On Food and Food Policy

A couple of years ago I read (and enjoyed) Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The book is a great look into the food chain in the United States and presents a damning indictment of our current farm policy.

Last week's New York Times Magazine carried a new article by Pollan in the form of a letter to our next president: Farmer In Chief. The article provides a condensed summary of the issues reviewed in Omnivore's Dilemma and sets out a series of recommended changes. While I don't agree with all of his ideas, it does seem the system we have now is kind of crazy. To wit:
After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. 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.


As I see it, the biggest question I have about Pollan's prescription is whether it's possible to effectively feed our population using the practices he recommends. I had the chance to ask Pollan about this at a dinner held at the Stone Barns Center for Food And Agriculture. He didn't have a definitive answer then, and while it seems his ideas have gotten more focused and specific, I'm still not sure it all adds up. What does seem clear is that there's great room for improvement and that a shift to more local agriculture, more polyculture, more humane treatment of animals, and pricing and policies that reflect the true costs of things is absolutely in order.



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