Saturday, October 24, 2009
(Photo: National Geographic/PopTech2009 Photo Camp)
Food journalist and activist Michael Pollan, the author of the Botany of Desire (which has been made into a PBS documentary and will air on October 28th at 8p EST), urged PopTech 2009 conferees this morning to consider that our food chain is "deeply implicated" in the three biggest problems of our time —the energy crisis, the health care crisis, and the climate crisis. Twenty percent of the fossil fuel we burn in America, he said, is used to feed ourselves; $500 billion in health care costs are used to treat diseases linked to the American diet, and one-third of greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. "This is not a good picture nor a very happy meal," he said. "If we can get the food system to become less reliant on oil and more dependent on the sun, we can help to solve all three of these problems."
To be sure, our current food production system is the most productive in the world, Pollan said: pre-WWII, a single farmer could feed 20 people. Post-war, that same farmer could feed 150. Similarly, in 1910, Americans spent a quarter of their incomes to feed themselves and their families. Today, it's less than 10 percent—less than anywhere else in the world. But Pollan says all of this cheap food has come at a cost, and rattled off some statistics. Americans are eating 500 more calories than they used to and are about 17 pounds fatter, on average. One-third of them are obese, and one in three people born in 2000 will get type II diabetes, which can cut as much as seven years off the average life span. "This generation, the one born in 2000, will be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents," he said.
But there are bright spots. Pollan referred to Joel Salatin, a visionary farmer in Virginia who is managing what Pollan called a "post-industrial farm" that's based on a sophisticated understanding of how plants, animals and weather interact and uses a complex rotation system for the plants and animals that creates a localized food chain wherein each member of that chain plays a valuable role for the others. "The sun feeds the grass, the grass feeds the cattle, who can digest it; the cattle feed the chickens; the chickens feed the grasses and the animals are feeding us," Pollan says. "...For every calorie going into the system, there are hundreds, if not thousands, coming out."
Pollan called for new legislative and regulatory policies "which have the interests of eaters and farmers equally in mind" and called for a wide-scale movement to fight agri-business interests that make money from the present system. "We (as individuals) are deeply implicated in this system," he said. "We expect food to be fast, cheap, and easy. Unless we make changes in our own behavior and start voting with our forks, this isn't going to happen."
In the meantime, Pollan said, Americans can do three additional things to help change the system: First, plant a garden. ["If you invest $70 in a home garden you can yield $600 worth of produce per year," he says.] Second, get back in the kitchen and cook. Gain control of the food you eat by making it yourself and involving your families. And third? Stop eating in front of the television and the computer and inside your car. "Food isn't fuel, it's about communion," he said, and Americans should work harder to "bring back the meal as the sacred communal activity that it is."
"I don't know what our food system is going to look like in 5-10 years," Pollan said, "but I'm confident it's going to change. What we have right now is unsustainable."
--By Marcia Stepanek