Friday, October 24, 2008

All Hail the Farmer in Chief

In 2006, Stockton Record columnist Mike Fitzgerald rather put the nail in Richard Pombo's coffin with his just before column calling Pombo the Taker in Chief. Now, I believe that the Nation needs a Farmer in Chief and if you click read more, you will find out why. This is an OpEd that I submitted to my home town newspaper and which, I hope, runs next week.

We have heard a lot about what the next president, whomever that may be, will do for our economy, energy and the manner in which we project American Power into a world that is increasingly skeptical of our motives. We have not hear a lot about food. It is a subject that seems more likely to be covered in the life style segments of the evening news than as “hard news.”

I know, that in these increasingly hard times, my wife and I are very happy to have the ability to raise a significant amount of our own food. I would be sorry to inform the folks at Nob Hill, Safeway, Trader Joe's, or Target that we almost never buy fruit, not when we can eat what we have grown ourselves every day. And, we don't have to worry about whether or not is was contaminated by e coli somewhere in the food chain. We do not have to think about how much natural gas was required to manufacture the fertilizer, the possible contamination by pesticides nor any of the other concerns that can turn food into real news.

Still, I am of the opinion that possibly the single most important appointment the new president will make is to he position of Secretary of Agriculture. We have gone through an era in which the family farm has disappeared, in which factory farms and multinational corporations like ADM dominate not only the market but also the politics of agriculture.

Why do I write this here, in Morgan Hill, when agriculture is slowly disappearing from the Santa Clara Valley? Because there are alternatives that work and which address a range of other problems: energy, global warming, health care.

You could say that our current situation, an unhealthy diet, a fossil fuel driven agriculture, an expensive delivery system, and the factory farm are all the result of Richard Nixon's single instruction to Sec. Of Acticulture, Earl Butz: “Do whatever you can to boost production.” Nixon was facing rapidly increasing prices for agricultural products and a declining popularity. Butz had the answer: subsidies.

NY Times write Michael Pollan is not a farmer. He is rather a journalist, an avid gardener and a thoughtful consumer of food. Earlier this month (October 9), the Times published his open letter to the next president. He gives some data to underscore the importance of food. “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.”

It would seem that we can not make the progress that we want in any area without contemplating how agriculture, our food, fits into the picture. Consider that it now takes 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food in our supermarkets.

One solution, according to Pollan, is to re-solarize agriculture. After all, every bit of what we consume comes from the sun. The energy to grow plants comes from photosynthesis. The animal proteins that some of us eat are the result of animals eating plants, or their products. Even the petroleum, coal and natural gas on which we have based our energy system are there because of photosynthesis and the sun.

I can not think of any better solution. It may mean the end of the factory farm, but if it also means that we can improve the quality of the American diet, lowering the incidence of diet related chronic disease that costs our health care system

It may mean that we no longer practice mono-culture agriculture where only a single crop is grown. Since McDonald's only buys one type of potato for it's fries, that is all that many farmers grow, even though it requires the use of more pesticides than almost any food crop we have. The alternative is to practice multiple crop rotation as is done in Argentina where the rotation of cattle and grains on the same land has brought a lower cost of production, no pesticides required and far less fertilizer.

Standing in the way of this is the fact that we, as consumers, have this notion that the only choices are some high priced organic market. That would not be true if the food system were operated for the benefit of the farmer or the consumer rather than corporate profitability.

Both major party candidates talk of change. But when their campaigns started in Iowa, they bowed down to the corn god and mouthed the right words. Even our supposedly environmental senator, Barbara Boxer votes on the food bill knowing that “we have our cotton people and our rice people” and so supports subsidies to those who need it the least.

Effecting change will not be easy. We need political leadership that will challenge the prevailing wisdom and I am not sure that it will come from presidential candidates who are fighting over Indiana or Iowa votes.

Even in the Green Party it is not easy to get people think of agriculture in this way. Too many have a strictly urban view or confuse ecology with environment where the environment is a place to visit. It challenges too many deeply held, but false, beliefs in how the real system works. I am working to change that, in my community, in my party, in the whole country. Join me.

You can read Pollan's full open letter here:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When Pollan talked on Fresh Air the other day he said glowing things about Argentina. Seems they have solarized large scale beef production to a larger extent than anybody else. Texas take heed!