Some Politics with Your Food?

August 4, 2009 · 4 comments

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Two articles caught my eye recently, both elaborating on points made in Michael Pollan’s essay “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.”

The first is “Farmers Can Feed the World,” a Wall Street Journal editorial by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. He makes a strong case for using every technological means available to keep the world fed:

Given the right tools, farmers have shown an uncanny ability to feed themselves and others, and to ignite the economic engine that will reverse the cycle of chronic poverty. And the escape from poverty offers a chance for greater political stability in their countries as well.

But just as the ground shifted beneath the Italian community of L’Aquila, so too has the political landscape heaved in other parts of the world, casting unfounded doubts on agricultural tools for farmers made through modern science, such as biotech corn in parts of Europe. Even here at home, some elements of popular culture romanticize older, inefficient production methods and shun fertilizers and pesticides, arguing that the U.S. should revert to producing only local organic food. People should be able to purchase organic food if they have the will and financial means to do so, but not at the expense of the world’s hungry—25,000 of whom die each day from malnutrition.

He’s right, of course. Organic food is a luxury when people go hungry, just as bottled water is a luxury when people are still dying of cholera and dysentery.

The second is “The Meat of the Problem,” an opinion piece by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post. He drops this bomb:

Two researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that switching to a vegan diet would have a bigger impact than trading in your gas guzzler for a Prius (PDF). A study out of Carnegie Mellon University found that the average American would do less for the planet by switching to a totally local diet than by going vegetarian one day a week. That prompted Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to recommend that people give up meat one day a week to take pressure off the atmosphere. The response was quick and vicious. “How convenient for him,” was the inexplicable reply from a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. “He’s a vegetarian.”

The visceral reaction against anyone questioning our God-given right to bathe in bacon has been enough to scare many in the environmental movement away from this issue. The National Resources Defense Council has a long page of suggestions for how you, too, can “fight global warming.” As you’d expect, “Drive Less” is in bold letters. There’s also an endorsement for “high-mileage cars such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids.” They advise that you weatherize your home, upgrade to more efficient appliances and even buy carbon offsets. The word “meat” is nowhere to be found.

I had already made a shift in my dinner menu planning to incorporate one meatless meal a week, and I’ve been slowly shifting away from beef for a while. I was doing it primarily for variety and health reasons, but I’m happy to be inadvertently contributing to greenhouse gas reduction.

I’ll never allow politics to interfere with my enjoyment of food – there’s a whole lot of foie gras on the menu at this coming Sunday’s dinner – but I will consider some of the longer-term implications of my food choices. After all, what’s one less burger or sandwich a week?


Chris August 4, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I knew I didn’t get a license for a reason!

Bryan August 5, 2009 at 8:46 am

My first inclination is to be skeptical, because the Borlaug article appears on the WSJ opinion page, and usually nothing appears there unless it serves the interests of wealthy corporations. The subtext of the article should be read as “Monsanto, DuPont, and ConAgra can feed the world, and anyone who tries to stand in their way is making people go hungry.” But in many parts of the world, the problem is not technology, but money and poverty. Consider the Malawian fertilizer subsidy program. Many subsistence farmers in Malawi weren’t using fertilizers for the simple reason that they couldn’t afford to buy them (many crops in Africa and Central America, including much coffee and cacao, are de facto organic for this reason). The program has been somewhat controversial for economic reasons and because of problems with implementation, but it does appear to have contributed significantly to a rise in food production in Malawi. In our own country we subsidize an industrialized, energy-intensive production system so that meat and corn (and the corn products needed for processed foods) remain cheap and plentiful. Fruits and vegetables do not get anywhere near the same level of subsidy. If meat subsidies were cut, prices would rise, and Pollan would get his way by market forces. But people want cheap meat, ConAgra wants its subsidy, so there’s no political will to make that happen. The point of all this is that we could produce food more effectively with the tools we have now, but it would require significant policy changes at the governmental level, as well as priority changes at the societal level. But it’s not in Monsanto’s interest for that to happen, so you’ll never see that on the WSJ opinion page. Instead, what you see is an argument for the need for the development of more proprietary products for the food-industrial complex, a technological band-aid to cover the deeper problems they don’t really want you to think about. At best it buys you another generation or so until population pressures push the limits of whatever new tech you’ve developed, which will happen inevitably. As the Klein piece you quote elaborates, people are resistant to change in their diets. Population control is probably even more of a taboo subject. It’s human nature not to make the small change now to avoid the big crisis later, but to let the crisis happen and then panic.

David August 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I’ll give Borlaug the benefit of the doubt. I think what he’s saying is the call to revert to purely organic farming will starve the word. And he’s right.

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