Published Jun 29 2009 by Energy Bulletin
Archived Jun 29 2009

Food & agriculture - June 29

by Staff

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

It's Not the Food We Can't Get. It's the Food We Can.

Ezra Klein, Washington Post
Jane Black takes note of an interesting new study (crummy graphs though. Sigh.) out of the USDA looking at the question of so-called "food deserts" -- areas barren of supermarkets or other ways of accessing fresh and healthful food. The takeaway, Jane says, is that worrying about food deserts gets it backward. There's very little evidence connecting access to fresh food and lower body mass indexes. Indeed, only 2.2 percent of Americans live a mile or more from a supermarket and don't have access to a care.

The problem, it seems, is the opposite: food swamps. Areas dense with fast food and convenience stores. As the USDA puts it, "Easy access to all food, rather than lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity." The concentration of the obesity crisis in high-poverty areas thus brings us back to a pretty well-accepted hypothesis: The problem is with low-income areas where the cheap food is the bad food.

... You can ask, of course, why it's a public policy problem. And the answer, in short, is that we're not willing to let diabetics die in the streets. And if that's the case, then it's a public policy program, because a world in which 25 percent of Americans are chronically ill by middle-age is a world in which we can kiss our low tax rates goodbye. I'm increasingly coming to the position -- a position held by Tom Philpott and others -- that at some point, public money is going to have to make healthy food cheaper. People instinctively rebel against that idea, but is it really so much better to pay for the consequences of unhealthful food later?
(25 June 2009)

A Buffett Turns to Farming in Africa

Scott Kilman and Roger Thurow, Wall Street Journal
After a meeting with farmers in Fufuo, Ghana, Howard Buffett stood up to shake hands, African style. He extended his right arm, marked with a faint scar from a cheetah bite, and then launched into a rapid combination of finger snapping and palm slapping.

The middle child of Warren Buffett is an unassuming Illinois soybean and corn farmer. But for the past four years, he has played a behind-the-scenes role in the global war against hunger. Given a small portion of his father’s fortune for philanthropy, he spends much of the year traveling through Africa, experimenting with ideas for helping poor farmers produce enough crops to feed their families and so lessen the continent’s food shortage. His foundation is spending about $38 million this year on projects such as developing a disease-resistant sweet potato, encouraging poachers to switch to farming, providing micro credits, and helping farmers market their crops to United Nations’ hunger-relief programs. Probably his most ambitious project under way would give African corn breeders royalty-free access to Monsanto’s biotechnology for drought-tolerant corn.

... With one foot in American farming and the other in Africa, Mr. Buffett has developed his vision for African farming. With oil prices so volatile, he thinks few farmers in African villages should use the same type of high-tech, mechanized farming he practices in Illinois. A typical farm in the Midwestern U.S.—of the sort Mr. Buffett owns—is an investment of millions of dollars.

“It takes a lot of fuel to run my equipment. And for inorganic fertilizer. And pesticides. How can that be the right answer for someone who has the opportunity to start from the beginning?” Mr. Buffett says.

While many economists and anti-hunger advocates call for a Green Revolution in Africa, Mr. Buffett shuns the phrase because it refers to the agricultural boom that swept Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Modern seeds as well as hefty applications of fertilizer and water caused Asia’s wheat and rice crops to rapidly swell.
(26 June 2009)

'Food and Farming Transition' in Italian

Daniel Lerch, Post Carbon Institute
The Food and Farming Transition: Toward a Post Carbon Food System (Spring 2009), our report on the implications of peak oil for the global food system, was recently translated into Italian.

... Authored by Senior Fellow-in-Residence Richard Heinberg and Fellow Michael Bomford, The Food and Farming Transition explores the growing vulnerabilities of the current food system, and the steps needed to transition to a post-carbon food system.

If you would like to volunteer to translate this or any of Post Carbon Institute's other publications, please contact Daniel Lerch, Program Director.
(26 June 2009)

Food Inc. Director Robert Kenner speaks on the ills of the food system

Hamida Kinge, Grist
Robert Kenner never set out to make a terrifying film when he started Food, Inc. But along the way, he found the food industry to be stunningly secretive—and what it’s hiding to be downright scary.

... Robert Kenner: ... Troy Roush is sort of an industry farmer, who uses Monsanto products and will defend them on certain levels, though he’s also been sued by them, and from his point of view for no cause whatsoever, and it cost him almost half a million dollars to defend himself. Troy was saying that he thinks 95% of farmers in America would like the film and agree with it, but they just need to see it.

... Q: There seem to be a lot of similarities between the historic cloaking of information by the tobacco industry and the cloaking of information by the agribusiness industry today.

Robert Kenner: You know what it is? It’s that the world has been transformed without us knowing about it and these companies don’t want you to thinking about this food. They want that Orwellian myth that it comes from a small farm with a white picket fence and a red barn when in reality our food comes from giant factories. It’s become industrialized, but it’s not only the chicken and the cow, it’s the tomato and the lettuce. We’re basically eating food with far fewer nutrients, and it’s not healthy. But it’s more than that. We’re also being denied the right to know what’s in it, so it’s connecting the dots to the system.

... Q: A good portion of the film focuses on the dichotomy of cheap food versus expensive healthcare: subsidized crops make certain foods dirt-cheap at the check-out counter or fast food window but wreak havoc on human health and put families into debt.

Robert Kenner: [That subsidized corn and soy not only goes into hundreds of food products, but it also acts as cheap feed for livestock]. So basically you now bring this artificially inexpensive corn to these feedlots. And when [a small farmer] grows corn on their own property and is not getting a government subsidy you can’t then feed his food to these animals and be in competition to these mega-corporations. So we’re subsidizing food that ultimately turns into sugar in our bodies, and all of a sudden, we’re getting massive amounts of sugar, because of the corn and soy, and that sugar is making us fat.

Q: The film very briefly touches on herbicide and pesticide chemical runoff finding its way into waterways and also mentions that increased cattle grazing has led to deforestation in, for example, the Amazon. But it leaves it at that. Was it a conscious choice to keep the environmental impacts brief?

Robert Kenner: We could have gone on about the environment. Ultimately, food accounts for a little over 20-25% of our carbon footprint. Like health reform, you can’t have environmental reform without changing the system and what I realized in making this film - perhaps it’s obvious but for me it really hit me - is that this is an unsustainable system. It’s a brand new system. We’ve had agricultural for ten thousand years. This system is about 40, 50 years old. And it’s not working for two giant reasons. It’s based on gasoline, which is a diminishing [resource] and as it starts to run out and as its prices start to get up to those historic highs, we’re going to have very expensive food. It takes so much gasoline to grow and transport this food. Also, there is so much pollution involved with this system; we’re depleting, poisoning the soil, the riverways, the oceans. So there are many things we don’t hit on entirely in the film, but basically what the film is about is connecting the dots to show you that this industrial system is not working.
(22 June 2009)