January 7, 2009

The War on Food

I'm starting to think that Obama's recent reticence on the subject of food and agriculture is because he knows what's good for him. I mean that, by the way, in the Tony Soprano, rather than the Michael Pollan, sense. As I follow the recent food policy debate, I feel like I'm watching a slow-motion train wreck with another car going off the rails every day.

The crack in the track was the rumor going around that Tom Vilsack may take the disgraced Bill Richardson's Commerce appointment rather than Agriculture. Based on the original post, color me skeptical. Some "well-placed source" says that it's an "option under consideration" and that Vilsack would be "the perfect choice." I'm not holding my breath on that one. Neither am I looking forward to the possibility of dragging that old ag nominee short list out again - it was mostly just short on promising choices.

But what really sent things off the rails (and has caused some food policy folks to lose faith) was when one of Obama's top agriculture advisers (along with George McGovern) took to the pages of the Chicago Tribune with a full-throated defense of industrial agriculture to go along with a fatherly pat on the head for sustainable practices. The heart of this defense, and the reason for despair, is the desire for a continued availability of cheap food that minimizes labor costs and provides raw materials for fuel production. If that's what's for dinner, I'll pass.

One of the best things about Paul Roberts' book The End of Food is his careful analysis of how food conglomerates, large retailers and fast-food companies have overwhelmed our food production systems with their outrageous demands for unimaginable quantities of dirt cheap "inputs" (i.e. crops, meat and dairy products), in order to make and sell food - much of which is, by any reasonable definition, fake. At this point, it's their agricultural system; we just eat in it.

Sustainable practices by definition can't supply the Nestles, McDonalds and Wal-Marts of the world. Meeting their demands is what created this teetering CAFO-ridden, monocultural, hydrocarbon-fueled, GMO-based agricultural mishegas in the first place. If the debate is between organic vs. conventional practices, organic will always lose. This is because an organic system exists in opposition to the food companies and retailers whose requirements cannot and should not be met. And there's the rub. What do you get when you cross organic with industrial? An ungainly beast that has begotten little things like a fertilizer scandal and big things like the recent "split" between the so-called commercial organic and the sustainable organic movements.

Does anyone think that a world full of fake and fast food can really transition to a sustainable agriculture? We're addicted to cheap and convenient food just as we're addicted to cheap oil. And if the War on Drugs has taught us anything, it's that until you eliminate demand, supply will keep coming and coming and coming. No one - not Obama, not Tom Vilsack or whoever else sits atop the Agriculture Department, certainly not the American consumer - has shown any willingness to turn his back on the fake stuff. That is the true challenge, and I don't see any indication that we're ready as a nation to face it.

Image by Dan Rhett used under a CC license

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