Monday, March 23, 2009

Thoughts on the Vegetable Garden

Yesterday, the New York Times had an article, "Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?" on organic and local foods, keying off of the White House vegetable garden.

Here are some early paragraphs:

Although unit sales of organic food have leveled off and even declined lately, versus a year earlier, the mood among those crowded into the conference room was upbeat as they awaited a private screening of a documentary called “Food Inc.” — a withering critique of agribusiness and industrially produced food.

They also gathered to relish their changing political fortunes, courtesy of the Obama administration.

“This has never been just about business,” said Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, the maker of organic yogurt. “We are here to change the world. We dreamt for decades of having this moment.”

After being largely ignored for years by Washington, advocates of organic and locally grown food have found a receptive ear in the White House, which has vowed to encourage a more nutritious and sustainable food supply.

The most vocal booster so far has been the first lady, Michelle Obama, who has emphasized the need for fresh, unprocessed, locally grown food and, last week, started work on a White House vegetable garden. More surprising, perhaps, are the pronouncements out of the Department of Agriculture, an agency with long and close ties to agribusiness.

In mid-February, Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture, took a jackhammer to a patch of pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic “people’s garden.” Two weeks later, the Obama administration named Kathleen Merrigan, an assistant professor at Tufts University and a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture and healthy food, as Mr. Vilsack’s top deputy.

Mr. Hirshberg and other sustainable-food activists are hoping that such actions are precursors to major changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms, changes that could significantly bolster demand for fresh, local and organic products. 

I am in complete sympathy with the goals of this movement.

In a real sense, you are what you eat.  The obesity "epidemic" is the greatest public health issue extant.  For example, the average 13-year old is more than 30 pounds heavier than in the 1960s. Maturity-onset diabetes and high blood pressure are beginning to afflict the young, things that were extreme rarities when I went to medical school.  All sorts of physical ills afflict obese or overweight people more than those of normal weight.  

Locally grown food should be encouraged on a variety of grounds.  The scientific case for organic foods is less clear, though all other things being equal, I would favor organic food in general; but the cost of organic food is greater and thus matters are not equal.

What has not come out of the White House regarding the garden is probably both too controversial to be said and may have no adherents amongst the First Couple is that the healthiest and most environmentally friendly solution to the cost and quality of our food is vegetarianism.

Cattle produce gigantic amounts of methane, a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2.  Vast amounts of inefficiency in energy and resource transfer occurs by growing vegetables to then be eaten by animals.  We can eat the vegetables ourselves, obtain all the protein we need, and thus lower our heart disease risk by at least 25%, help save Mother Earth, and take in fewer calories per bite, thus helping fight the obesity problem.

The cost of food and the economic cost of the overweight problem in America should and eventually may make the problems associated with meat production and consumption front and center.  Perhaps the White House garden will, as a vegetable garden, at least subliminally help bring that issue into people's minds.

Copyright (C) Long Lake LLC 2009  

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