About a month ago, high-profile foodies got pretty amped up about whom Obama would choose as White House chef. Three of them -- Berkeley sustainable food doyenne Alice Waters, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and New York City restaurateur Denny Mayer -- even got together to pen a letter urging the incoming president to replace the current White House chef with someone who chooses locally grown, organic food -- preferably sourced from an on-site vegetable garden. According to a New York Times account, the letter states: A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter. Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation. Last week, Obama defied this gentle effort to convince him to send the incumbent chef packing. Cristeta Comerford, who has been in charge of cooking first-family meals for the Bushes since 2005, will retain her post, the Obama team announced. My first reaction to this news was disappointment. After choosing an agribiz-friendly pol as USDA chief, couldn't Obama at least make a symbolic nod in the direction of the sustainable-food movement by picking a new chef? Now I'm not sure what the fuss was about in the first place.
"Ignoring climate projections at this stage will only result in the worst form of triage." The headline is from the University of Washington news release on a study in Science, "Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat" ($ub. req'd). The quote is the study's powerful final sentence. The release explains: Rapidly warming climate is likely to seriously alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, will leave half the world's population facing serious food shortages, new research shows ... "The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures," said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor. Worse, the study must also be considered a serious underestimate of likely impacts since, as is common in such analyses, they based their simulations on "the 'middle of the road' emission scenario, A1B." In 2100, A1B hits about 700 ppm with average global temperatures "only" about 3°C warmer than today. In fact, on our current emissions path, we are going to get much, much hotter. Figure. "Histogram of summer (June, July, and August) averaged temperatures (blue) observed from 1900 to 2006 and (red) projected for 2090 for (A) France, (B) Ukraine, and (C) the Sahel. Temperature is plotted as the departure from the long-term (1900-2006) climatological mean (21). The data are normalized to represent 100 seasons in each histogram. In (A), for example, the hottest summer on record in France (2003) is 3.6°C above the long-term climatology. The average summer temperature in 2090 [assuming A1B] is projected to be 3.7°C greater than the long-term climatological average." The results are still alarming:
Today Grist had the somewhat surreal experience of hosting Michael Pollan, the nation’s premier food writer, for lunch. And just to make it more stressful, we decided to do a potluck — each of us brought in a dish. Cooking for Pollan! Yikes! Happily, he enjoyed the food, and we had a nice conversation. We’ll have video of it soon, but three things he said struck me as particularly interesting, so I thought I’d briefly share them here. First, after conversation turned from Obama and Vilsack, I asked him how the situation for food policy could be improved in Congress. …
Who found it more difficult to get excited about an Obama presidency, the Democratic Leadership Council or the progressive wing of the Democratic party? The DLC folks are riding high, calling themselves "The New Team." The progressives came away empty-handed. Progressives assumed change would extend to President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet, but we never expected the change to be a reflection of the Clinton administration or, worse yet, the Bush administration. We thought change would mean, well, something different. New people, ideas, economic reforms, energy policies, a withdrawal from Iraq, and a new face to the world. The political junkies say Obama has loaded his cabinet with centrists. Progressives can only wonder why the world suddenly turned upside down. OK, it's his cabinet he can pick whom he wishes, but his picks seem a bit out of place. Like Michael Pollan eating a Luther Burger.
Taking up Tom Philpott's food stimulus challenge, I suggest bailing out the fisherman. Of course, fish stocks internationally are still in serious decline -- you need look no father than the Atlantic bluefin tuna to see that. But according to a report on NPR, we're having some serious fisheries-management success stories on the West Coast. Now it's the local fishing fleets rather than the fisheries that threaten to collapse. At first, the government thought they had engineered a "soft landing" for fishermen when: ... five years ago many fishermen who trolled for groundfish agreed to give up their boats for a lump sum of cash. That dramatically reduced the size of the fleet. There are only about 160 bottom trawlers left in California, Oregon and Washington. As a result, nets are full and quotas are easily met. But now regulators are converting fishing quotas into a cap-and-trade system. There's no question that this is an important development. Since fishermen will be able to buy and sell portions of their quotas, they'll throw less of their catch overboard (dumping fish being the only legal way to dispose of excess catch). Under the new system, they'll just hop on the radio and buy some of the fishing rights from a fellow fisherman who has room to spare in his hold. Everything looks peachy so far, but all industries need a certain scale. As the fleets continue to shrink and more fishermen sell their quotas and their boats, fishing ports, which include processing plants and other supporting services, will shut down entirely. These are businesses that, unlike the meat industry's now defunct network of local abattoirs and butchers, have so far resisted centralization. So how about some incentives to keep these folks afloat? Fishermen should be encouraged to stay on the water, not to become fish stock brokers. If a little of the stimulus money can help us manage the fishermen along with the fisheries, it would be a boon to struggling coastal communities and would preserve fishing as an environmentally and economically sustainable tradition. Aside from the fact that any job lost is a crisis in this economy, it would be a shame that our success with the fish should lead to disaster for the people.
President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress can’t afford to turn their attention to reforming the food system. We’ve got two wars to fight, the Middle East conflict is raging again, the financial system is in chaos, and layoffs are mounting. And don’t forget the likelihood of trillion-dollar annual budget deficits for years to come. Food, it’s clear, is just too banal when matched up against those challenges. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. Even some veteran food-reform advocates accept the “food-must-wait” logic. “I think it’s somewhere between naïve and fairy tale to think [Obama's] No. 1 focus is going to …
Foodies have been wondering who will feed the Obamas when they move into the White House on January 20. Some gourmands and sustainable-food advocates have argued that a chef who will focus on local and organic foods should replace current White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford. Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and restaurateurs Alice Waters and Danny Meyer sent a letter to Obama asking him to pick a chef who is sustainability-minded, and might even use foods from a White House garden. Michael Pollan called for the same thing. Reichl and friends even offered to help Obama find the right chef for the job. "A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter," they wrote. "Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation." But sustainable foodies won't get their way on this one (just as they didn't with Obama's choice for secretary of agriculture). The Obamas are planning to keep the current chef, a transition official says.
The great Mark Bittman -- whose new book I am eager to get my paws on -- delivers a powerful spiel connecting the industrial food system with climate change and the health-care crisis. Watch it.
In the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to meet and experience a vast variety of inspiring food, environmental, and agricultural people and places. I met small-farmers in Ethiopia experimenting with pit composting instead of synthetic fertilizers. I shared meals with activists and writers in the sustainable food movement like Tom Philpott and Anna Lappé. Perhaps most exciting has been the increasing interest in sustainable food and agriculture throughout this country and among my family and friends. Helping my parents start composting, sharing books with friends, and watching the enthusiasm for a "Farmer in Chief" left me hopeful and excited at the end of 2008. My vision came to a screeching halt when I saw a television ad during the holidays that left me laughing: Burger King trounces around the world feeding Whoppers to unsuspecting indigenous peoples in hopes of spreading the gospel of fast food. What a great parody, I thought! Who could have thought up such an ironic idea? And as the website for Whopper Virgins flashed on the screen, I had a sinking feeling that, like those high-fructose corn syrup ads, perhaps this Burger King film was no parody. It turns out that the ad was actually an excerpt of a longer seven-minute film. The very concept of this idea -- flying around the world, feeding hamburgers to people who have never eaten hamburgers -- is in itself strange. For the first half of the film, the crew travels to Romania where they feed utterly confused people Whoppers and Big Macs from nearby restaurant locations. Strangely enough, it seems like the same number of people has no preference or prefers the Big Mac as compared to the Whopper.