Saturday, 19 March 2011

Food Does Matter I Guess

Several heavyweight journalistic organizations are looking at food/ farming in a much more serious way. The New York Times, the Globe and Mail has done some excellent reporting, The Atlantic, and recently the Economist, a well respected British magazine.  Today in the Globe there's an interview with everyone's favourite food guru Michael Pollan, which is down below.  Here's a favourite line from the Economist piece: "The historian Livy thought the Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status." 

The Economist
A special report on feeding the world: The 9 billion-people question

THE 1.6-hectare (4-acre) Broadbalk field lies in the centre of Rothamsted farm, about 40km (25 miles) north of London. In 1847 the farm’s founder, Sir John Lawes, described its soil as a heavy loam resting on chalk and capable of producing good wheat when well manured. The 2010 harvest did not seem to vindicate his judgment. In the centre of the field the wheat is abundant, yielding 10 tonnes a hectare, one of the highest rates in the world for a commercial crop. But at the western end, near the manor house, it produces only 4 or 5 tonnes a hectare; other, spindlier, plants yield just 1 or 2 tonnes.

Broadbalk is no ordinary field. The first experimental crop of winter wheat was sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for the past 166 years the field, part of the Rothamsted Research station, has been the site of the longest-running continuous agricultural experiment in the world. Now different parts of the field are sown using different practices, making Broadbalk a microcosm of the state of world farming.

The wheat yielding a tonne a hectare is like an African field, and for the same reason: this crop has had no fertiliser, pesticide or anything else applied to it. African farmers are sometimes thought to be somehow responsible for their low yields, but the blame lies with the technology at their disposal. Given the same technology, European and American farmers get the same results.

The wheat bearing 4 or 5 tonnes a hectare is, roughly, like that of the Green Revolution, the transformation of agriculture that swept the world in the 1970s. It has been treated with herbicides and some fertilisers, but not up to the standard of the most recent agronomic practices, nor is it the highest-yielding semi-dwarf wheat variety. This is the crop of the Indian subcontinent and of Argentina.

The extraordinary results in the centre of the field are achieved by using the best plants, fertilisers, fungicides and husbandry. The yield is higher than the national average in Britain, and is as good as it gets.

Seeds of doubt

But the Broadbalk field shows something else. Chart 1 tracks its yields from the start, showing how the three different kinds of wheat farming—African, Green Revolution and modern—have diverged, sometimes quite suddenly: in the 1960s with the introduction of new herbicides for Green Revolution wheat, and in the 1980s with new fungicides and semi-dwarf varieties. Worryingly, though, in the past 15 years the yields of the most productive varieties of wheat in Broadbalk have begun to level out or even fall. The fear is that Broadbalk may prove a microcosm in this respect, too.

At the start of 2011 the food industry is in crisis. World food prices have risen above the peak they reached in early 2008 (see chart 2). That was a time when hundreds of millions of people fell into poverty, food riots were shaking governments in dozens of developing countries, exporters were banning grain sales abroad and “land grabs” carried out by rich grain-importing nations in poor agricultural ones were raising awkward questions about how best to help the poor.

This time, too, there have been export bans, food riots, panic buying and emergency price controls, just as in 2007-08. Fears that drought might ruin the current wheat crop in China, the world’s largest, are sending shock waves through world markets. Discontent over rising bread prices has played a part in the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East. There are differences between the periods, but the fact that agriculture has experienced two big price spikes in under four years suggests that something serious is rattling the world’s food chain.

The food industry has been attracting extra attention of other kinds. For years some of the most popular television programmes in English-speaking countries have been cooking shows. That may point to a healthy interest in food, but then again it may not. The historian Livy thought the Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status.

At a meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) industrial countries in 2009 the assembled leaders put food alongside the global financial crisis on their list of top priorities, promising to find $20 billion for agriculture over three years. This year the current president of the Group of 20 (G20), France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to make food the top priority. The Gates Foundation, the world’s richest charity, which had previously focused on health and development generally, started to concentrate more on feeding the world. At last month’s World Economic Forum, a gathering of businesspeople and policymakers in Davos, 17 global companies launched what they described as “a new vision for agriculture”, promising to do more to promote markets for smallholders—a sign of rising alarm in the private sector.

Anything for dinner?

Some of this public and political attention has been sporadic, but it is justified. An era of cheap food has come to an end. A combination of factors—rising demand in India and China, a dietary shift away from cereals towards meat and vegetables, the increasing use of maize as a fuel, and developments outside agriculture, such as the fall in the dollar—have brought to a close a period starting in the early 1970s in which the real price of staple crops (rice, wheat and maize) fell year after year.

