2010: Ushering in the Decade of Food and Agriculture

05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Ettlinger Author, "The Complete Illustrated Guide to Everything Sold in Hardware Stores" and more

This may well become the decade of food and agriculture. I say, let's declare it!
Just as we've focused on technology over the last decade or two, we should focus on one of the few things we cannot live without, literally: food.

In 2010, it looks like we might see governments and citizens around the world actually start making better choices so that we can all live longer and healthier lives.

Surprisingly to most Americans, the choices we've been making at present do just the opposite: Some put the cost of obesity-related treatments here at $147 BILLION a year--more than the cost of treating all cancers. Avoiding diet-related illnesses is a choice we must make; many are caused by our adherence to the modern Western diet that features lots of meat, added fat, sugar, and refined grains.

We can do this now. Consciousness surrounding food choices has crept into the government and the marketplace in major ways:

• The presence of Michelle Obama in the White House. Not only has she spearheaded symbolic things like planting an organic garden and revamping event menus at the White House, but she is a spokesperson for an official Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity ("Let's Move"), something that will have real and specific affects on federal food policies.

• The passage of the historic health care bill. The immediate effect may include informative calorie and other health information on menus as well as the labels of processed foods.

• Retail grocers reflect increased demand for whole foods. Trader Joe's grocery store chain has grown to over 300 stores doing over $7 billion in sales while featuring their own products that contain no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. They are encouraging the choice of whole and minimally processed foods on a mass-market level, along with organic sales leader Wal-Mart and dynamo Whole Foods.

• Books that explain why and how to eat whole and healthy foods dominate the best-seller lists (a first!): Michael Pollan, who says it best and now needs arenas when he speaks at colleges, has three of his own on the lists simultaneously; Marion Nestle, the famed nutritionist, is quoted constantly; Mark Bittman has bestsellers featuring the Mediterranean diet and vegetarian cooking; "Diet for a Small Planet," the book that really first popularized healthy eating for a healthy planet has sold over 3 million copies. And there are dozens more.

• Food luminaries like Alice Waters have become household names. Food and cooking TV shows are so popular that they have their own channels. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a salt-reduction campaign.

• The term "globesity" is popping up in news articles all over the place as the idea that obesity and its related health issues are real, important, and man-made problems that can be solved. A TV chef with 12 shows aired in 130 countries - Jamie Oliver -- won the TED award for his work fighting childhood obesity.

• "Sustainability" has entered the public and commercial discourse in a way that dovetails with our increased awareness of problems with burnt-out soil and increasingly fought-over and expensive water.

• Increasing numbers of farmers are choosing to grow a variety of crops, sell them to local farmer's markets, and doing so at a profit. And local chefs are demanding more. Every year more farmers markets bloom, with a total now of well over 5,000 around the country. Ten years ago the scene was vastly different.

• Even big food companies tout whole and less-processed foods, indicating that they at least have heard the message (as in Haagan-Dazs' ice cream label boasting of having just five whole and recognizable food ingredients).

It's a veritable food revolution because more people seem to be aware that eating and food are easily politicized. Thanks in large part to those best selling books' lucid explanations the message is consistent and getting clearer and louder daily: this is the end of the experiment in eating, one that started in the 1800's and came to its apex in the second half of the 20th century. The experiment has shown we need to eat more the way we used to (more fruit and vegetables) and less the way we were led to in the years just after 1950. What's amazing now is that so many different parties now agree.

The storied "Green Revolution" of same recent period, with its mixed results, is well-known for its blend of government policy, menu choices, and environmental impact (it encouraged monoculture farming at the expense of traditional biodiversity and healthy diets, among other things). Perhaps our new "food revolution" could be modeled on that, as well as on the fortification program that we started with barely a cough of dispute in the early '40's and that has basically eliminated diseases like pellagra and beriberi.

One goal might be to rearrange policy, as expressed in the farm bill--next up for discussion in 2012--so that fruits and vegetables are a less expensive alternative to meat and high-calorie, high-fat processed foods.

Now that we've made such leaps in technology and knowledge, this is it: the decade of food and agriculture. Let's make it work!