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Eating More Sunlight

March 3, 2009

A few weeks ago, the New York Timepublished “Farmer in Chief,” an open letter to the next President written by Michael Pollan, noted author and critic of the American food system. In the letter, Pollan argues that three of the most critical issues facing the next President – climate change, energy, and the health care crisis – all hinge upon food.

The way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them.

In thirteen pages, Pollan lucidly explains how agricultural innovations of the 20th Century have undermined rural communities, the environment, and the health of the American people. With its focus on increasing scale and massive production of mono-crops, U.S. industrial agriculture has become dependent on fossil fuels and chemical inputs. The simple fact that “it now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food” (whereas in 1940 each fossil fuel calorie produced 2.3 calories of food) begins to point out the unsustainability of the current system. The scaling up of food production and processing has also opened our food system to security threats both from deliberate terrorism and from accidental contamination. Further, much of the food produced by this system has lost nutritive value and gained only calories, contributing to epidemics of diet-related health problems.

Eating more sunlight - this hoop house is a low-cost and effective season-extender

Eating more sunlight - this hoop house is a low-cost and effective season-extender

These dire diagnoses aside, Pollan’s article speaks less of doom than of opportunity and is primarily a call to action. Pollan calls on the next President to promote a re-localized, “re-solarized” and participatory food system. In this system, millions more individuals and families would grow food—either in their own gardens, as market gardeners, or as full-fledged, rural farmers. They would depend upon the sun and photosynthesis for energy inputs and diversified crops for pest control. They would also, commonly, incorporate both plants and animals in their growing systems – the age-old method of maintaining soil fertility and managing manure. These growers would feed themselves (at least in part), help feed their neighbors and communities, and sell products within a moderate distance, keeping food dollars circulating in regional economies.  

This should be a top-level priority for new Washington leadership. Pollan argues that this vision does not belong to one political party or another: For every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry – the culinary equivalent of home schooling. The sun-food agenda suits libertarian values as well, supporting hunting and reduced federal interference in small-scale rural innovation. If Pollan is correct, re-shaping the American agri-food system might be a long-term, unifying project for everyone from pediatricians to environmentalists, local chambers of commerce to ministers, from those who eat locally grown foods to the NRA. 

Here at the Minnesota Project, our work is both visionary and unifying. As the new Local Foods manager, I’m excited as we begin a new era for the program. Over the course of the next year, we’ll be launching several new projects to engage more Minnesota residents in growing food, and playing an active role in bringing more fresh, local foods to their own neighborhoods and communities. While there are important roles for federal, state, and local governments in transforming our food system, it is a remarkably democratic project—everyone can help re-localize our food. Please keep an eye on our website and newsletters in the coming months. We will be looking for partners and volunteers to help us develop our new programs, including fruit gleaning and neighborhood orchard projects, linking college and school cafeterias with local farms, helping market gardeners build season-extending hoop houses, and training urban youth to be gardening and composting leaders in their communities. We join with Michael Pollan in this great cause that enlists us all: eating less oil and more sunlight.

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