business news in context, analysis with attitude

The New York Times Magazine yesterday was devoted almost entirely to the subject of food, and is worth perusing just to get a sense of cutting edge issues influencing how food is cooked, sold and consumed in the US.

Two stories stood out.

In one, author Michael Pollan wrote an 8,000-word open letter to the next President – whoever that may be – suggesting that food policy is something to which the next administration needs to pay attention. In essence, Pollan’s argument is that while the first impulse when confronting rising food prices might be to find ways to expand production, this is no longer as easily done as in the past, since such an approach depends on inexpensive energy, which no longer is available.

Some excerpts:

• “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.”

• “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.”

• “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.”

• “For today’s agriculture to wean itself from fossil fuel and make optimal use of sunlight, crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant ‘solution.’ Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel … It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat. It probably will — as it should. You will need to make the case that paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals … And while animals living on farms will still emit their share of greenhouse gases, grazing them on grass and returning their waste to the soil will substantially offset their carbon hoof prints, as will getting ruminant animals off grain. A bushel of grain takes approximately a half gallon of oil to produce; grass can be grown with little more than sunshine.”

• “It will be argued that sun-food agriculture will generally yield less food than fossil-fuel agriculture. This is debatable. The key question you must be prepared to answer is simply this: Can the sort of sustainable agriculture you’re proposing feed the world? There are a couple of ways to answer this question. The simplest and most honest answer is that we don’t know, because we haven’t tried. But in the same way we now need to learn how to run an industrial economy without cheap fossil fuel, we have no choice but to find out whether sustainable agriculture can produce enough food. The fact is, during the past century, our agricultural research has been directed toward the goal of maximizing production with the help of fossil fuel. There is no reason to think that bringing the same sort of resources to the development of more complex, sun based agricultural systems wouldn’t produce comparable yields. Today’s organic farmers, operating for the most part without benefit of public investment in research, routinely achieve 80 to 100 percent of conventional yields in grain and, in drought years, frequently exceed conventional yields. (This is because organic soils better retain moisture.) Assuming no further improvement, could the world — with a population expected to peak at 10 billion — survive on these yields?”

The other story worth noting is a Q&A with Robert Kenner, who has produced a new documentary called “Food, Inc.” that takes a critical look at the conglomeration of the nation’s food business.

Noting that Variety suggested that the documentary “does for the supermarket what ‘Jaws’ did for the beach, Kenner says that “some of these chicken houses have 27,000 chickens stuffed in a room without light. They’re designed to grow as rapidly as possible, and their bones cannot keep up with growth. Some of them are too heavy to stand.” But the interview with Kenner suggests that the biggest problem he had in producing the film was legal – he suggests that the nation’s food businesses are both paranoid about too bright a light being shined on their operations, and are quick to sue in order to stifle legitimate discussion of their practices.

KC's View:
A couple of quick comments here.

First of all, read Pollan’s piece in total if you can. (It is available on the Times website.) I’ve only excerpted one-eighth of the total here, and his arguments are complex and deserve attention.

Both Pollan and Kenner clearly are at odds with the nation’s industrialized food production system, and I’m not at all certain that their message is going to find a receptive audience in a country where people have gotten used to cheap and instant food. Their solutions are complex and time-intensive, and few consumers prefer “complex and time-intensive” to “cheap and instant.” Just a fact of life.

But I do think that the industry has to take their criticisms seriously, if only because there could be a groundswell of something happening here. It is on a small scale now, and it may not get a lot of traction when people are so concerned about other money issues that seem a lot more immediate. But it could get bigger. Maybe.

There’s a wonderful line by author Michael Connelly in which he describes a character as staring at the ocean: “"I stared out at the waves and thought about how beneath the beautiful surface a hidden power never stopped moving."

That’s what the nation’s food industry – and especially supermarkets, which serve on the front line, interacting with shoppers every day – needs to think about.

BTW…Kenner, who describes himself as having been converted into a sometime vegetarian – a “flexitarian” – by his exposure to the nation’s food business, notes that he grew up in Mamaroneck, New York, and used to eat roast beef sandwiches and play in the game room at a place called Cook’s.

Both Michael Sansolo and I found this interesting, since we grew up there, too, and ate at Cook’s. (Though I think we’re older than him.) Cook’s isn’t there anymore, though, having been supplanted by a furniture store; instead, on the same stretch of the Boston Post Road, there is a McDonald’s and a Dunkin’ Donuts and a KFC. Part of Kenner’s point is that with the death of independents like Cook’s and its replacement by chains, the nation has lost something.

Again, this won’t be a majority viewpoint. The question the industry has to deal with is whether there will be growing appreciation for its validity.