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October 13, 2008

The Food Issue


The New York Times just sent the food movement to the moon. With a massive, encyclopedic Michael Pollan manifesto anchoring an entire Sunday Magazine issue dedicated to "food politics not food porn taste," as Bonnie P puts it in her summary at the Ethicurean, the NYT has blasted issues that have been on the periphery of the national consciousness directly to the center. And if you're wondering why your copy of the magazine didn't have corn getting blown to bits, it's because they produced a series of covers for this issue, each with a different detonating piece of produce - corn, apples, pumpkins, etc.

The whole issue is a must read but the Pollan piece lays out the context and the challenges of our multivalent food crisis as well as many possible ways forward. There is too much in here for me to summarize, but given my varied sustainability interests, here's an eyebrow-raising money quote:
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.
And it's more than just Pollan. There's Mark Bittman, a photo spread of the "food fighters" themselves, a great catfish story, an article on how Bill Gates is trying to save African agriculture and even a fascinating article on a new Kosher movement that ties together the traditional laws of kashrut with a modern commitment to sustainability. All in all, Sunday was a good day to be a foodie.

Photo credit: Martin Klimas for The New York Times

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