Sunday, June 26, 2011

Eric Schlosser: "A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable,"

[Well, now Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, has weighed in. In The Washington Post, Schlosser makes the argument that foodie critics have gotten the elitism charge backward. Our current industrial food system, he notes, clearly demonstrates "how the few now rule the many."

"The wealthy will always eat well. It is the poor and working people who need a new, sustainable food system more than anyone else. They live in the most polluted neighborhoods. They are exposed to the worst toxic chemicals on the job. They are sold the unhealthiest foods and can least afford the medical problems that result. A food system based on poverty and exploitation will never be sustainable," writes Schlosser.] emphasis added

Even one of the most priveliged people on the planet, Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, gets it; the fact that any so-called civilized society deserves judgment for how the poorest among that society get treated: [...The world is gradually waking up to the fact that creating sustainable food systems will become paramount in the future because of the enormous challenges now facing food production.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sustainability” as “keeping something going continuously.” And the need to “keep things going” for future generations – in other words, for all of you students and your families, whether here at Georgetown or, through the wonders of modern technology, elsewhere across this vast country – is quite frankly the reason I have made the long journey to Washington...

One or two of you may have noticed that over the past thirty years I have been venturing into extremely dangerous territory by speaking about the future of food. I have all the scars to prove it...! Questioning the conventional world view is a risky business. And the only reason I have done so is for the sake of your generation and for the integrity of Nature herself. It is your future that concerns me and that of your grandchildren, and theirs too. That is how far we should be looking ahead. I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed, when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day. And I would urge you to do the same, because we need to face up to asking whether how we produce our food is actually fit for purpose in the very challenging circumstances of the twenty-first century. We simply cannot ignore that question any longer.

Very nearly thirty years ago I began by talking about the issue, but I realized in the end I had to go further. I had to put my concern into action, to demonstrate how else we might do things so that we secure food production for the future, but also, crucially, to take care of the Earth that sustains us. Because if we don’t do that, if we do not work within Nature’s system, then Nature will fail to be the durable, continuously sustaining force she has always been. Only by safeguarding Nature’s resilience can we hope to have a resilient form of food production and ensure food security in the long term.

This is the challenge facing us. We have to maintain a supply of healthy food at affordable prices when there is mounting pressure on nearly every element affecting the process. In some cases we are pushing Nature’s life-support systems so far, they are struggling to cope with what we ask of them. Soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing ever more voracious and the entire system is at the mercy of an increasingly fluctuating price of oil.

Remember that when we talk about agriculture and food production, we are talking about a complex and interrelated system and it is simply not possible to single out just one objective, like maximising production, without also ensuring that the system which delivers those increased yields meets society’s other needs. As Eric has highlighted, these should include the maintenance of public health, the safeguarding of rural employment, the protection of the environment and contributing to overall quality of life.

So I trust that this conference will not shy away from the big questions. Chiefly, how can we create a more sustainable approach to agriculture while recognizing those wider and important social and economic parameters – an approach that is capable of feeding the world with a global population rapidly heading for nine billion? And can we do so amid so many competing demands on land, in an increasingly volatile climate and when levels of the planet’s biodiversity are under such threat or in serious decline?

As I see it, these pressures mean we haven’t much choice in the matter. We are going to have to take some very brave steps. We will have to develop much more sustainable, or durable forms of food production because the way we have done things up to now are no longer as viable as they once appeared to be. The more I talk with people about this issue, the more I realize how vague the general picture remains of the perilous state we are in. So, just to be absolutely clear, I feel I should offer you a quick pen sketch of just some of the evidence that this is so.

Certainly, internationally, food insecurity is a growing problem. There are also many now who consider that global food systems are well on the way to being in crisis. Yield increases for staple food crops are declining. They have dropped from three per cent in the 1960’s to one per cent today – and that is really worrying because, for the first time, that rate is less than the rate of population growth. And all of this, of course, has to be set against the ravages caused by climate change. Already yields are suffering in Africa and India where crops are failing to cope with ever-increasing temperatures and fluctuating rainfall. We all remember the failure of last year’s wheat harvest in Russia and droughts in China. They have caused the cost of food to rocket and, with it, inflation around the world, stoking social discontent in many countries, notably in the Middle East. It is a situation I fear will only become more volatile as we suffer yet more natural disasters…

Set against these threats to yields is the ever-growing demand for food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the demand will rise by seventy per cent between now and 2050. The curve is quite astonishing. The world somehow has to find the means of feeding a staggering 219,000 new mouths every day. That’s about 450 since I started talking! What is more, with incomes rising in places like China and India, there will also be more people wealthy enough to consume more, so the demand for meat and dairy products may well increase yet further. And all that extra livestock will compete for feed more and more with an energy sector that has massively expanded its demand for biofuels. Here in the U.S., I am told, four out of every ten bushels of corn are now grown to fuel motor vehicles.

This is the context we find ourselves in and it is set against the backdrop of a system heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and other forms of diminishing natural capital – mineral fertilizers and so on. Most forms of industrialized agriculture now have an umbilical dependency on oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources. One study I have read estimates that a person today on a typical Western diet is, in effect, consuming nearly a U.S. gallon of diesel every day! And when you consider that in the past decade the cost of artificial nitrogen fertilizers has gone up fourfold and the cost of potash three times, you start to see how uncomfortable the future could become if we do not wean ourselves off our dependency. And that’s not even counting the impact of higher fuel prices on the other costs of production – transport and processing – all of which are passed on to the consumer. It is indeed a vicious circle.] emphasis added

[37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’]
Matthew 25:37-43

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