Thursday, August 20, 2009

Time Magazine on "America's Food Crisis"

Time Magazine today gives a polished and highly readable summary of contemporary issues in U.S. food policy, titled "America's Food Crisis."

The report by Bryan Walsh is strongly worded, and the choice of sources for commentary seems daring.
The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can't even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.

And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous. A series of recalls involving contaminated foods this year — including an outbreak of salmonella from tainted peanuts that killed at least eight people and sickened 600 — has consumers rightly worried about the safety of their meals. A food system — from seed to 7‑Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America's obesity epidemic. At a time when the nation is close to a civil war over health-care reform, obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills. "The way we farm now is destructive of the soil, the environment and us," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Many readers will have seen most of the article's themes elsewhere already, but the major news magazine's writing style gives these themes some mainstream appeal without watering them down very much. The article addresses both personal choices (local buying decisions) and policy issues (nontherapeutic antibiotics). It includes both non-commercial responses (home gardening) and commercial responses (Niman Farms, Chipotle, Bon Appetit) to environmental and sustainability concerns. The accompanying multimedia is slick, including a nice photo essay about two farmers and the video below about organic vegetable gardening (you'll have to excuse the advertisement and the quirky references to "generation x" as a description for young people).


Cheryl@FarmBureau said...

The Time magazine article is very far from objective journalism. It's an opinion piece, not credible reporting. It's rare to see such a one-sided article in a national medium. The article should be an embarrasment to Time.

Ben said...

While I consider this article as "preaching to the choir" as far as I am concerned, it's nice to see the mainstream media pick up on the food crisis in America. The way this article is presented, it spreads the tenements of the locavore movement without being too wonky or standoffish. Straight to the point and as this blog says - not much watering down. For those of us who are constantly preaching to friends and family about the virtues of the local food and organic movement, this article should be used as a primer.

Bad Wolf said...
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R said...

Has anyone run the numbers on the total land requirements of the super-sustainable grass-fed approach to livestock-raising (e.g. Joel Salatin from the Omnivore's Dilemma/Bill Niman in the Time article) vs. grain-fed livestock in CAFOs (including the land to grow their feedcrops)?

It would be worth understanding their relative land intensities, because the more land is needed at a global level for livestock production, the higher the risk of that incremental land coming from deforestation, directly or indirectly. This isn't the only concern, of course, but it's an important one.

R said...

One issue I take with the Time article (also other sources e.g. Pollan) is the insistence that higher food prices are inconvenient but ultimately benign. This strikes me as a cavalier rich-country point of view. In a country like Malawi in Africa, where people spend 70+% of their income on food, a price increase of 50% is literally a matter of life or death.

I understand the argument that there are hidden environmental costs that aren't reflected in the cheap cost of industrial food. But ultimately, hunger kills millions of people every year. Nitrogen blooms in the Gulf of Mexico do not.

Parke Wilde said...

I am glad to have the Farm Bureau comment, recording another point of view for the record here.

For R's question, I don't have hard facts, but my working assumption has been that pasture fed beef is highly appropriate and economically efficient technology for U.S. dry prairie lands (where current practice of feedlots with corn fed by aquifer irrigation is unsustainable). But, I can imagine such production would not satisfy current average consumption levels. For people who want to eat in an ethical and environmentally sound way, the current popularity of sustainable beef goes well with lower average beef consumption, thinking of beef as an occasional treat.

Will read more on this.

R said...

Transitioning to pasture-fed beef seems reasonable from a U.S. standpoint, but the implications for the global food system should also be taken into account. The U.S. exports tens of millions of tons of corn every year, mostly for animal feed. So if that U.S. corn production is displaced, and the rapidly growing middle classes in China and elsewhere can't be convinced to eat less meat, that feed (grain or grass) will be sourced elsewhere in the world. This means additional land coming into production, which carries a high risk of deforestation, and is at the core - for all its good intentions - a rich country outsourcing its environmental footprint to other parts of the world.

Parke Wilde said...

R, feeding corn to cattle is particularly inefficient. Pigs and poultry, for example, can produce more meat for less corn. A trend toward pasture fed beef on marginal former prairie land that was not really environmentally suited for corn production, accompanied by accepting that this means less beef overall, frees up more corn and cropland. I don't yet see the export reductions or cropland requirements you anticipate.