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Omnivore's solutions

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/30/08 @ 3:20pm

New York Times Best Selling author Michael Pollan marvels that food hasn't been a major Presidential debate topic because it affects the U.S. at every level-from health to energy to creating green jobs.

"We cannot deal with climate change without dealing with the catastrophe of the American diet," Pollan told a packed house at Oberlin's Finney Chapel Tuesday night.

That's because a quarter of the fossil fuels burned in the U.S. go into food production. Most of that is to grow corn and grains to feed animals in the production of meat. The average American eats 200 pounds of meat in a year. The rest is used to make high fructose corn syrup which slips into many packaged foods and is making us chubby. "One third of our calories comes from high fructose corn syrup."

Pollan offers a simple solution: "We need to stop eating fossil fuels and start eating sunlight." As he writes in Omnivore's Dilemma, that means we shop at the perimeters of the grocery store (where the fresh produce can be found) and avoid the center aisles (processed or fast food) as much as possible.

The answer to our energy, health and economic crisis will come in our support of policies (in particular, a more enlightened Farm Bill) that grows more food and less commodities like corn syrup or animal feed.

"We need more polyculture farms where many different foods are grown in one place."

Animals are there, too, because they provide natural fertilizers (fertilizer is another huge fossil fuel user). A diverse farm requires less fossil fuel but more labor, thus, if we eat more broccoli and less packaged and fast food, we create the market for thousands of green jobs down on the local farm.

"You see a sophisticated dance where five or six organisms compliment each other without fossil fuel inputs," Pollan says of diverse farms. "The mistaken assumption is it just works in small farms. In Argentina, ten to fifteen thousand acre farms produce massive amounts of food. For five years they graze cattle on grass. Then it's tilled for grain for three years without any fertilizer because the grazing, manure and pulsing of the pasture raised the carbon up naturally. They don't need herbicides because (the weeds) can't survive the tillage."

We produced 23 calories of food for 1 calorie of fossil fuel in 1940. Today, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food. So, how do we get fossil fuels out of our agriculture system? Pollan offers some suggestions:

1. Polyculture farming ? biodiversity means what one species takes from the soil another organism gives. 2. Recycling waste ?Nature needs only sunlight (no artificial fertilizers) when you return nutrients to the soil. 3. As consumers we need to buy locally grown food, for example, by shopping at farmer's markets 4. We need more incentives in the Farm Bill for cleaner, more efficient transportation options for local farmers (many of whom are driving old, dirty trucks). 5. Other incentives to build a local food economy: Enterprise Zones, local food grants, government procurement at military bases, etc. and assistance programs such as WIC with preferences for local food.

"I'm not talking about giving up all bananas ? if we all buy 50% local food it will make a big impact."

Pollan thinks the next president can send the right message by replacing a portion of the South Lawn of the White House with an organic garden to supply Washington, D.C. food banks.

"Eleanor Roosevelt planted a garden on the South Lawn in 1941 over the objections of those who feared it would hurt the food industry. It led to U.S. citizens planting 20 million Victory Gardens which produced 40% of the nation's food. It's not just a symbol. We can feed ourselves fresh, local food and get some exercise.

"If there's any part of our economy that can be solarized right now, its our local food economy. Let's get started."

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