Sunday, November 16, 2008

You say you want a revolution...

Somehow I'd missed Michael Pollan's recent open letter to the incoming president in the NYT magazine last month. It's a commitment, but worth the read. You can get to it by clicking on the michaelpollen link under "What I'm reading."

Pollan has probably done more to open our eyes to the true costs of industrial agriculture than any other single person. Both The Omnivore's Dilemma and its sequel In Defense of Food are totally readable yet in-depth examinations of the way we eat and the way what we eat came to be what we eat. The stunning evolutionary success of simple maize, now dominating acreage the world over; the ludicrous ratio of fossil fuel expenditure to calories produced (10:1); the revelation that contemporary fertilizers were originally a by-product of early 20C chemical warfare. Pollan tells the story of our love affair with cheap food in a unique and fascinating way.

Which is why I'm thrilled he's re-outlined how food policies contribute to both our national (in)security - witness recent scares around imported food - and our over-dependence on imported oil. The main point of his open letter, that the era of cheap food is almost certainly drawing to a close, has yet to really hit most of us I think.

Cheap food has only been cheap because it has been heavily subsidized. That subsidization was intentional policy - Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other industrialized nation. But the policy has rendered many unintended consequences and the context in which cheap food was mandated has changed. Cheap food is no longer the answer, because the questions have changed.

But, Pollan says all this better than I ever could. The take home message I hope to convey is that those milk prices and bread prices (I currently pay up to $8 for a loaf of organic bread) probably won't be retreating anytime soon, as everyone hopes. Before too long, eating seasonally and locally could very likely move from the quaint and neighborly category to the "duh" column. The good news is that it's healthier, more fun, and kind of inspiring.

Really getting to know your local farmers might very well inspire you to dig up a little backyard and plant some onions and salad greens, buy some pots for your front porch and put in your favorite vegetables - heck, my son even saved a seed from a tomato and grew it on our windowsill. He was so proud of himself, he's got a little horticulture center of saved seed plants thriving behind our western glass door. Recently, I found myself really exasperated with our wonderful full-service supermarket for continually undercutting other island businesses, including our farmers. My small rebellion has been to shop any ingredients I can at farm stands before I get to the store. If my farmer friends are selling it, I buy it there first. Thriftway can survive without my leek and garlic funds, but my buddies down the street might not.

There's something powerful about feeding ourselves, whether "ourselves" is us, our family, or our neighborhood. There's nothing more basic than food. I hope our new president helps change the economics of how food is produced and removes many of the barriers that make small-scale farming so hard. But, the power of true food revolution really does lie within each one of us.

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