Sunday, October 12, 2008

Every Society Is Only Three Meals Away From Revolution*

This article in today's New York Times speaks to a lot of the issues I've recently been considering regarding food.

The matter is both complicated and simple. It is complicated in that it intricately brings together aspects of economics, agriculture, and politics both foreign and domestick. It is simple in that it is at heart about the answer to the question, "What should we have for dinner?".

One of the most important observations, made implicitly by the article, is the foolishness with which we try to outdo nature in her own element. Nature abhors a monoculture, and with good reason - the resilience of any ecosystem lies primarily in its diversity. And yet every aspect of the American agricultural system is designed (deliberately or accidentally) to promote monocultures. It's astonishing to think that much of the magnificent topsoil of the American midwest lies bare for five months of the year, but it's the natural outcome of the system implemented by the federal government. The dual problems of nitrogenous fertilizer and waste from high-density feedlots only emphasize the inherent clusterfuckedness of the situation - American industrial agriculture is akin to forcing round pegs into square holes.

Mother Nature tacitly notes that they are doing it wrong.

In attempting to divine the source of these problems, one comes to the inevitable conclusion that when the only tool available is federal subsidies, everything starts looking like a nail. The system was designed using subsidies to provide cheap calories, and it does so quite well. However, it's a house of cards, relying heavily on cheap energy both for fertilization and transport. And given the end result of the system, it's not a particularly appetizing house of cards. The design goal of the modern industrial agricultural system was the McDonald's hamburger.

It's really nice how the article is phrased as a potential agenda for our next president - there's no shortage of reasonable suggestions. It seems to me that the easiest way to politicize this issue is to phrase it in terms of energy, which is already a known quantity within political spheres. The article discusses the necessity of energy independence, which would be part and parcel with a comprehensive energy plan. It's one thing for our economy to be dependent on oil, but our food? See the title of this post.

There's a lot that I'm not even touching upon here - regulation of CAFOs, water use issues - but it's reassuring to me that this issue is continuing to loom large in the public consciousness. Real change will be slow, since the current system has a lot of momentum. But the question is not if change is coming, but rather what will happen when it comes. Will we direct it, or will it direct us?

Next: More about zombies.

EDIT: Oh, it's by the guy who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma. That makes a lot of sense, actually.

*I couldn't find a legitimate source for this saying, so I'm just going to claim that I invented it.


i got more records than the K.G.B.

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