October 16, 2008
Ezra Klein, who blogs so often and well on food-related issues, discusses feedlots, where most of our meat comes from, the subsidization of meat which hides its true cost, and Michael Pollan's food proposals for our next president.
Overconsumption of meat imposes huge costs on both the environment and on public health. And that's to say nothing of the indefensible cruelty that characterizes CAFO operations. Yet we spend billions to subsidize ever cheaper meat. And billions more to treat the ill health that results from our meat-heavy diets. And we will pay billions, even trillions, more, to handle the environmental damage that eventually results from these policies. It's an incredibly odd state of affairs, like paying someone to touch up your house with lead paint. But we continue doing it because people like meat and because the various industries arrayed around meat -- from acutal producers of livestock to the pharmaceutical companies that create the antibiotics to the corn industry which supplies the grain -- wield enormous political power.
The food industry uses 19% of the U.S.'s total fossil fuel use, second only to cars. Food is an environmental issue, an energy issue, a health issue and an education issue. Pollan writes:
But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.