This has come as a shock. By the 1990s most agricultural problems seemed to have been solved. Yields were rising, pests appeared under control and fertilisers were replenishing tired soil. The exciting areas of research in life sciences were no longer plants but things like HIV/AIDS.

The end of the era of cheap food has coincided with growing concern about the prospects of feeding the world. Around the turn of 2011-12 the global population is forecast to rise to 7 billion, stirring Malthusian fears. The price rises have once again plunged into poverty millions of people who spend more than half their income on food. The numbers of those below the poverty level of $1.25 a day, which had been falling consistently in the 1990s, rose sharply in 2007-08. That seems to suggest that the world cannot even feed its current population, let alone the 9 billion expected by 2050. Adding further to the concerns is climate change, of which agriculture is both cause and victim. So how will the world cope in the next four decades?

That question forms the backbone of this special report. The answer to it cannot be a straightforward technical or biological one because food is basic to life. In the Maya creation myth, the first humans were made of maize dough. In the slang of Marathi, a language of west central India, the man on the street is known as “fried bread”—after the workers’ favourite snack.

Because food is so important, agriculture—more than any other form of economic activity—is expected to achieve a series of competing and overlapping goals that change over time and from place to place. The world looks to farmers to do more than just produce food. Agriculture is also central to reducing hunger (which is not quite the same thing) and provides many people’s main route out of poverty. Food is probably the biggest single influence on people’s health, though in radically different ways in poor countries and in rich ones, where the big problem now is obesity. Food is also one of the few pleasures available to the poorest. In the favelas (slums) of São Paulo, the largest city in South America, takeaway pizza parlours are proliferating because many families, who often do not have proper kitchens, now order a pizza at home to celebrate special occasions.

Given these conflicting aims, it is not surprising that the food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the main problem and radically different proposals for solving it. One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For those in this group—food companies, plant breeders and international development agencies—the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The alternative view is sceptical of, or even downright hostile to, the modern food business. This group, influential among non-governmental organisations and some consumers, concentrates more on the food problems of richer countries, such as concerns about animal welfare and obesity. It argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?”

This special report concentrates on the problems of feeding the 9 billion. It therefore gives greater weight to the first group. It argues that many of their claims are justified: feeding the world in 2050 will be hard, and business as usual will not do it. The report looks at ways to boost yields of the main crops, considers the constraints of land and water and the use of fertiliser and pesticide, assesses biofuel policies, explains why technology matters so much and examines the impact of recent price rises. It points out that although the concerns of the critics of modern agriculture may be understandable, the reaction against intensive farming is a luxury of the rich. Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.

The Globe and Mail
Author Michael Pollan explains the war on food movement
Ian Brown sits down with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and god of the food movement

IAN BROWN: Why is there a backlash against foodies, in favor of Big Agriculture?

MICHAEL POLLAN: You know how journalists work. They like to set up that kind of tension. But I think it’s not that simple.”
More related to this story

IB: The Economist declares war between Big Agriculture on the one hand and small-scale sustainable farming on the other. The magazines claims the latter can never feed the world, not with 9 billion people by 2050.

MP: There are people in the food movement who aim to replace Big Ag with Small Ag. But I think there are many more people in the food movement who seek to reform Big Ag. And to cast it as a choice between the small, diversified, sustainable farm and the highly productive massified farm is a false choice. Where does Wal Mart fit in that? Wal Mart is interested in localizing its production right now, and they’re doing a lot of things to do that. They are going to big farmers and trying to get them to change the way they behave. There’s a lot of movement to get antibiotics out of production in animal farming. And that’s not about breaking those farms up into tiny little units. That’s about reforming the way they do business. So if you cast it as an either/or--if Big Ag is the only way you can feed the world, and I’m not willing to concede that, I don’t think it’s proven, though it is asserted--then that frees Big Ag to do whatever it feels it needs to do to continue to be big and productive. I think it’s a way to take the focus off them and off the fact that many of their ways of doing business are completely unsustainable and brutal and unjust. It’s an interesting formulation, but I just don’t accept it.

It’s also an interesting formulation because we just don’t have the choice of continuing down the path of this highly industrialized, highly fossil fuel-dependent food industry, even if we wanted to. Even if we decided that’s what we liked best, we’re going to find we don’t have the fossil fuel to support it. We would find that having a globalized food economy is fraught with risks, as we’re seeing with the current price spikes. And that food security, whether you’re talking about countries or smaller units, is endangered by having the food system we have. A lot of the political instability we’re seeing now is tied to problems with the globalized food system. So the idea that’s it’s working and that we could continue on this path is just not a choice available to us. We have to figure out another way to do it. And to say the only alternative is the tiny artisinal farm is false. There are many ways to do it. All of them involve changing industrial agricultural, however.

