I learned a disturbing fact recently: Twenty percent of the fossil fuel we consume is used for growing and transporting the food we eat. Natural gas is used to produce fertilizers, and petroleum goes into the trucks and planes that ship our food around the country. Gas and oil are arguably as important to the fruits and vegetables we eat as water and sunlight.
"We use more fossil fuels to feed ourselves than we do to drive around in cars," said Michael Pollan in a recent interview on 89.9-FM KQED's Forum. Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor and science writer, is the author of the new book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin; $26.95), a book that takes a critical look at how food makes it to the table in America today.
With all that oil and gas fueling our food system, it's fair to say our intervention in Iraq and collusion with petro-dictatorships like Saudi Arabia are tied directly to the way we eat. Without getting into our fossil-fuel-based foreign policy in the Middle East, this troubling state of affairs begs a wholesale reexamination of how we feed ourselves. One place to start is our national farm policy.
The infamously Byzantine, pork-barrel-ridden farm bill is part of the problem. It rewards big, resource-intensive, environment-fouling agribusiness with fat government subsidies and price supports while ignoring smaller-scale, locally based farms that could deliver food to the market without such dependence on Middle East oil and gas.
The Bush administration has signaled a willingness to tinker with the farm bill by cutting price supports by 5 percent and reducing farmer subsidies. But much more needs to be done.
The American Farmland Trust (AFT), a nonprofit organization that works to protect farmland and promote environmentally sound farming, has taken a leadership role in charting a new course for U.S. farm policy. The farm bill is renewed every five years, and it comes up for reauthorization in 2007. The AFT's recently released "Agenda 2007: A New Framework and Direction for U.S. Farm Policy" envisions a more equitable, environmentally sound farm policy. The proposals are the result of a year of consultation with farmers, ranchers, economists and policy experts, and they have the support of two former secretaries of agriculture who served under presidents Clinton and Bush I.
There's a lot to like in the AFT's proposals. Instead of propping up agricultural commodities like corn and soybean (which go to the largest agribusiness operations), "Agenda 2007" supports the creation of "green payments" that would reward farmers and ranchers for sound land management and resource conservation. Other recommendations call for expanding support for renewable energy, farmland protection, "farm-to-cafeteria" programs and healthy diets, farmers markets, community gardens and community-based food systems.
Compared to the commodity-based corporate welfare that characterizes past and present farm bills, these proposals are a breath of fresh air. U.S. farm policy is not only making us sick, but it is making the planet sick as well. Change is long overdue, and the AFT's comprehensive recommendations are a step in the right direction. Let's hope the Bush administration listens.
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