Fixing Our Food Problem

By Mark Bitman – published in the NY Times, January 1, 2013

Nothing affects public health in the United States more than food. Gun violence kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases.

And the root of that dangerous diet is our system of hyper-industrial agriculture, the kind that uses 10 times as much energy as it produces.

We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system. It’s been a major contributor to climate change, spawned the obesity crisis, poisoned countless volumes of land and water, wasted energy, tortured billions of animals… I could go on. The point is that “sustainability” is not only possible but essential: only by saving the earth can we save ourselves, and vice versa.

How do we do that?

This seems like a good day to step back a bit and suggest something that’s sometimes difficult to accept.

Patience.

We can only dismantle this system little by little, and slowly. Change takes time. Often — usually — that time exceeds the life span of its pioneers. And when it comes to sustainable food for billions, we’re the pioneers of a food movement that’s just beginning to take shape. The abolition movement began at least a century before the Civil War, 200 years before the civil rights movement. The struggle to gain the right to vote for women in the United States was active for 75 years before an amendment was passed. The gay rights struggle has made tremendous strides over the last 40 years, but equal treatment under the law is hardly established.

Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win.

Activists who took on these issues had in common a clear series of demands and a sense that the work was ongoing. They had a large and ever-growing public following and a willingness to sacrifice time, energy and even life for the benefit not only of contemporaries but for subsequent generations.

They were also aware that there is no success without a willingness to fail; that failure is a part of progress. A single defeat was seen as a temporary setback. The same vision should be applied to every issue the nascent food movement is tackling.

Yet before we can assess our progress, we must state our goals. There is no consensus behind a program for achieving sustainable production of food that promotes rather than attacks health. We can’t ask for “better food for all”; we must be specific. In the very near term, for example, we must fight to protect and improve programs that make food available to lower-income Americans. We must also support the increasingly assertive battles of workers in food-related industries; nothing reflects our moral core more accurately than the abuses we overlook in the names of convenience and economy.

Beyond that, I believe that the two issues that will have the greatest reverberations in agriculture, health and the environment are reducing the consumption of sugar-laden beverages and improving the living conditions of livestock.

About the first I have written plenty, and can summarize: when we begin treating sugar-sweetened beverages as we do tobacco, we will make a huge stride in improving our diet.

The second is even more powerful, and progress was made in that arena in 2012 as one food company after another resolved to (eventually) reject pork produced with gestation crates. So over the next few years, some animals will be treated somewhat better. This is absolutely, unquestionably thanks to public pressure, which should now set its sights higher and insist that all animals grown for food production be treated not just better but well.

Well-cared-for animals will necessarily be more expensive, which means we’ll eat fewer of them; that’s a win-win. They’ll use fewer antibiotics, they’ll be produced by more farmers in more places, and they’ll eat less commodity grain, which will both reduce environmental damage and allow for more land to be used for high-quality human food like fruits and vegetables.

Allies may argue that I miss the mark with either or both of these, and that’s fine: it’s a discussion. The point is that no major food issue will be resolved in the next 10 years. As pioneers, we must build upon incremental progress and not be disheartened, because often there isn’t quick resolution for complex issues.

An association between tobacco and cancer was discovered more 200 years ago. The surgeon general’s report that identified smoking as a public health issue appeared in 1964. The food movement has not yet reached its 1964; there’s isn’t even a general acknowledgment of a problem in need of fixing.

So, in 2013, let’s call for energy, action — and patience.

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