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Back to the roots: will the food revolution gain more attention with a new US administration?

A change in the United States administration is providing hope for US food activists lobbying in support of organic and locally-grown food. The case for organically and locally grown food has fallen upon deaf ears in previous years on Capitol Hill.

wheatBut watching First Lady Michelle Obama tearing up strips of the White House lawn for a vegetable garden, and Tom Vilsack, the new secretary of agriculture take a jackhammer to a section of pavement outside his headquarters to create his own organic “people’s garden”, has given hope to advocates like Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm Organic Yoghurt.“This has never been just about business,” he says. “We are here to change the world.”

Nutritious and sustainable food supply has long been on the agenda of food advocates, as have changes in the way the federal government oversees the nation’s food supply and farms.

The core argument for the sustainable-food movement is that America’s mass-produced and cheaply made foods are detrimental, not only to the health of the nation’s people, but also to the health of the environment. For instance, crops rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and methods of distribution that use massive amounts of fossil fuels.

But major changes in the agri-business of the US could still be years away. “The movement is not ready for prime time,” says Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling title The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. “It’s not like we have an infrastructure with legislation ready to go.”

Last year, Congress passed a farm bill that details policy for the next five years, and farm-state legislators say they are not interested in starting over. However, organic and locally-grown food advocates hope changes in legislation will eventually incorporate efforts to combat climate change such as reducing domestic and international shipping that relies heavily on fossil fuels.

However, a further piece of the puzzle seems to be missing. Neither the current nor proposed legislation includes policy that addresses major changes in climate that have already started to impact the food system. Increasingly extreme weather, including flooding and droughts, will affect the viability of crops, as will other impacts of climate change such as the spread of pests. Sustainability planning must include policies that take these challenges, as well as new opportunities, into account, as well as the ramifications of potential responses such as increased investment in GM food designed to handle heat stress and dry conditions.

Two upcoming ACT sessions will touch on these important topics: Fresh Water Supply, which runs from February-August 2010; and Crop and Food Supply, in 2011.

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