By Matthew Cameron
Leslie Kaufman’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times added a new dimension to the catastrophic flooding in the Midwest by pointing out that huge quantities of agricultural runoff likely will cause the largest dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico’s history.
There are a number of frustrating aspects to the story, but one that stands out is the absurd utilitarian calculus that major figures in the agricultural sector use to justify the situation. For example, Don Parish of the American Farm Bureau Federation noted, “When you get to the point where you are taking more from the soil than you are putting in, then you have to worry about productivity.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack put it even more bluntly:
“A lot of folks are basing criticism and concerns on the way agriculture was, not the way it is now,” Mr. Vilsack said in a phone interview. “We as a nation have an expansive appetite for inexpensive food. To produce more, you have to turn to strategies like chemicals and pesticides.”
Both Parish and Vilsack are absolutely correct that if the U.S. wants to continue scaling up its food production then it needs to use large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides. But their implicit assumption here is that somehow the nation’s citizens are at risk of not having enough food — particularly grain — and that a necessary trade-off to ensure adequate nutrition is environmental degradation caused by farmers’ chemical use. What’s funny, though, is that there has been a lot of talk in recent years about how the most urgent nutritional issue facing the U.S. is not undernourishment but rather obesity.
In fact, more than 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are obese. This is not surprising given that between 1970 and 2008 the nation’s per capita daily caloric intake rose from 2,168 to 2,673 calories. Moreover, among the major drivers behind this trend were — here it comes — grains and added sugars, many of which are grain byproducts such as high-fructose corn syrup. As this helpful graphic shows, Americans upped their daily intake of the former food group from 432 calories in 1970 to 625 in 2008; they increased their consumption of the latter from 402 to 459 calories per day.
You do not have to be a nutrition expert to figure out that this means Americans are consuming too much, not too little, food. And although the U.S. is one of the world’s major grain exporters, the fact is that the nation could reduce the amount of food it grows by roughly the equivalent of 673 calories per American per day and still maintain its current level of exports as well as a healthy nutritional level for its citizens. This would mean fewer chemicals flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, and as an added bonus it would lead to reduced rates of obesity in the U.S. But it also would result in lower profits for major food and chemical corporations, so don’t expect Parish and Vilsack to jump on board any time soon.