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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Pollan’

A few weeks ago we noted that high prices for industrially-produced food might be a good thing if you wanted people to buy more organics. Even the New York Times came to the same conclusion.

But not so fast, says Tom Philpott over at Grist.org.

Philpott worries that, as supermarket prices for conventional goods rise, people on low incomes will turn to fast food outlets before they turn to organics.

The reality, he says, is that fast food operators “can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap.”

So what should we do? Says Philpott:

The answer, it seems to me, is not just to hope that expensive industrial food drives people toward equally expensive sustainable food. It’s to make sustainable food more broadly accessible and affordable.

As an example of the kind of action he’d like to see, Philpott points to recent legislation in Washington state that encourages schools and food-banks to use locally produced food, even if cheaper food can be imported from elsewhere.

One response to Philpott’s article comes from an agronomist, ‘Pollencruncher.’ He argues that with organics you are buying a better product, so price parity should be less of an issue — and yet thanks to public perception price parity has always been seen as necessary for organic food to be widely adopted.

But now, “We in the Organic community have met the desired goal of Parity prices for the first time in decades,” Pollencruncher observes. Couple that with the better nutrition you get from organics and you have a rationale for not being so pessimistic about what people on lower incomes will do.

Perhaps what people also need, in concert with the kind of policy action Philpott advocates, is better education in health and diet, so they can be better-informed when they weigh the financial costs of any food choice against the likely benefits and risks to their health of eating that food.

That would require, of course, disseminating messages that run counter to the best interests of very large and very influential agribusinesses. But when there’s no voice to counter advertising relentlessly selling cheap but nutritionally-empty food, too many of our collective decisions are likely to run counter to our collective best interests.

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Gloom — appropriately perhaps — seems to be the theme this Earth Day.

Joseph Romm in Salon thinks it’s already too late to save much of the flora and fauna on our planet. It’s time to worry out ourselves, he says.

Over at Alternet, Michael Klare worries at length about a ‘new world order in energy.’ The comments are as interesting as the article: some alarmed, some thoughtful, others desperate, crazy, excited even.

In the New York Times, Paul Greenberg reviews two novels that conjure ‘ecological end-times.’ Ecotopia, first published in the 1970’s, imagines a better life (for a part of America, at least) emerging from eco-crisis. The more recent novel, The World Made by Hand, is based in an East Coast town of the future in which most people return to laboring and can now only dream of driving. Says Greenberg:

I would prefer to live in Ecotopia, but the verisimilitude of Kunstler’s world leads me to think the future is Union Grove. Thirty years from now, it will be interesting to see if that little town seems excessively sad, richly luxurious or spot on. But for now, I’m hedging my bets. Where I live, one block east of ground zero, I’ve started keeping a compost bin and am thinking about adding a micro wind generator.

Meanwhile columnist Paul Krugman fears that we’re running out of commodities. That won’t mean the immediate collapse of civilization, he reassures us. But

rich countries will face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living. And some poor countries will find themselves living dangerously close to the edge — or over it.

No critique from Krugman, though, about whether the way we’ve come to define a good life is part of the problem. And no ideas for how we might resolve the crises that will come when countries do tumble over the various precipices upon which they teeter.

Over in the UK, the Independent is doing its usual best to add to the bad news. Yesterday they mourned the decline of birds that usually migrate to the UK.

So what are we to do? For an exhortation not to give up — but to act both personally and politically we can turn, thankfully, to Michael Pollan — writing in the Time’s magazine this Sunday.

Whatever we can do as individuals to change the way we live at this suddenly very late date does seem utterly inadequate to the challenge. It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live.

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It’s a slightly perverse argument but we’re not the only ones to be making the connection between the recent rise in US corn prices and the good that might do us all.

As followers of Michael Pollan know well, major subsidies to US corn producers have made processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup much cheaper to buy than fresh fruits and vegetables.  And that has led a great many people on limited incomes to make choices that, while economically smart in the short term, have terrible health consequences over time.

But with corn prices soaring (thanks in part to growing demand for ethanol, the cost of petroleum-derived fertilizers and gasoline for transportation), it’s harder for manufacturers of highly-processed foods to low-ball their not-so-nutritious creations and easier for people looking to sell locally-produced, organically raised produce and meats to compete on price.

The same thought has apparently struck the New York Time’s Kim Severson, who wrote yesterday:

“if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozen dinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eating public might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits and vegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns out that those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food, have also dodged recent price increases.”

Kudos to Severson for calling up Pollan himself for a quote: “higher food prices,” he suggests, “level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”

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