change. Since agriculture is such a cornerstone of our society, the author asserts that changes could provide positive results in all three of these issues.

Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But 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. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.
The author outlines his ideas for improvement, which all involve major shifts in agriculture policy. I've included excerpts here, but please read the entire article.

Step 1, Resolarizing the American Farm:
What happens in the field influences every other link of the food chain on up to our meals — if we grow monocultures of corn and soy, we will find the products of processed corn and soy on our plates. Fortunately for your initiative, the federal government has enormous leverage in determining exactly what happens on the 830 million acres of American crop and pasture land.

Your challenge is to take control of this vast federal machinery and use it to drive a transition to a new solar-food economy, starting on the farm. Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. (This rule was the price exacted by California and Florida produce growers in exchange for going along with subsidies for commodity crops.) Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

It will be argued that sun-food agriculture will generally yield less food than fossil-fuel agriculture. This is debatable. The key question you must be prepared to answer is simply this: Can the sort of sustainable agriculture you’re proposing feed the world?

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The simplest and most honest answer is that we don’t know, because we haven’t tried. But in the same way we now need to learn how to run an industrial economy without cheap fossil fuel, we have no choice but to find out whether sustainable agriculture can produce enough food.

The second point to bear in mind is that yield isn’t everything — and growing high-yield commodities is not quite the same thing as growing food. Much of what we’re growing today is not directly eaten as food but processed into low-quality calories of fat and sugar. As the world epidemic of diet-related chronic disease has demonstrated, the sheer quantity of calories that a food system produces improves health only up to a point, but after that, quality and diversity are probably more important. We can expect that a food system that produces somewhat less food but of a higher quality will produce healthier populations.
Step 2, Regionalizing the Food System:

For your sun-food agenda to succeed, it will have to do a lot more than alter what happens on the farm. The government could help seed a thousand new polyculture farmers in every county in Iowa, but they would promptly fail if the grain elevator remained the only buyer in town and corn and beans were the only crops it would take. Resolarizing the food system means building the infrastructure for a regional food economy — one that can support diversified farming and, by shortening the food chain, reduce the amount of fossil fuel in the American diet.

A decentralized food system offers a great many other benefits as well. Food eaten closer to where it is grown will be fresher and require less processing, making it more nutritious. Whatever may be lost in efficiency by localizing food production is gained in resilience: regional food systems can better withstand all kinds of shocks. When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is obvious: decentralize it.
Step 3, Rebuilding America's Food Culture:
In the end, shifting the American diet from a foundation of imported fossil fuel to local sunshine will require changes in our daily lives, which by now are deeply implicated in the economy and culture of fast, cheap and easy food. Making available more healthful and more sustainable food does not guarantee it will be eaten, much less appreciated or enjoyed. We need to use all the tools at our disposal — not just federal policy and public education but the president’s bully pulpit and the example of the first family’s own dinner table — to promote a new culture of food that can undergird your sun-food agenda.

Changing the food culture must begin with our children, and it must begin in the schools. Nearly a half-century ago, President Kennedy announced a national initiative to improve the physical fitness of American children. He did it by elevating the importance of physical education, pressing states to make it a requirement in public schools. We need to bring the same commitment to “edible education” — in Alice Waters’s phrase — by making lunch, in all its dimensions, a mandatory part of the curriculum. On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals.

The president should throw his support behind a new Victory Garden movement, this one seeking “victory” over three critical challenges we face today: high food prices, poor diets and a sedentary population. Eating from this, the shortest food chain of all, offers anyone with a patch of land a way to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption and help fight climate change. (We should offer grants to cities to build allotment gardens for people without access to land.) Just as important, Victory Gardens offer a way to enlist Americans, in body as well as mind, in the work of feeding themselves and changing the food system — something more ennobling, surely, than merely asking them to shop a little differently.

