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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How Much Oil Do You Eat?

wheat field in sun

Photo: Magnus Johansson / Istock

By Annie Bell Muzaurieta

Over the past few years, as the green movement has grown, more attention has been paid to our food system. Pollution is rampant, we've become removed from knowing how or where our food was grown, and food-borne illness outbreaks are a constant problem.

While food might not be a focus on the presidential campaign trail (aside from bloggers watching the candidates' waistlines), Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, among other books, suggests it should be. In the New York Times magazine, he addressed the president-elect, suggesting that food must be a priority of the next administration.

Why will food become such a central issue? Pollan says food must be addressed in order to successfully reform climate change (the author says the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy or put another way, "when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases"); the health care crisis ("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,"--all of those cheap calories have affected public health, and our diets have to be addressed); and food has to be a focus due to its global impact.

The food riots that erupted over the past year illustrate the reach of our food policy: "It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third." Pollan says.

We know by now that federal subsidies made crops such as corn and soybeans artificially cheap: farmers were paid by the government to help keep the costs of those crops low. That led to inexpensive byproducts, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is why fast food--burgers made from corn-fed beef, sodas sweetened with HFCS--is so cheap. (The movie King Corn provides a look at the history of the crop.)

The food crisis that we've witnessed over the past year suggests that things have changed. In addressing the president-elect, Pollan says, "with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close."

But never the pessimist, Pollan says that the good news is that the double crises of food and energy may create an environment in which it is truly possible to reform our food system, the current system that is "designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on cheap energy to do so."

And he's got a plan! And it involves sunlight!

He suggests weaning the American food system off of its heavy 20th century diet of fossil fuel and putting it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. It's a sun-food agenda.

If the federal government could create a system of enticing farmers to grow only those crops for which they'll receive subsidies, artificially lowering the price of them, then the feds can go the other way. Create a policy that encourages "diversified sun farming." Farmers would receive payments that reflect the number of different crops they grow or the number of days their fields are green, Pollan suggests. Encourage the planting of cover crops and the application of compost.

Pollan also suggests the reregionalizing of the food system, shortening the food chain. Need to be reminded about the largest beef recall in US history or the salmonella outbreak from peppers? Pollan points out the ramifications of such an incident should it involve a terrorist attack: "When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of a salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister or toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions."

Pollan's tips for how to begin to nurture the market and make food more affordable are basic but brilliant: four-season farmers markets; local meat inspection corps; reregionalize federal food procurement.

His ideas for rebuilding America's food culture include a second calorie count on every packaged food product indicating how many calories of fossil fuel went into its products, and a White House policy of one meatless day a week (the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year.)

Then we'd really have to think about what we're eating. This would all lead to the revival of farming in America, of course. Pollan says this sun-food agenda "enlists all of us in this great cause by turning food consumers into part-time producers, reconnecting the American people with the American land and demonstrating that we need not choose between the welfare of our families and the health of the environment--that eating less oil and more sunlight will redound to the benefit of both."

Original here


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