Some thoughts on the future of agriculture

Yesterday on Facebook, I posted a link to an article on Grist about urban farming. The point of the article was that urban farming is not a panacea for our food production ills, and I made the argument that there is no one solution to those ills.

Something I did not touch on in those thoughts is something that too few people trying to reform agriculture in the 21st century talk about: how the consumer needs to change habits as part of a broader effort to improve the food we grow while reducing its impact.

Far too many reform efforts focus on the supply side–that is, on the farmer–while ignoring the consumer. People tend to ignore things like rampant food waste–as much as 60 percent of all food produced ends up in landfills–or over-consumption–the reason so many people are fat. They tend to ignore the massive impact out-of-season eating has on the environment and the economic impact massive box groceries have on local communities.

What I find interesting is that the concept of urban gardens addresses these sorts of problems too. It’s a psychological trick, but people tend to waste less food if they’ve produced it themselves, food harvested from gardens is of higher quality and nutrition, and gardening of any kind is fantastic exercise. Urban gardens can help reduce the transportation network required to keep box stores stocked with out-of-season foods and by definition keep food buying dollars local.

It is an old adage that how we spend is more powerful than how we vote. We affect the future of agriculture with our spending more than any other thing. As consumers, investing in urban gardens speaks volumes promises a brighter future.


Anti-obesity programs miss the point

There has been a lot of news recently about government led anti-obesity programs targeted especially at children and the poor. These programs go after things like fried foods and soda, and in my opinion, they all miss the mark because they fail to go after the main culprit of why Americans have become so fat.

The problem isn’t frying, or soda, or candy, per se. The problem is corn.

Before the 1950s, corn represented a small fraction of the total American diet. Then, as science realized it could process all sorts of things out of corn and government subsidies kept corn prices artificially low, the presence of corn in food skyrocketed, and American waistlines began to grow. Now, some products consumed by Americans–when did food become a product?–come entirely from corn derivatives, including the packaging itself.

What is wrong with this corn explosion? It represents a successful attempt by scientists and the government to reduce nutrition and food below its natural complexity. While the food industry, its scientists, the government, and government scientists all try to claim that corn based food products are essentially the same as non-corn-based ones, the devil is in the detail of the use of the term “essentially”.

What essentially refers to is the absence of thousands of trace nutrients in corn-based products, the fact that corn sugar is not the same as other naturally occurring sugars, and that corn based products contain excessive amounts of certain kinds of nutrients. Essentially means that, while 90 percent of corn-based processed food looks like its naturally produced counterpart, the devil lies in the 10 percent difference.

So, what should government led anti-obesity programs do? Try banning corn-based food products in favor of their natural alternatives. Instead of banning people from using food stamps to buy soda–why pick that arbitrary food when almost everything in the average food assistence shopping cart contains High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) anyway–why not limit these people to buying products that do not contain HFCS?

Why? Because the government and industry scientists will insist that there is no nutritional difference between HFCS and other kinds of sugar, which is a blatant lie. Any freshman in biology can tell you that there are all kinds of nutritional differences between HFCS and other sugars, including how the body digests them, what preference it shows them, and how likely one is to be stored as fat versus another.

What remains is that government led anti-obesity programs are an attempt to obfuscate a problem the government helped create to begin with. If the government really wants to reduce the occurrence of obesity in America, end the subsidy of corn. With the end of that subsidy, food product manufacturers will have no choice but to use healthier alternatives in their products, and frankly, most processed foods will cease to exist because they rely so heavily on corn to exist at all.