Sunday, October 12, 2008

Issues of food, health, energy, trade and national security converge, posing basic policy questions

The next president may have to be "Farmer In Chief," Michael Pollan, Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, writes today in The New York Times Magazine.

"The era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close," Pollan writes in an 8,250-word letter to the president-elect. "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." And it is now intertwined with energy, the rising cost of which makes it play a larger role in food production, and the use of crops to make energy.

It now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of "modern supermarket food," Pollan reports. In 1940, the ratio was 2.3 to 1. "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," Pollan writes.

Pollan touches on perhaps his favorite subject, "the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet," and predicts that growing food shortages in other nations will make "the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food." He also notes the possibility that terrorists may try to contaminate the food supply, but adds, "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."

Pollan's attacks on monoculture farming and confined animal feeding operations may prompt traditional agribusiness interests to dismiss his ideas, but he identifies some fundamental policy choices worthy of consideration. We can't do justice to his essay with a simple blog item. Read it.

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