Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ground Zero – How Politics, Oil and Greed Mess with Our Food

The following commentary comes from the Pacific Northwest Inlander and is reprinted with permission by the Inlander and the author.

By Paul K. Haeder

There’s been a war against food going on way before the movie Food Inc., hits the screen. It involves battalions from Big Ag fighting to control every last seed, shoot, grain, kernel and slab of meat and wheel of cheese produced by their legions of big farms – the more monopolized and mono-crop driven, the better, it seems.

The ground force -- Monsanto, Cargill and Archer Daniels -- is dictating when, what, and how farmers farm. They’re also helping Wall Street speculators make billions off of the scarce natural resources and food “markets,” monopolizing corn and soy-based biofuels, as well as hoarding future reserves of crop seeds and germ plasm, wheat, rice, soy, corn and other grains.

There is resistance fighting against the grain -- and against the Genetic Engineering brigades. Many wonder if Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) and organics will come to the rescue.

Over 4,000 farmers markets are up and running. Local Harvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSAs, with over 2,500 listed in its database. U.S. sales of organic food and non-food products reached $24.6 billion in 2008, growing 17.1 percent over 2007 sales.

We’ve been seeing this battle go on for years, way before Ag Secretary Earl Butz declared war on small farms, good produce, and a sensible scale for farms, communities and food delivery. Today, 40 percent of U.S. corn and 80 percent of soybeans are genetically engineered. Sixty percent of processed foods on supermarket shelves-- from breakfast foods, soda pop, fruit drinks, soup, crackers, condiments -- contains genetically engineered ingredients.

The food battlefield includes logistical challenges: on average the American diet needs more than 10 calories of energy – fossil fuel in the form of diesel, gas, fertilizer – to deliver one calorie of digestible substance . And it is a delivery problem: 1,540 farm-to-plate/ farm-to-fork miles most of our food chalks up. We’re squandering earth’s soil and solar capital for growing grain to produce bovine, poultry, swine, and dairy –products we’re supposed to cut out of our diets, not only for a healthy body but the health of our planet.

Next to oil and natural gas as weak links in our food chain, water is second. One organization on the Internet, Water Footprint, gives some facts on how much water it takes to put a burger in your belly – 4,226 gallons of H2O for 2.2 pounds of beef. A cup of Joe? Thirty-six gallons for one cup of coffee. A quart of milk? That’s 264 gallons of water.

Anti-suburbia writer James Howard Kunstler is partaking in a low-on-the- food-chain diet as his way of connecting to a looming food crisis. He sees food as a logistical nightmare.

“The fragility of petro-ag is being aggravated by the collapse of bank lending now. Farmers need borrowed money desperately. Capital is as important an input as methane-based fertilizers. I think we could see problems with food production and distribution anytime from here on.”

At the G-20 in April, the World Bank agreed that cash for farming has to be a major priority. Funding for agriculture and its associated infrastructure is set to triple as part of a plan to stimulate the global economy – from the current $4 billion to $12 billion in little more than a year.

It’s clear that this food battle line is wider than Big Ag versus localvores, and it’s going to be more complicated as global population increases from six to nine billion by 2050. Farmers will be called upon to produce considerably more food. Countries in Africa and Latin America are at the top of the list where subsistence farming needs a huge shot in the arm to stave off massive starvation.

Palouse farmers are being called upon to develop efficient, less energy intensive, and soil and climate “friendly” farming techniques that will produce more food. The battlefront for farmers and WSU is full of minefields.

In coming columns, I’ll be writing about developments in this region’s battle in the food war and region-wide food security challenge.

I will participate in a July “food summit,” put on by Shepherd’s Grain and Stone-Buhr Flour Company, culminating with a roundtable discussion with End of Food author Paul Roberts. We’ll look at “agriculture of the middle” – midsized farms -- and see how to keep these farmers in full-time work and still connect “larger sustainable food quantities” to processors, distributors and retailers and wholesalers.

We live in a world where a billion people go hungry every day. With peak oil, resources wars, battles over water, climate change and environmental degradation, human population planning is the key to keeping that statistic from rising.

On the US’s Food-Ag-Soil-Oil battleground, a crisis in health care is the Achilles heel in our campaign to fight for a secure food future:

“Because the crisis of rising costs in the American health care system can be translated very simply as the catastrophe of the American diet, which represents probably half of what we spend on health care in America. We spend about $2 trillion a year . . . 1.5 trillion goes to treat chronic disease. Now you've got smoking in there, alcoholism, but other than that, chronic disease is mostly food related,” states Michael Pollan, author of many books on food and food culture and politics, including, Omnivore’s Dilemma.

I’ll talk with Pollan, who will speak at WSU in the Fall as part of WSU’s Common Reading program. Additionally, I’ll be writing about school boards now seeing the writing on the side of the corn dog package – more money in Washington will be allocated for school lunches that are supported by local and area-wide food (fruit and produce) growers.

To win the food war, we must change the way kids and parents view food, and what we all eat.

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