Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch
Bioneers 2009 - a weekend-long gathering in San Rafael, California of social and scientific innovators focused on environmental issues - kicked off on Friday with Michael Pollan as a headlining speaker. His talk came in the early afternoon, just before lunch, so to make everyone excited about the prospect of eating soon, he did something quite appetizing - he consumed a little oil. A key element of Pollan's work is pointing out how much fossil fuel we consume for every calorie of edible food we consume. If you haven't heard the figure before, it's eye-opening.
We have shifted from a food economy that yielded two calories of food for every one calorie of fossil fuel we burned to grow, harvest, process and distribute the food, to a food economy that yields one calorie of food for every ten calories of fossil fuel we put into obtaining it.
Pollan highlighted this fact by showing just what that looked like. He pulled out a quarter pounder with cheese from McDonalds. Then, he poured out the equivalent amount of oil it took to create that burger - all 26 ounces of it.
"Nobody should eat like this. It's just disgusting," he said....as he hammered home his point by taking a taste of the oil. Then, "It's just chocolate syrup," he said to a relieved audience.
That quarter pounder with cheese is equal to 26 ounces of oil, or seven pounds of coal being burned, or driving a car 13 miles. That's a lot of fossil fuel for one small meal that has zero positive health effects other than keeping our stomachs full for a few hours.
As Pollan stated, our agricultural policies are largely responsible for the broken food system, which is at the heart of the public health care crisis. Pollan highlighted several things he thinks are solutions that get to the heart of the problem.
First, we need to wean the American food system off a diet of fossil fuels and onto a diet of contemporary sunshine.
Next, we reward farmers for crop diversity - the more diversity they can contain on their land, the higher their rewards.
We eliminate food stamps and promote farmers' market stamps, allowing access to fresh, healthy foods to those who need it most, and pushing more customers towards local farmers.
Also, we must get 20 to 30 million more people onto farms, and radically increase the number of farms in the US. Massive monoculture crops are easy to plant, raise and harvest, but they aren't sustainable. Bringing more people back to the land to care for more crops on more farms is much healthier for people and the land.
And finally, we need to create a real marketplace for farmers, where local farmers are providing food for community members, restaurants, schools and so on, rather than the factories that currently spit out what too many people identify as food.
Pollan pointed out, though, that while we have an administration in Washington that is willing to listen, it is willing to listen only if there is proof that a movement towards these goals is actually happening. So, it's up to those of us who want the change to get shaking, and make agricultural policy shifts happen.
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