March 12, 2009
Last weekend, the weather here in New York turned positively balmy — right up into the 60's — melting the cover of snow, revealing the first shoots of daffodils, stirring hope in frozen hearts. The bees in my apiary came outside, not just hovering in front of their hives but flying off in search of pollen — perhaps from the early-blooming pussy willows in the Botanical Garden and along the Bronx River.
The gardener's fancy turns.
In years past, gardening has been just a pleasant hobby to me, a way to relax, get dirty, and almost as a byproduct, reap those precious midsummer rewards: tomatoes so tender and sweet you wonder why you ever buy those tasteless pink cardboard balls from the supermarket, and little cucumbers crisp and fresh and perfect for pickling. This year, as I thumb through the seed catalogues and plan for the season, I feel different: Gardening isn't just a hobby anymore, it's an essential part of a new way of living that is making sense to more Americans all the time.
Not so very long ago, eating organically and locally was seen by most as the kooky fixation of a tree-hugging micro- minority, old hippies and the grandchildren of old hippies stuck on sprouts and tofu. But just as climate change moved from an obsession of the lunatic fringe to a matter of universal urgency, so too the question of where our food comes from and how it is produced is entering our consciousness with force. With every E- coli and salmonella outbreak, we wonder all the more whether the industrialization of food, which by the economies of scale have kept prices low, is such a wonder after all. People are assembling in their heads the pieces of the food puzzle, and the picture that's taking shape is not as beautiful as we'd long thought.
Aptly-named Michael Pollan, the chief apostle of what has come to be called "sustainable agriculture," has been laying out the problems and his solutions for a while now. In the October 12 issue of the New York Times Magazine, he published a lengthy open letter to whichever candidate would win the presidential election, urging him to treat the food crisis with the same urgency as the energy crisis — indeed, to see the two crises as interrelated. He points out that industrial food production consumes 19% of our annual fossil fuel use — second only to motor vehicles — and generates as much as 37% of our greenhouse-gas emissions — the hidden cost of single-crop farming and factory- type meat and dairy production. Petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, farm machinery, processed food, and cross-country transportation eat up oil and natural gas, and feed-lot animals, besides being at high risk of disease, "are now one of America's biggest sources of pollution" from their waste.
Further, he remarks, the shipping of produce across the continent, and the processing and chemical preservation of almost every type of mass-produced food, lowers nutritional value and is a proximate cause of an incongruous malnutrition in the best-fed country on earth. Pollan notes that improper diet is a major factor in four of the leading causes of death in this country — heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer — and cites a disturbing prediction from the Centers for Disease Control: one- third of all Americans born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.
Pollan's solution to these problems is a national commitment to old-fashioned "solar-based," rather than petroleum-based, food production. On the macro-scale, this entails an overall reversal of federal farm policy: the elimination of subsidies for massive single-crop farms and the regionalization (or re-regionalization) of agriculture through the support of small farms growing a diversity of crops regularly rotated to maintain soil health and retired periodically for use as grazing land for cattle, yielding not only better meat but natural fertilizers — in other words, a return to farming as it was typically done before World War II.
Of course, Pollan admits that this labor-intensive decentralizing of agriculture will result in somewhat higher food prices — but it will also result in a healthier population, thus helping to cut health-care costs. He also predicts that the "revival of farming in America ... will lead to robust economic renewal in the countryside. And it will generate tens of millions of ‘green jobs,' which is precisely how we need to begin thinking of skilled solar farming: as a vital sector of the 21st-century post-fossil-fuel economy."
These ideas sound wonderfully romantic, even to confirmed urbanites. They also sound hopelessly romantic, until you realize how widespread the concern about food quality and safety is, and how vigorous the change toward organically-grown local food has become. During the campaign, President Obama made much over "politics from the bottom up" — he seldom mentions it now — and with or without his doing, this literally grass-roots movement, drawing support from liberals and conservatives alike, may soon be able to break the stranglehold of the big-farm lobby on American agricultural policy.
There is a more intimate component to our collective consciousness about our food, the one I feel as I contemplate the potential of my little plot of ground here in the South Bronx: It's not just the small farmer that's important to our national agricultural sustainability, it's the smallest farmer: you and me.
I'll write about this in the next column.