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You Are What You Grow

Michael Pollan, NY Times Magazine
A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink.

As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.” Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly – and get fat.

…how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system – indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. …The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

…The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.

To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact – on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities – or to the United States.

…Given all this, you would think the farm-bill debate would engage the nation’s political passions every five years, but that hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm bill debate” holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention.

…But there are signs this year will be different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices.

…And then there are the eaters, people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the food on offer in America. A grass-roots social movement is gathering around food issues today, and while it is still somewhat inchoate, the manifestations are everywhere…

Michael Pollan, a contributing writer, is the Knight professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
(22 April 2007)

Agriculture and climate change in the Philippines

Rony V. Diaz, Manila times (Opinion)
I WAS disappointed that Arthur Yap, the secretary of agriculture, did not touch at all on climate change when he and his staff met last week with the editors of The Manila Times in a roundtable discussion.

He dwelt at great length-and rightly so-on the crop production and infrastructure programs of the Department of Agriculture (DA). There was not even a hint of their implication of global warming.

…The cause is well-known-greenhouse gases. And one of these is methane which, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, is more potent than carbon dioxide as a cause of global warming.

Rice fields emit methane. Large-scale rice farming will increase the volume of methane in the atmosphere. Departments of Agriculture in rice producing countries will have to address and solve this problem singly and collectively.

The responsibility of the DA is to call attention to it now and get its scientists to search for a possible answer. It should also put in place measures to limit methane emissions from rice fields-including limiting rice production.

The other issue is the production of biofuels. Distilling ethanol from sugarcane juice or extracting coco methyl ester from coconut oil are not sustainable. Food has to take precedence over transportation fuel.

The DA should craft a policy that will not divert food crops to transportation fuel and ensure that the limited hectarage for food production is not taken over by biofuel producers.

Irrigation is another matter. Before the DA commits its billions to more irrigation systems in their present design, it should study carefully water sources and the technologies for efficiently distributing water for human, industrial and farm use.
(22 April 2007)