August 2009

Pondering the future of food

By Melissa Betrone

Most of us live a fast-paced, busy life with little time to prepare food, much less to consider what we’re actually putting in our mouths. But food was the topic for the recent Moving Mountains Symposium that introduced the Telluride Mountainfilm weekend — specifically, “What’s on the dinner table in the year 2050?”

MELISSA BETRONE (LEFT) AND DIA COUTTOUW WASH JUST-HARVESTED GREENS AT RUDE BECKY'S FLOWER FARM NEAR DOLORES.It’s a simple question with a complex answer, with myriad factors to consider, from soil health, to climate change, to peak oil, population growth, food distribution, and basic survival needs.

Bill McKibben, author of “Deep Economy,” got the session rolling by warning of serious systemic breakdowns in worldwide food production and distribution. We are using up aquifers, causing salinization problems in our soils; we are running out of arable land; we are facing peak oil with a production mode that uses 10 fossil-fuel calories to produce 1 food calorie; we’re losing land to the sea as oceans rise; and, he exclaimed, “Now we’re changing the weather!”

Dennis Dimick, executive director of National Geographic, carried on this sky-is-falling theme with a discussion of the world’s soils. He presented images of the Roman Road, which at one time fed the most advanced civilization in the world. It is now home to a few goats that graze among boulders laid bare through centuries of soil erosion caused by poor stewardship of the land.

Dimick mentioned the Nile Delta as well, which suffers from too much salt in its soil as a result of hundreds of years of irrigation. He pointed out that when you lose soil you lose your civilization, and asked everyone to consider, “What is soil? Can we save it? Can we save ourselves?”

One of the things that might help save our soils is the use of perennial crops in place of the annuals upon which we have come to depend.

Jerry Glover of the Land Institute in Kansas brought some plant specimens to demonstrate the tremendous power of perennial crops in accessing water and nutrients from the soil. A collective gasp went out from the crowd as he unfurled his short-stem prairie grass to reveal roots as tall as he stood on the stage, with an equal height of top growth. He said that before mechanization, agricultural production was influenced by native plant communities and therefore relied much more on perennial life forms.

Nowadays, he said, “Agriculture is the number one threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function.”

“We have become the managers of ecosystems by providing the necessary inputs to the plants we use,” Glover stated, but without soil, “we are nothing!” Soil ultimately provides the materials, plants do the work and humans live — a simple equation made complicated, he said, because humans are lousy managers of ecosystems. If we fail to acknowledge this Glover predicts a continuation of global unrest, political unrest and war.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) may provide a solution to some of the problems Glover described. Pamela Ronald of the University of California at Davis and co-author of the book “Tomorrow’s Table,” advocated the use of genetically modified crops as a tool to address the inherent risks of agriculture.

Ronald pointed out that despite record food surpluses in 2008, the world overall also experienced record levels of hunger.

By utilizing genetic technology in food crops we may be able to reduce the use of harmful inputs to agriculture, foster soil fertility, reduce erosion, maintain the economic viability of farmers and rural communities, and produce abundant, safe, nutritious food for even marginalized populations around the world.

“The broad scientific consensus is that GE (genetically engineered) crops on the market are safe to eat and have clear environmental benefits,” she enthused.

Another topic mulled at the symposium was meat. Is there a future for meat-eaters when factory farms rely on cheap fuel, feed, meat products, eggs and dairy and pay no heed to the environmental consequences of this production system?

Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary thinks not. He said factory farms perpetuate unhealthy and unnatural living conditions for the sheep, pigs, cows and chickens we eat, and pollute air and water, contribute to climate change, burn up fossil fuels, and create human health problems through the use of antibiotics in animal feed. He advocated a move away from mass-produced animal products, and warned that as other less-developed nations aspire to the dietary standards set by the United States, the environmental degradation caused by this system will replicate around the globe.

This sentiment was echoed by Roz Naylor of the Stanford University Program on Food Security and the Environment. She said her work has shown that issues of food supply are inherently linked to global population growth. But it’s more than just a matter of more mouths to feed — as lessdeveloped countries achieve greater economic prosperity, they also increase their consumption of meat. “As people make more money, they buy more meat,” especially as they aspire to the lifestyles of the Western world.

On the other hand, Dave James of the James Ranch in Durango suggested that it is not meat production and consumption that is inherently destructive, but the manner in which it is done. He spoke of the four keys to civilization: “solar collection, cycling of nutrients, rain penetration and community dynamics.” Beef cattle, it turns out, are remarkable at transforming 400 acres of high-altitude grass pasture into 130,000 pounds of meat per year.

