In a recent CNN Report, “Food Crisis, a Silent Tsunami” , Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations' World Food Program, claims bio-fuel promotion is unintentionally adding to skyrocketing world food prices and threatening to “ plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger." Sheeran attended a Food summit hosted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, aimed at determining ways to boost food supplies and identify deterrents as commodity inflation of the past year is contributing to increasing consumer food prices and a food crisis in unindustrialized countries. Yet the debate between fuel or food is really misplaced. As my friend Phillip Mills pointed out to me some time ago during the publishing of his and his better half's book "Fighting Globesity" Our method of industrial food production is at its roots inefficient, inextricably tied to fossil fuels as a base for its production and that is the real problem and basis of the challenge. How sad more people do not realize how untenable the unsustainable nature of the human food supply chain is.
The views expressed by an increasing number of well meaning educated people, like Sheehan, are an example of how broken the global and industrial food system is and illustrates the lack of understanding surrounding it. The method of industrial global crop production is unsustainable; therefore to incorporate the debate of rising cost of food with bio-fuel competition is akin to worrying about how the furniture on the deck of the Titanic is arranged. The global food system is very inefficient and dysfunctional. How we are processing energy for human consumption is vastly problematic and is why we are experiencing both large jumps in fossil fuel costs and food commodities at the same time. The reality is we use vast amounts of fossil fuels to grow soy, corn and wheat - the core components of the global industrial food system. Wether we use those crops to feed people or alternatively to grow "bio-fuel" is irrelevant in the long view simply because the manner in which global grop production is occuring is so damn inefficient.
As Pollan points out in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “when you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow – or around fifty gallons of oil per acre of corn.” Simply put it takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce a calorie of food. That is the real problem, which people like Sheeran, among others, fail to grasp. Even the surge in "organic" foods does not help - it costs over 70 calories of fuel to transport 1 calorie of organic lettuce from California to the central U.S. This does not even begin to address other side effects of our food system - the permeation of corn and its contribution to obesity and the adverse consequences of industrial farming to the environment are but a few of many other ill affects. As the world becomes more industrialized and developed the reality of the unsustainable nature of the system is exacerabted.
How can this change? How can we help avoid the situation where the industrialized world is becoming increasingly obese while one child is dying every five seconds from hunger-related causes? How can we reconcile that one of the most productive base of farms and a key food basket for the world, Iowa, is a food dessert that only produces feed grade corn and soy and must import 80% of what the population there consumes as food? While complex, the solution is truly basic. We must decentralize our food chain and make it sustainable as nature intended. We must go back to our roots. This relates directly to the revolution – our centralized modes of production do not work any longer. It will take more people making more informed and better choices to drive the change. Unfortunately, this requires that things break before they get better and many unfortunate will suffer the consequences of change.
In recent decades both central planning and the mechanical worldview that justified it have lost their practical and philosophical appeal because they increasingly do not work and our food supply is but one example. The emerging worldview, now becoming more widespread in business as well as in countless other fields, has replaced the mechanical, reductionist model with the organic and the relational. This is the basis of sustainability. Whether the subject of study is a living thing, a society of living things, or a corporate re-organization, the new focus is on the sum of inter-relationships of its members rather than the isolated members themselves. When the centralized industrial era segregated animals from crop production by replacing naturally occurring manure that nourished crops with petroleum based fertilizer and substituted grains grown on the farm to feed the livestock with subsidized corn in feedlots, we created short term gains while eroding rational systems, creating the unsustainable.
The new systems worldview accepts and respects the voluntary, natural order as well as the inborn character of its constituent components, whose natural interactions create that order, an order that is more durable and flexible than one imposed from the outside, no matter how many PhDs helped conceive it. The systems view teaches that all working systems succeed because they comprise smaller, self-organizing sub-systems that retain some degree of autonomy, which enables the overall system to remain adaptable and robust. This view not only restores respectability for the naturally occurring, traditional order, but philosophic legitimacy for local autonomy and decision-making. It is the foundation of the revolution both in how we live, and how we eat.