Food Security – letter to Obama

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  • Sun, Dec 28, 2008 - 09:16am



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    Food Security – letter to Obama

Farmer in Chief

By Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, is
the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California,
Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of
your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the
campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to
give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration – the last
time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then,
federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn,
soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are
derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or
less off the national political agenda. But with a suddenness that has taken
us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing
to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through
history, will find yourself confronting the fact – so easy to overlook these
past few years – that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical
issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.

Complicating matters is the fact that the price and abundance of food are
not the only problems we face; if they were, you could simply follow Nixon’s
example, appoint a latter-day Earl Butz as your secretary of agriculture and
instruct him or her to do whatever it takes to boost production. But there
are reasons to think that the old approach won’t work this time around; for
one thing, it depends on cheap energy that we can no longer count on. For
another, expanding production of industrial agriculture today would require
you to sacrifice important values on which you did campaign. Which brings me
to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to
make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of
your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant
progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change.
Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on – but as you try to
address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow,
process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and
will have to change if we hope to solve them. Let me explain.

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.

In addition to the problems of climate change and America’s oil addiction,
you have spoken at length on the campaign trail of the health care crisis.
Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960
to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. The goal of
ensuring the health of all Americans depends on getting those costs under
control. There are several reasons health care has gotten so expensive, but
one of the biggest, and perhaps most tractable, is the cost to the system of
preventable chronic diseases. 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. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand
coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the
modern American diet.

The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have
implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. 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. Nations that opened their markets to the global
flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well
as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find
their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in
Washington (like your predecessor’s precipitous embrace of biofuels) and on
Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors
and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the
phrases "food sovereignty" and "food security" on the lips of every foreign
leader you meet. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade
in agriculture is probably dead, the casualty of a cheap food policy that a
scant two years ago seemed like a boon for everyone. 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. But it turns out that too much food can be nearly as big a
problem as too little – a lesson we should keep in mind as we set about
designing a new approach to food policy.

Rich or poor, countries struggling with soaring food prices are being
forcibly reminded that food is a national-security issue. When a nation
loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy
of global commodity markets but of other governments as well. At issue is
not only the availability of food, which may be held hostage by a hostile
state, but its safety: as recent scandals in China demonstrate, we have
little control over the safety of imported foods. The deliberate
contamination of our food presents another national-security threat. At his
valedictory press conference in 2004, Tommy Thompson, the secretary of
health and human services, offered a chilling warning, saying, "I, for the
life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food
supply, because it is so easy to do."

This, in brief, is the bad news: the food and agriculture policies you’ve
inherited – designed to maximize production at all costs and relying on
cheap energy to do so – are in shambles, and the need to address the
problems they have caused is acute. The good news is that the twinned crises
in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform
of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a
generation. The American people are paying more attention to food today than
they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its
safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense
among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for
alternative kinds of food – organic, local, pasture-based, humane – are
thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency
for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices
have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to
local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more
sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last
summer that "this is a conservative cause if ever there was one."

There are many moving parts to the new food agenda I’m urging you to adopt,
but the core idea could not be simpler: 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. True, this is easier said than done – fossil
fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food
and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require
policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the
farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American
kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on
our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever
it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence
on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.

  • Sun, Dec 28, 2008 - 04:25pm


    Arthur Vibert

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    Re: Food Security – letter to Obama

Because of this I think all of us should be taking our food security into our own hands as much as possible. An industrialized agriculture that is so dependent on fossil-fuel inputs is also a highly vulnerable agriculture. A disruption at any stage of production could have disastrous consequences for people whose entire food supply comes from the supermarket. Even a temporary fuel shortage could mean food shortages – most supermarkets have only 3-4 days of food available.

What are the solutions to this potential problem? Source as much of your food locally as possible. Grow your own food. I can recommend an excellent book that I’ve found helpful in growing produce easily, efficiently and effectively, even for people who are not good gardeners:

Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew 

For people who are living in apartments but have access to the outdoors in the form of a deck or porch or whatever, Earthboxes work really well and are practically maintenence-free. You can buy them for about $60 or you can make them yourself from plastic containers – there are several places online that give detailed instructions, just do a Google search. Here’s one I found: 

Finally, whatever you decide to do, if you are planning on growing anything get your seeds now. If things get tough it could be difficult to find seeds. Sharon Astyk is reporting that some seed varieties are no longer available from her favorite sources.

As with everything, it makes sense to take as much of the responsibility for your own survival into your own hands.


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