Friday, March 12, 2010

I tried to tell them

"Take a look at them. They're all nice guys, but they'll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last " Baseball manager Leo Durocher, 1939.

So was he talking about baseball players or the individuals in modern agriculture? I advocate that it applies today as it did in 1939. Michael Pollan is touring the country speaking in at least three Land Grant Institutions about how everything we have accomplished in the past fifty years was wrong. If someone opposes him and wants to tell the real story, there is a level of fear about looking too radical. Then of course there is his appearance recently on Oprah’s TV show. Are we going to roll over and give back everything we have worked so hard to create?

This is not just the “Pollan, self-promoting, I want to be a millionaire” booking selling tour. The Obama administration has begun a series of meetings around the country to plant the seed that our system of providing low cost, highly nutritious, safe, domestically grown food for people is wrong. This is coming at the same time that Land Grant Institutions around the country are announcing entire cuts to their Ag programs. A perfect example would be the University of Nevada-Reno. Another great example is Michigan State University where the Governor Jennifer Granholm has already indicated that she would like to do the same thing.

Why can’t we simply stand up and say, “If you want sustainable agriculture, we have sustainable agriculture and it started in our nation’s research centers.”
I reference a recent analysis out of Washington State University which found that buying 1 dozen eggs that has been transported several hundred miles to a grocery store in a tractor-trailer is a more fuel-efficient, eco-friendly option than purchasing 1 dozen eggs at a farmers market, which uses 4.5 times more fuel, or at a local farm, which would require 17.2 times more fuel.

In the comparison, total mileage in this example came to about 807 miles for the grocery store eggs, 93.2 miles for the farmers market example and 27.34 miles in the local farm example. The tractor-trailer transported 23,400 dozen eggs. The farmer’s market calculation was based on 1,074 eggs in a pickup truck and the local farm calculation was based on a consumer picking up one carton of eggs in a single trip. Not surprisingly, the study found the greatest fuel usage resulted from the consumer's car.

John Murlis, chief scientific adviser to the Carbon Neutral Co., recently expressed concern in The New Yorker about how, in our collective rush to make choices that display personal virtue, we may be losing sight of the larger problem. Murlis discusses how labeling food with carbon footprint data does not tell whole story. Organic potatoes bought from a nearby farm shows that half the emissions - and half the footprint – of those potatoes could come from the energy used to cook them. If you leave the lid off, boil them at a high heat and then mash your potatoes, from a carbon standpoint, Murlis says you might as well drive to McDonald's and spend your money buying an order of French fries.

Washington State also has shown that greenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk produced using modern agricultural practices are 63% lower than those of the 1940s. In 2007, the U.S. dairy industry produced 8.3 billion more gallons of milk than in 1944, but due to improved productivity, the carbon footprint of the entire dairy farm industry dropped 41% during the same time period.

In the case of grass-fed beef the amount of time required to get an animal to harvest is doubled therefore energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef are increased three-fold. In total, finishing only 9.8 million cattle on pasture, instead of in a feedlot, would require an extra 60 million acres of land.

Speaking of more land, my favorite study comes from the University of California-Davis by Steve Sexton. He has had a paper published discussing the real cost of local food production but refers to it as “pseudo-locavorism.” His research suggests that it will require more than 214 million additional acres in farm production to sustain this practice, an area twice the size of California.

The transition means 40 million additional acres will be required in California, 34 million in Texas and 26 million in Florida. The additional acreage and loss of efficiencies are calculated by Sexton to demand significant energy-intensive inputs that will likely overwhelm any carbon-emissions reductions coming from decreased transportation and monocropping. Don Curlee of the University of California-Berkeley, the very same institution where Pollan teaches journalism, is now studying Sexton’s work.

So my point is that if you appear to be a radical because you choose the truth behind the science and encourage sustainably produced food to feed an ever-growing population, so be it. We cannot continue to let a guy who is an author and a journalism professor, not a scientist or a farmer, continue to increase his carbon footprint by jet-setting around the country tearing down the Land Grant system and reverting technology in food production back to the stone ages. I would guess Leo Durocher is turning over in his grave now saying, “I tried to tell them.” If we don’t want to finish last, it times to turn up the heat!

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