Sunday, March 22, 2009

Food and Fuel--the gathering revolutions

The door to significant change in the American food system is starting to open.  As the NYTimes reports, between the new White House vegetable garden, the new Agricultural Sec'y's surprising openness to organics, and Congressional interest in local initiatives, a critical mass seems to be gathering.  The Danton of the Food Revolution, Michael Pollan, worries that the movement may not be quite ready to take advantage of the moment, and it's unclear whether the economic winds are favorable or the contrary, but after years of percolating, there looks to be something promising brewing.

Of course, the promise is punctuated by an even bigger question mark about how to make the transition from a carbon economy to a more sustainable, diversified energy system.  As usual, Ohio sits squarely in the middle of this national question, with Sherrod Brown puzzling about how to square a commitment to the future with the realities of the state's dependence on cheap energy, i.e. coal.  The Dispatch's Jonathan Riskind has been following the Senator's deliberations as well as efforts to persuade him, and reported on Friday that the Environmental Defense Fund has weighed in with a website detailing the Ohio companies that stand to benefit from a serious investment in green technology.  That's pretty savvy, but Brown's worry is whether companies looking to reduce costs wouldn't move out more quickly than the new companies could ramp up. 

There's an interesting parallel with the food debate, too.  The NYT article quotes a spokesman for the National Corn Growers Association: "We think there's a place for organic, but don't think we can feed ourselves and the world with organic.  It's not as productive, more labor-intensive and tends to be more expensive."  (Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation remarks ruefully: "The idea of the true cost of food? That's the last thing consumers want to hear right now.").

That's the argument from scale:  organic (and alternative fuels) can't "feed the world."  The local can't be global.  Pollan's response--and it's not clearly worked out yet--is to think regionally.  Meanwhile, at a moment when we're facing rising unemployment, the idea that a process is "labor-intensive" is not necessarily a strike against it.  The new Census of Agriculture reports more than 100,000 NEW small farmers in the past decade, and Vilsack wants to help them grow into regional networks.  Is there a parallel in the energy field?

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