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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009 03:23 am

A better food agenda

A letter to Barack Obama, the Farmer in Chief, about what needs to change in U.S. food policy

The abundance of late November was on display at the Meet Your Local Producers and Thanksgiving Market sponsored by Illinois Stewardship Alliance and Slow Food Springfield.

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your election and inauguration! Though condolences seem almost as much in order as kudos. Just thinking about the challenges you face makes me want to brew a cup of tea, curl up in a chair and watch cheerful ’60s sitcoms. (Like your wife, Michelle, I love the “Dick Van Dyke Show.”)

So it’s reluctantly that I raise another issue, and only because it’s something that affects many of the biggest items on your agenda: energy, the environment, healthcare, job creation, the economy, education and even national security. It’s food.

You’ve called for change. Changing the ways in which America produces, processes, transports, markets and consumes its food is a critical component in achieving many of your goals; not changing them may well put those goals out of reach.

Take energy. Our industrialized, mechanized food system uses more fossil fuel than any other economic sector except cars. In 1940, a calorie of fossil fuel energy produced 2.3 calories of food. Today 10 calories of fossil fuels produce just one food calorie. Most of the fuel is used for machinery and transport. Food travels an average of between 1,500 and 2,500 miles to get to the plate from its production site, a more accurate term than “farm” for industrial agriculture and “confined animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs. Fossil fuels are also used in processing and packaging, chemical fertilizers made from natural gas, and pesticides made from petroleum. As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto writes, “. . . 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 [because] every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine.”

Then there’s the environment. Greenhouse gases aren’t just produced in our food system by fossil fuels. All farm animals produce methane gas, but the situation is exacerbated in CAFOs, some the size of small cities — not least because the government doesn’t require CAFOs to treat wastes as it does for similarly-sized human cities; consequently CAFOs create vast lakes of polluting excrement. Our food system is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas production in America — estimates range as high as 37 percent of total greenhouse gases.

There are other environmental problems in modern large-scale food production. Conventional farming has created serious concerns about soil erosion and water conservation. Those chemical fertilizers and pesticides are problematic for the environment, too, as well as for the health of wildlife and humans.

Healthcare spending has skyrocketed. One of the principle reasons jobs are being lost and businesses outsourcing to other countries, or being in danger of bankruptcy, is the cost of healthcare. While there are many reasons that healthcare’s costs have been on such a steep trajectory, one is the parallel growth of preventable chronic diseases. Four of America’s top 10 killers are chronic diseases with links to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Then there’s the use of prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics in CAFOs. The biggest American consumer of antibiotics is agriculture, not primarily to treat sick animals, but because conditions in CAFOs are so hellishly crowded and unsanitary that without antibiotics, animals inevitably become diseased. Addressing, as Pollan puts it, “the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet” is essential to controlling healthcare costs — something that must be done if coverage is expanded.

It’s well established that children need a nourishing diet to learn. That’s why programs provide breakfasts as well as lunches. There’s been some progress in this area — soda and candy machines are being eliminated in schools. But more needs to be done. Estimates are that two out of three children eat fast food every day. Unfortunately, too many school lunches have adopted the fast-food model, offering fries, chicken fries and stars (processed chicken molded into shapes, breaded, and fried) greasy tacos and pizzas. Lunches from home aren’t necessarily better. My kids were teased because their lunchboxes contained sandwiches on whole wheat bread, carrot sticks, a piece of fruit and juice. The cool kids had “Lunchables” — little pieces of processed cheese and meat, cut to exactly fit the enclosed crackers, all in a fun box. The amount of food in proportion to packaging was miniscule.

Michael Pollan looks through produce at a farmers’ market in Chicago.

Then there were beverages. As a parent-helper at my daughter Ashley’s middle school, I was to bring two bottles of non-brown soda (The “non-brown” was to avoid staining carpets) for an end-of-year party. I brought 7-UP, but the kids didn’t want it. They headed for Mountain Dew and Surge, something new to me. Some became upset when both quickly ran out. “They want the caffeine,” explained Ashley. Mountain Dew has high caffeine levels; Surge has — and is marketed for having — even more. “Lots of kids bring two cans of Surge for lunch every day,” she said matter-of-factly. What?!! How could kids hyped-up on sugar and caffeine learn — and how could a teacher control them in order to teach?

Why is food critical to national security? Well, there are those fossil fuels: making our food system greener (ironic!) is crucial to reducing our dependence on foreign oil. But there are other issues. Central processing and monoculture farming are dominant, whether it’s growing one crop or raising one kind and breed of animal. That makes food vulnerable to diseases and large-scale contamination, as witnessed by the recent spinach and tomato/pepper scares.

