Is a food revolution now in season?

by Editorial Staff
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That was the headline in The New York Times Sunday Business section March 22. The subheadline was: "In Washington, the Gardener in Chief Embraces the Activists." And so that no one would miss the point, the activists prominently pictured were: Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan. Even Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was photographed with a jackhammer, tearing up sidewalk outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make way for an organic garden.

I wrote in this space last November about Michael Pollan’s desire to make President Obama into an organic gardener. It’s unclear whether the president is there yet, but Michelle Obama appears to share Mr. Pollan’s "small, local and natural is beautiful" vision for American agricultural policy. It also appears that the debate I warned about then is warming up now, one for which main line food and agricultural players seem ill-prepared.

The Times article by Andrew Martin summed up the reformers’ agenda this way:

"At the heart of the sustainable-food movement is a belief that America has become efficient at producing cheap, abundant food that profits corporations and agribusiness, but is unhealthy and bad for the environment.

"The federal government is culpable, the activists say, because it pays farmers billions in subsidies each year for growing grains and soybeans. … They argue that farm policy — and federal dollars — should instead encourage farmers to grow more diverse acres, reward conservation practices and promote local food networks that rely less on fossil fuels for such things as fertilizer and transportation."

There is much that is too glib in this prescription. For example, cheap and abundant food has been critical in reducing global hunger; with 800 million to 900 million people still ensnared in chronic hunger, it is important that this kind of productivity be sustained.

"Food miles" also is a concept that is increasingly recognized as a poor gauge of a food’s overall carbon footprint. The family-driven miles to shop may be the largest transportation-related expenditure of carbon, and transportation itself is typically a tenth or less of the total carbon impact of a food item.

Moreover, there is growing recognition that local gardening is not a global solution but an elitist one. As a recent article in Mother Jones concluded:

"…if sustainability means food security for everyone, and not just for affluent nations, trading food over long distances is here to stay. ... As this more pragmatic system emerges, it’s a good bet that many of our romantic notions about food production will be cast off. The vision of a nation of small farmers, for example, will give way to farms of multiple scales — small farms, but also massive agricultural operations that can produce bulk commodities like grain at the lowest possible cost." ("Spoiled: Organic and Local is So 2008," Paul Roberts, March/April 2009, cited at spoiled-organic-and-local-so-2008? Page 2).

But, even as simplistic, unrealistic or ill-informed arguments about "sustainable agriculture" get stripped away, an increasingly intense competition for federal resources, subsidies and support will develop. Existing subsidies to conventional agriculture will come under scrutiny for their effects on global poverty, dietary health and environmental stewardship. Demands for new — or offsetting — subsidies in support of nutrition, carbon reduction and less resource stress are becoming more vocal, with more sympathetic ears in high places.

For taxpayers and consumers, the issue is most likely to present itself as a bill to be paid, with the size uncertain and the burden unclear. For conventional agriculture, the gauntlet seems to have been cast down in this way: can it produce more while using less land, water and scarce resources and doing less harm to the environment? For organic agriculture, the issue is whether it can grow beyond its 2% to 3% niche in the U.S. market without modifying its underlying principles, especially in the areas of biotechnology and chemical use.

What seems increasingly clear is that a new balance between productivity and resource preservation is going to be struck. The key questions are: Where will that balance be struck? Who will decide where it should be struck — consumers, regulators or legislators? And who will pay any new costs?

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, April 7, 2009, starting on Page 26. Click here to search that archive.

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