And with an appropriate rotation in an intentional system, James said, cattle can be instrumental to achieving the four keys to civilization, as demonstrated by the multi-generational family operation of James Ranch.

To Dan Barber of Blue Hill Restaurant and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, turning grass into protein sounds great, but he wonders what is a truly sustainable protein.

“We are on the verge of an ecological credit crisis,” he stated, and, “our ability to feed ourselves is becoming compromised.” What is needed, he believes, is a deeper look into the details of food production, harvest and distribution in order to rout out those products that create the most waste within the system. After doing so one almost always is led back to what is produced locally on a smaller scale with more attention to ecological concerns and our ability to perpetuate food production in the long term.

Ultimately, said Barber, we need to get away from a system in which we constantly “take more, sell more, waste more.”

To Ann Cooper, author of “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children,” access to nutritious food on a regular basis is a matter of social justice. She has done a lot of work within the school lunch program, and firmly believes that “we have to think of food as a means to health.”

She said our household budgets still use the same percentage overall for health care and food as 50 years ago, but the share that goes to food has diminished while the share going to health care has increased.

“Food is the natural remedy to cure the body,” Cooper said, but you have to be able to get food — especially healthful food. When two-thirds of the money spent on school lunch programs goes for staff and administration, that leaves less than a dollar per student per meal to spend on the actual food. It’s a crisis that needs to be addressed, especially when experts predict that one in three children today will develop diabetes and/or become obese because of their diet.

“We can’t produce enough insulin” to deal with this issue, Cooper said, adding that ultimately we need to “turn off the television, cook with our kids, and eat with our kids.”

It’s clear that feeding ourselves 40 years from now is intrinsically related to how we feed ourselves today. The industrial model of food production and distribution has some big, perhaps insurmountable, flaws. We produce a lot, but at what cost?

Researcher, author, traveler and educator Helena Norberg-Hodge urged the audience to consider, “What is taxed? What is regulated? What is subsidized?” When you subsidize infrastructure and food-production systems that transport food around the globe, you ruin local food economies.

“We need a dramatic and urgent shift in education to reemphasize local knowledge and teachings,” she said. In addition we need re-evaluate the message that the future is urban and only urban.

The value of local cannot be overstated, she said. “Localization leads to diversification on the land, which results in higher productivity of the land.” It also helps to build community and support individuals’ self-esteem. Food is culture, and culture links us to each other, and when we belong we feel good about ourselves. The psychological benefits of local trade and the ecological benefits of local production need to be recognized and encouraged if humans are going to survive. “We need to stop the addiction to growth through trade!” Norberg-Hodge exclaimed. “We need to not reward for using a lot of energy and punish for using a lot of labor. We need to re-regulate global trade and de-regulate local trade.”

Here on the Colorado Plateau with its limitless horizons, remoteness and sparse population, it’s easy to forget that there is a crowded world out there, teeming with nearly 7 billion people, 1 billion of whom are starving. Yet here we do have people who are hungry. Here we also have people who have had their traditional food customs wiped out through the globalization, whether we’re talking about Native Americans who through cultural oppression lost their knowledge of wild-foods preparation or German immigrants whose grandchildren no longer make sauerkraut in the traditional earthenware vessels.

Here, agriculture is a part of our world, and yet how many producers are forced to sell outside the area to get a better price for hay, or because there is nowhere local to process animals for sale? How many producers have seen their land becoming polluted with salt because of the quality of irrigation water? How many farms have gone into foreclosure because the price of wheat tanked? Why are the bean silos empty? Why is the local creamery a distant memory?

It’s not that we can’t grow our own food, we can. It’s that the living to be had as a farmer, rancher, grower, producer, is tenuous at best. “Eating is an agricultural act,” according to Josh Viertel of Slow Food USA. We all do it every day, and yet we expect our food to be cheap and plentiful.

If we continue with the industrial food-production mode, the experts predict our land will erode away, our water will become polluted, and 9 billion people will be fighting over a food supply meant for 8 billion.

But it’s not too late. We can reconsider production modes, develop new technologies, and put more people back on the land. To do so we must act on a policy level.

Bill McKibben reminded his audience that while we can be our own worst enemies, “Humans are the antibody.”

Recently, for the first time in decades, there was an increase in the number of farms in the United States. We need to continue this momentum and augment the philosophy of “small is beautiful, big is subsidized,” with changes in personal consumption and policy. Visit the farmers market, slow down for the cattle drive, buy eggs from your neighbor, plant a garden, and savor the food on your plate today.