Bill McKibben: "We're growing our food in oil"

The basic building block of your body—the 2000 calories of food you eat per day—has over $150 million in lobbying money spent on it per year, contributes to 6% of the US’s total carbon footprint, and has spawned a huge debate over the future of agriculture in America—local vs mainstream food supply. And as the world turns toward forging a global treaty on climate, the agricultural industry is trying to clean up it's image.

According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a research organization representing family farms, “farming can be a carbon sink.” To do this, we would need to decrease the amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use, properly manage methane emissions from livestock and improve our crop rotation practices. Simple, right?

Promises and plans to make farming more environmentally friendly can’t be just about the proper management of methane. Our current farming practices is like “growing our food in oil,” according to advocate and author Bill McKibben, “We’re basically using dirt as a matrix to hold plants up while we pour oil on them.” (Watch the video below)

What he’s talking about is the carbon intensive creation of nitrogen-based fertilizers, which, when converted to nitrous oxide in the air is over 300 times more heat-trapping than carbon. Nitrogren-based synthetic fertilizer, developed about 100 years ago, has allowed current agricultural systems to produce such an abundance of food, but at a heavy environmental cost. (If you want more, nitrogen is the focus of a new series by Grist.)

But local food is not just about the climate, according to McKibben, it’s about rebuilding community. After living for a year on local food, he reflects,

It was enormously rewarding. Not only was it good food, it was a tremendous reminder that abstracted market economy that we live in isn’t particularly satisfying. It’s not satisfying because the food doesn’t taste good, it’s not particularly healthy for you, because you have no connection to anyone. That connection is key.

Watch the video and weigh in:

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A lot of money can be made in the food industry. US Consumers spent over 1 trillion dollars on food last year, according to the USDA. That’s almost 10% of our GDP. That’s why lobbyists spend millions of dollars each year (almost $500 million in the last 10 years) to push their brand of nutrition. Increasingly, more and more voices are challenging the industry’s perspectives, like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.

What do you think? Do you buy local, why or why not?

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