Most frightening is the potential for food terrorism. Pollan writes, “Whatever may be lost in efficiency by localizing food production is gained in resilience: regional food systems can better withstand all kinds of shocks. When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week, or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe.” If that sounds far-fetched, consider the comments of Tommy Thompson when resigning as Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2004: “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

How did our food system come to this? WWII’s aftermath brought dramatic changes. Eisenhower’s agriculture secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, implored farmers to “Get big or get out.” That mantra was repeated by successive agriculture secretaries, reaching its culmination with Earl Butz, Nixon’s agriculture secretary. Under Butz, “Get big or get out” became an obsession — in fact, the saying is associated with him more than Benson. (One of Butz’s own zingers was, “Adjust or die.”) Butz enthusiastically embraced industrialized agriculture and huge food corporations. The current subsidy system that favors centralization and industrial agriculture was begun under his watch. His impact was such that his 2008 obituary in one environmental publication was titled, “Earl Butz, the Man Who Killed the Family Farm, Has Died.”

Benson and Butz probably meant well. And their successors have followed the same path in varying degrees. Their goal was to provide abundant, cheap food and they assumed that cheap oil to produce cheap food would always be available.

But cheap food doesn’t necessarily equate with good food. Giving farmers/producers subsidies that enabled them to grow huge quantities of corn and soybeans below cost flooded markets and encouraged ways to utilize the bounty. It was that bounty that led to CAFO feedlots and high-fructose corn syrup. Meat was cheap, and so people began eating more than was healthy. High-fructose corn syrup was so cheap that beverages containing it began replacing nutritional stalwarts such as juice, milk, or simple water. Why not, when you can buy a 64 oz. (that’s two quarts) soda for 89 cents? High-fructose corn syrup, salt, transfats and other cheap fillers began replacing more nutritious — albeit more costly — ingredients in prepared foods.

Mr. President, you’ve said that effecting positive change is best achieved “bottom-up” rather than “top-down.” The good news is that there’s a movement that runs counter to the current entrenched, industrialized, fossil-fuel dependent food system that has made junk food — some of which shouldn’t be called food, if your definition of food is that it nourishes the body — the norm rather than the exception. The explosion of growth in food system alternatives has definitely been “bottom-up” — it’s not really even a movement, as such.

There are a few organizations with a national presence. Slow Food, begun in Italy, has chapters throughout America, including one here in Springfield, as well as a national office [www.slowfoodusa.org]. Food Democracy Now! is a “grassroots movement initiated by armers, writers, chefs, eaters and policy advocates who reognize the profound sense of urgency in creating a new food system that is capable of meeting the changing needs of American society as it relates to food, health, animal welfare and the environment. The organization’s Web site, www.fooddemocracynow.org, has a petition with more than 80,000 signatures that proposes a list of sustainable/local USDA undersecretaries.

There are other organizations as well. But there’s no umbrella organization that consolidates disparate elements to influence national policy. (See “On the food front lines,” p.14 for local and regional organizations that are part of the alternative food movement.)

The Illinois Stewardship Alliance hosts “local flavors” dinners to promote fresh and local cuisine.

One of those elements is “polyculture farming” (growing a variety of crops and animals) that creates a natural, elegant cycle of life that utilizes the sun instead of fossil fuels, nurtures the soil instead of depleting it, grows and raises food that’s chemical, hormone and pesticide free, and that can, through careful management, produce more per acre than monoculture farming. Others include artisanal cheesemakers, bakers and butchers; restaurants that utilize and promote healthy, organic and local ingredients; groceries and other businesses, some large but mostly small and local, that sell sustainable food and other products; and a myriad of people, foundations and small organizations across America that promote and support food system alternatives.

The energy, innovation and creativity that has driven the movement towards an alternative American food system has happened largely without government support — and more often in the face of government policies and regulations that actively worked against it. In some ways that’s been good. But there are things the federal government can do to help move our food system to a healthy, sustainable, environmentally friendly place.

One is to end the Byzantine, blatantly unfair system of subsidies. Currently, taxpayers send $19 billion a year to just 3,100 farmers, virtually all of whom are mega-producers with mega-incomes.

Another would be to make sure that “the fox isn’t guarding the henhouse.” For decades, big agriculture and mega-food corporations have had a revolving door in and out of food-related government agencies such as the FDA and the USDA: folks appointed to high-level positions in those agencies who become lobbyists and executives in the very businesses they were supposed to be monitoring, who then go back into government positions in a different administration. For example, seven members of the 13-member USDA committee that determines nutritional guidelines have ties to food or drug companies (or both) or have received funding from them.

In formulating food policy, Mr. President, I hope you’ll listen to locally-based folks like we’ve discussed here, as well as national figures such as Pollan and Alice Waters, whose Edible School Yard [www.edibleschoolyard.org] teaches middle school students to both grow healthy food and cook it. She’s been working with Mayor Daley to institute a similar program in Chicago.

Finally, it’s important to realize that, as Pollan writes, “Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every. . . shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner back from the fast-food industry — the culinary equivalent of home-schooling. It builds on America’s agrarian past, but turns it toward a more sustainable, sophisticated future. It honors the work of American farmers and enlists them in three of the 21st century’s most urgent errands: to move into the post-oil future, to improve the health of the American people and to mitigate climate change. Indeed, it enlists all of us.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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