Science - February 26, 2009

THE PRICE OF CHEAP FOOD

Three major disasters of our time – the energy crisis, the obesity epidemic and climate change – can be traced back to our large-scale, industrial food production methods. This is the view of American nutrition journalist Michael Pollan, who was in the Netherlands mid-February to explain the alternatives. Wageningen scientists are drawing their lessons from his message.

On a huge dairy farm in Florida, cows are driven through a bath on their way to the milking shed. Milking goes on 24 hours a day.
A ‘sympathetic, misleading guru’. That is how Professor Louise Fresco described him three weeks ago in a column in the NRC. Michael Pollan firmly rejected this criticism during his masterclass in Zeist on 10 February: ‘I’m not a guru; I have more questions than answers. I talk to farmers, researchers, and managers in the food industry. What I know, I learned from people like you. I retell it to get people thinking, so that they can make conscious choices.’

There were many representative of Dutch organic agriculture at Pollan’s masterclass, but companies such as Nutreco, Nestlé and Unilever had also sent along their scouts to hear what the champion of local agriculture had to say.

The American journalist has written two books about food chains in the US: An Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defence of Food – as well as a long letter to Barack Obama. Pollan points out that three major crises – the energy crisis, the health issue and climate change – can all be traced back to a wasteful and unhealthy food production system. The system is based on cheap oil – food production in the US costs ten times more energy than it produces – and cheap maize, which leads to uniform and unhealthy products.

The former prairies of the Midwest are full of maize and soya. Livestock farming is entirely unconnected from this and is concentrated in feedlots with ten thousand beef cattle apiece. Pollan calls them ‘cities of meat with pyramids of feed and shit’. The costs of this system are transferred to the animals, the environment and the consumers.

The alternative is small-scale regional polyculture, says Pollan. His hero is farmer Joel Salatin, who has developed a precisely worked-out cycle including cows, chickens, rabbits and grassland. Pollan calls this a post-industrial system, ‘way beyond what we now call organic’.

His scathing account of the American food industry was heard by five researchers from Wageningen UR. They all wonder whether Pollan’s story could become the reality here as well. American mega companies are ten times larger than what are called mega companies in the Netherlands, but the tendency towards upscaling and industrialization can be seen here too. The percentage of overweight people is smaller, but it is growing. And the food economy described by Pollan, in which farmers supply low-priced ingredients to the industry, which turns them into ‘functional’ foods, is happening in the Netherlands as well.

‘Pollan’s strength is that he sees the food system as one coherent whole’, says Wageningen agronomist Hein ten Berge, who attended the masterclass. His colleague Dr. Jaap Schröder says, ‘Our agriculture is based on bulk use of non-renewable resources such as oil, phosphates and water reserves.’

Pollan’s integral analysis is welcomed by Onno van Eijk of the Animal Sciences Group too. ‘As researchers, we are continuously optimizing the components of food production. If you take the pig, we aim at maximum growth of the pig – and the rest is just input and output. In Pollan’s polyculture, it’s all about the total output of the food system. That doesn’t make it any easier, because the knowledge we need to work this out is much more complex. We need a different way of looking for the optimum in order to help solve the problems in public health and energy supply.’

Ten Berge, too, is looking for methods of quantitatively describing alternative food systems that use less oil and are better for the environment and for health. That is far from easy. ‘It is too simplistic of Pollan to single out the low oil price and subsidies as the sole causes of the problems. He doesn’t make clear enough that there are several goals, such as producing enough reasonably priced food for the world population, a good income for the farmer, a diet with animal proteins, the conservation of biodiversity, and less environmental damage. As a society, we shall have to make choices.’ Ten Berge wants to show policymakers and consumers the consequences of their choices.

MULTINATIONALS
Whereas the European Union has a lot of regulations on environmental and health matters, government regulation in the US is very limited. According to Pollan, it is the multinationals such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical who call the tune there. They do not develop any products for sustainable or organic farmers – there’s nothing to be earned from crop rotation. Van Eijk: ‘What triggered the biggest reaction in me was the power structure in the food chain. In the US power is held by the big suppliers and processors, while in the Netherlands everyone says the supermarkets have the power. In both cases, food is made steadily cheaper. The supermarkets use meat as a loss leader to enlarge their share in the market, so that they can then sell spring water for two euros a bottle.’ Van Eijk is working on innovation projects and wonders how the value chain managers can make the switch to sustainable food production.

Dr Jan Willem van der Schans, specialist in business administration at the LEI, has ideas about that. He wants to develop a method of assessing the sustainability of various production systems. ‘I want to measure the productivity of organic, innovative, and mainstream food chains, as well as the nutritional value they produce per hectare. Sometimes mainstream chains are quite sustainable, and sometimes they run up against the problem of soil exhaustion. But the question is whether Joel Salatin is really doing so much better. We haven’t done enough research on the different food systems.’ Why not? ‘We don’t get any assignments to do so, it’s a taboo. In the Netherlands it’s been agreed that mainstream agriculture must become more sustainable, and that organic agriculture is the most sustainable. So we don’t compare the two production chains. According to the life cycle analysis, pork with an eco-label is really efficient. And organic meat scores lower on a number of criteria. So then the organic sector says, we don’t accept your criteria, and you get into a methodological discussion. If we get rid of the political taboo and reach an agreement on how we measure the sustainability of chains, we’ll get further.’

There’s another important theme in Pollan’s lecture that fits into this integral approach: the quality of our food. ‘Industrial food in the US may seem diverse’, says Pollan, ‘but it can all be traced back to one big corn field in Iowa. There’s corn in all our food.’ At great cost to public health. ‘Of the American children born in 2000, one in three will get diabetes. Sixty percent of Americans are overweight.’

Is this coming our way? No, says Professor of nutrition Frans Kok. ‘Europeans eat more healthily because they eat a more varied diet – more potatoes and bread – and because it is more normal here to cook at home. Double-income couples in the US eat out much more, and that often means fast food.’ But he does warn, ‘We are eating out more here too. And at home we’re eating more ready meals that we heat up in the microwave. This poses a potential risk – in England a warning has already been issued.’

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