Too high on the food chain
Symposium looks at future of food

by Allen Best

Resort towns sit atop the food chain. That’s true in the metaphoric sense in that even most third-tier resorts cater to the world’s richest people. But it’s also true in the literal sense as well.

First, nearly all food must be hauled in, as there is not enough local agriculture in or surrounding such towns. This is generally true across most of the developed world, where food is hauled long distances. The average food item in the United States, for example, is transported 1,500 miles.

Unfortunately, people in these developed countries eat lots of meat, and those in places like China and Indian aspire to eat more. Ultimately, this industrialized meat production requires the burning of vast amounts of fossil fuels – the culprit for much of our nasty global warming problem.

At Mountainfilm’s Moving Mountains, the annual symposium held in late May in Telluride, the global – but very rarely local – food system was examined in great detail. As National Geographic, a sponsor of the event, noted, it’s a big, big problem. The world population, which sat at 2.5 billion in 1950, has now reached 6.7 billion, with projections that it will hit 9 billion by mid-century.

More alarming, evidence has emerged that technological innovations that produced the green revolution of the late 20th century are coming up short in trying to meet this growing population. In 2007, the most recent year for which evidence was available, 40 million more people became hungry.

To Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic, the problem starts with the soil. He grew up on a farm in Oregon and has for a decade advocated for attention to the role of soil. “The question is, ‘Can we save our soil, and in the process save ourselves?’” he asked the crowd at the symposium.

Salinization of soil – which results from salts being deposited on farm land during irrigation – is a big, long-term issue, he said.

He also noted that unlike in the United States, where food has become cheaper over the decades, it remains a major cost to people in poor countries, where individuals spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food.

Jerry Glover, of the Kansas-based Land Institute, said achieving a sustainable food supply will require more use of perennials, which do a better job of using water and regulating nitrogen, than the annuals.

Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California-Davis, called for a balance of genetically engineered plants with organic farming. Pesticide use annually causes the death of 300,000 people, she said. But the need for food is great, and organic farming currently is responsible for only 1 to 3 percent of total production.

“One of the best things we can do is eat plants instead of animals,” said Gene Baur, the founder of Farm Sanctuary and an activist that works to end cruelty to farm animals.

But there are exceptions, pointed out Dave James, who operates James Ranch, in Durango. James argued that cattle fattened on grass are the exception. “There is no reason you can’t have gorgeous cattle fat on grass,” he said. “Grass is a very efficient solar-collecting system.”

What James – and many others – advocated is a return to smaller-scale agriculture. Several speakers at the symposium pointed out that smaller acreages can be farmed more intensively and with greater diversity. James, for example, produces pork, milk, cheese, vegetables and fruits on his relatively small farm.

Joshua Viertel, the new president of Slow Food USA, urged that people consider “eating as an agriculture act” as a solution to illnesses tied to diet. Cheap food, he said, really isn’t cheap once those health-care costs are calculated.

Another speaker, Rosamond Naylor, a scientist from Stanford University, said that 200 million Chinese will have diabetes by 2020. “We can’t produce enough insulin,” she said. She, too, advised eating lower on the food chain: lots of beans and rice, with occasional vegetables, and meat only very sparingly.

To Helena Norberg-Hodge, a pioneer of the localization movement, the problem lies in the subsiding of long-range transport of agriculture products. Potatoes from Sweden, she said, are hauled to Italy to be washed and packaged, then hauled back to Sweden.

She claimed that subsidizing transport results in food that costs less when it is produced halfway around the world than food produced a mile away.

But there’s a broader, psychological dimension being learned in developing countries, she said. “The message is that Western consumer culture is the future” and your culture is in the past, she said. Locally grown food is important, she said, because it leads to diversification, and hence also to gains in productivity.

Writer and activist Bill McKibben described a “series of very deep, systematic problems” with current food production: loss of water from aquifers and other sources, loss of land for farming, degradation of soil, and the aforementioned shift to eating higher on the food chain. In addition, there is the question whether oil supplies have peaked. Modern agriculture is extremely dependent on oil, both for transport and production of fertilizer.

But all these are overshadowed by climate change. “The rise in temperatures going forward is likely to have a profound effect on our ability to harvest food,” he said.

For McKibben, as for most of the speakers, a return to the past ways of producing food, with an emphasis on local production, is the only way to move in the future. •



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