IB: What do you make of the complaints of B.R. Myers, who has aesthetic and moral objections to foodies in the latest Atlantic Monthly?

MP: His aesthetic problem is an ethical problem, and that’s that he’s a vegan. And if you look at the way he writes about these issues...everything he dismisses as gluttony always involves eating an animal. So there’s a few agendas mixed up in that, and he’s not completely open about what they are.

One of the things that strikes me about foodie-ism, to use a term that I really despise, is that it is ethically inflected in a way that other forms of past interest in food have not been. And I’m sure you noticed this amongst the chefs you were with. What’s very striking about the current interest in food is that it’s not purely aesthetic. It is not purely about pleasure--people are very interested in the system that they’re eating from. And they’re very interested in the way the food was produced and the story behind it. People are mixing up aesthetics and ethics in a very new way, that some people are uncomfortable with, frankly. The idea that you could take any pleasure from politics, that you could mix those two terms, is a very un-American idea. We see it as you’re either indulging yourself, or you’re doing the world good. The fact is, slow food and other elements of the food movement are proposing that the best choice, the most beautiful choice, is often the most sustainable choice. It might be more expensive, and that’s a problem that we need to work on. But I think the industry is feeling very threatened right now by the fact that so many people are asking hard questions about their food. And so there’s an effort underway to discredit the food movement.

If the industrial food system were working so well, you would not have so many consumers abandoning it in droves. And this is an organized PR campaign to defend industrial agriculture. In America there’s a consortium of various groups that have put together about $30 million to defend industrial Ag. The Farm Bureau is kind of leading the charge in America. The farm Bureau has always fronted for agribusiness.

IB: I have spoken to people who think the current focus on cooking, and especially high-end TV cooking, has actually alienated us even more from what we eat.

MP: It’s interesting that the media would celebrate this shallow foodie-ism [on TV] and then attack the food movement for shallow foodie-ism. But you know how the runs of the media go. Once you celebrate something, what can you do then? You attack it. I think the media has gone overboard on the food issue. I don’t even think food politics are quite as vibrant as the media would have you believe. But having built it up so much, what is left but to take it down? Still, it’s fraught. There is a real restiveness around food in this country, and a sense that the western diet is at the heart of the problems.”

IB: The food movement is also attacked for producing expensive food.

MP: There is beautiful food being served today that is expensive that only the affluent can afford, that’s absolutely true. But the food movement has many pieces. And there are also many efforts to democratize it--to bring farmers’ markets into the city and offer vouchers to the poor so they can buy food at the farmers’ market. To teach cooking classes in the inner city where the culture of cooking has been particularly undermined. So there are many elements. The Slow Food organization is a great example. It celebrates beautiful and expensive food but is also involved in getting gardens into schools, to make it possible for more people to benefit from the food.

A great many social movements in this country have begun with elites, with people who have the time and the resources to devote to them. You go back to abolition, women’s suffrage, the environmental movement. That’s not unusual. And to damn a political and social movement because the people who started it are well-to-do seems to me not all that damning. If the food movement is still dominated by the elite in 20 years, I think that will be damning. It would need to be more democratized. The reason that good food is more expensive than cheap food is part of the issue we’re trying to confront. And has to do with subsidies, and the way we organize our society and our economy. Those are big systemic problems.

IB: One of the reasons people want to eat in a more engaged way seems to be a longing for community, as an antidote to our technological isolation. Food is community--and a very physical form of community, at that.

MP: Shared meals, breaking bread, making food, with one another, with nature, across generations--there is a longing for that. One of the earmarks of industrial eating is eating alone. Our eating has become very isolated and anti-social. And the industry has atomized us in our eating. The industry would rather we didn’t eat our meals at the table with other people. You can sell more food to people if you break them up into demographic target groups, and they’ve understood this for a long time. If you go to the frozen food aisle at your store, you will see frozen entrees, designed for adult men, entrees designed for teenaged girls, entrees for women dieting, entrees designed for young boys. So if you can break people up into those pieces and sell a different entree to each one, you’ve sold a lot more food that you would have if you’d just targeted Mom and let her decide what everyone’s going to eat. So industrial eating or corporate eating has undermined the social dimension of eating. And people miss that. And I think that is one of the drivers that brings people to this movement.

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