I don’t need to tell you that ripping out even a section of the White House lawn will be controversial: Americans love their lawns, and the South Lawn is one of the most beautiful in the country. But imagine all the energy, water and petrochemicals it takes to make it that way. (Even for the purposes of this memo, the White House would not disclose its lawn-care regimen.) Yet as deeply as Americans feel about their lawns, the agrarian ideal runs deeper still, and making this particular plot of American land productive, especially if the First Family gets out there and pulls weeds now and again, will provide an image even more stirring than that of a pretty lawn: the image of stewardship of the land, of self-reliance and of making the most of local sunlight to feed one’s family and community. The fact that surplus produce from the South Lawn Victory Garden (and there will be literally tons of it) will be offered to regional food banks will make its own eloquent statement.
Pollan is a good author, and makes his views seem quite easy to implement. I can see some major hurdles to these policy changes, however, and some minor quibbles with several of his points.

1. Economic troubles.

As money gets tight, food price increases will be hard to politically justify. It does not matter that food prices are at historic lows...perhaps the cheapest of any civilization, ever. People already started bitching about food increases this past is an American right, cheap food and fuel.

Large scale unemployment, however, may provide a large base of manpower for more labor-intensive agriculture. Perhaps many people get a first-hand look at what jobs migrant workers are currently "stealing" from the American public.

2. Farmers as "drivers".
Farming without fossil fuels — performing complex rotations of plants and animals and managing pests without petrochemicals — is labor intensive and takes more skill than merely “driving and spraying,” which is how corn-belt farmers describe what they do for a living.
I find this to be quite patronizing. I know no farmer who would honestly describe himself in such a way. I suspect the author did not pick up on the humility and self-deprication of his subject. Organic farming is more labor intensive, that point is well recieved. Adding more human capital to the agricultural system will be a challenge of its own. But to say it takes no skill to run a modern farm is ludicrous. It takes a decidedly different set of skills, and new organic skills will need to be learned and disemminated. As the average age of the American farmer increases, this will be more and more difficult. It will take a youth movement, and few people (young or old) today are interested in the arduous and capricious way of life found in agriculture.

3. Energy Calorie per Food Calorie.
...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...
Much of this certainly can be explained by the long distances that food now travels. The other factor is that millions of farmers have left the business and there are simply much less human calories at work. This has been supplanted by fossil fuels.

4. Supermarket for the World

Some opponents of organic agriculture point to the fact that we might not be able to maintain the huge outputs of food that we once did. I tend to subscribe to the notion that it is not our duty to feed the entire world. Many of his suggested policies may lower the amount of available food. For years, our subsidized grain has driven world prices down, not allowing indigenous people to economically farm. Now will be their chance. I also feel grain prices are a great geopolitical lever that we control. China has become quite reliant on us, importing more and more in the last few years. We must not neglect this as a bargaining tool.

5. A Matter of Taste

The rise of the industrial food system was helped along by policies, but it rests on the simple fact that all people like to eat cheap, tasty, sweet, fatty and salty foods. This small, sticky fact will not go away, it is hard-wired in our DNA. It will be very hard to convince people to pay more for food that they do not prefer. However, the author brings up the pertinent point - this cheap, unhealthy food is being subsidized. Not only by farm subsidies for grain, but by our increasing health insurance premiums. If we remove these incentives and force people to pay the true cost, the decision calculus may begin to swing in a more healthy direction. The huge amount of political capital and will to do this may be simply unattainable, however.

All in all, there are some very interesting ideas contained in his letter. I believe that less reliance on huge agribusiness and heavier reliance on local small agriculture has many benefits. Whether we can make such a transition remains to be seen. The individual consumer now has more of a choice than ever; buy fresh, organic, local food and provide a market for these products. Don't eat fast food and prepackaged meals. Grow a garden. Small steps by large amounts of people can have huge impacts.

Read: Farmer in Chief

1 comment:

Anthony-Masterson Photography said...

Tomorrow has come... finally. Hail to the Farmer In Chief.