Sunday, February 20, 2011
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Click here to read the full article from the New York Times
Four decades after the Green Revolution seemed to be solving India’s food problems, nearly half of Indian children age 5 or younger are malnourished. And soaring food prices, a problem around the world, are especially acute in India.
Globally, floods in Australia and drought in China have helped send food prices everywhere soaring — on fears the world will see a repeat of shortages in 2007 and 2008 that caused food riots in some poor countries, including Egypt.
While India’s agricultural problems are part of this bigger global puzzle, in many ways India’s food challenges are more entrenched and systemic than those faced elsewhere.
Western investors may take eager note of India’s economic growth rate of nearly 9 percent a year. But that statistic rings hollow in India’s vast rural areas. Agriculture employs more than half the population, but it accounts for only 15 percent of the economy — and it has grown an average of only about 3 percent in recent years.
Critics say Indian policy makers have failed to follow up on the country’s investments in agricultural technology of the 1960s and ’70s, as they focused on more glamorous, urban industries like information technology, financial services and construction.
There is no agribusiness of the type known in the United States, with highly mechanized farms growing thousands of acres of food crops, because Indian laws and customs bar corporations from farming land directly for food crops. The laws also make it difficult to assemble large land holdings.
Yet even as India’s farming still depends on manual labor and the age-old vicissitudes of nature, demand for food has continued to rise — because of a growing population and rising incomes, especially in the middle and upper classes. As a result, India is importing ever greater amounts of some staples like beans and lentils (up 157 percent from 2004 to 2009) and cooking oil (up 68 percent in the same period).
Food prices are rising faster in India than in almost any other major economy — and faster than they did during the 2007-8 surge.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.
That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.
Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:
End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.
Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)
Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.
Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
Read more from the columnist.
Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.
Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.
Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.
I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.
This column appeared in print on February 2, 2011. It will appear in Opinionator regularly.
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Click here to read the full article from the New York Times
VALLEY CENTER, Calif. — On an organic farm here in avocado country, a group of young Marines, veterans and Army reservists listened intently to an old hand from the front lines.
“Think of it in military terms,” he told the young recruits, some just back from Iraq or Afghanistan. “It’s a matter of survival, an uphill battle. You have to think everything is against you and hope to stay alive.”
The battle in question was not the typical ground assault, but organic farming — how to identify beneficial insects, for instance, or to prevent stray frogs from clogging an irrigation system. It was Day 2 of a novel boot camp for veterans and active-duty military personnel, including Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, who might be interested in new careers as farmers.
“In the military, grunts are the guys who get dirty, do the work and are generally underappreciated,” said Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine Corps infantry sergeant turned organic farmer, who developed the program with his wife, Karen, after his three tours in Iraq. “I think farmers are the same.”
At their farm, called Archi’s Acres, the sound of crickets and croaking frogs communes with the drone of choppers. The syllabus, approved by Camp Pendleton’s transition assistance program, includes hands-on planting and irrigating, lectures about “high-value niche markets” and production of a business plan that is assessed by food professionals and business professors.
Along with Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots, a new program for veterans at the University of Nebraska’s College of Technical Agriculture, and farming fellowships for wounded soldiers, the six-week course offered here is part of a nascent “veteran-centric” farming movement. Its goal is to bring the energy of young soldiers re-entering civilian life to the aging farm population of rural America. Half of all farmers are likely to retire in the next decade, according to the Agriculture Department.
“The military is not for the faint of heart, and farming isn’t either,” said Michael O’Gorman, an organic farmer who founded the nonprofit Farmer-Veteran Coalition, which supports sustainable-agriculture training. “There are eight times as many farmers over age 65 as under. There is a tremendous need for young farmers, and a big wave of young people inspired to go into the service who are coming home.”
About 45 percent of the military comes from rural communities, compared with one-sixth of the total population, according to the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. In 2009, the Agriculture Department began offering low-interest loans in its campaign to add 100,000 farmers to the nation’s ranks each year.
Among them will probably be Sgt. Matt Holzmann, 33, a Marine at Camp Pendleton who spent seven months in Afghanistan. He did counterinsurgency work and tried to introduce aquaponics, a self-replenishing agricultural system, to rural villages.
His zeal for aquaponics led him to the farming class. “It’s a national security issue,” he said the other day outside a garage-turned-classroom filled with boxes of Dr. Earth Kelp Meal. “The more responsibly we use water and energy, the greater it is for our country.”