Sunday, November 23, 2008

Farmer in Chief

Published: October 9, 2008
New York Times

Dear President Obama,

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration — the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then, federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda. But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.

Complicating matters is the fact that the price and abundance of food are not the only problems we face; if they were, you could simply follow Nixon’s example, appoint a latter-day Earl Butz as your secretary of agriculture and instruct him or her to do whatever it takes to boost production. But there are reasons to think that the old approach won’t work this time around; for one thing, it depends on cheap energy that we can no longer count on. For another, expanding production of industrial agriculture today would require you to sacrifice important values on which you did campaign. Which brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them. Let me explain.

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.

In addition to the problems of climate change and America’s oil addiction, you have spoken at length on the campaign trail of the health care crisis. Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today, putting a significant drag on the economy. The goal of ensuring the health of all Americans depends on getting those costs under control. There are several reasons health care has gotten so expensive, but one of the biggest, and perhaps most tractable, is the cost to the system of preventable chronic diseases. Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.

The impact of the American food system on the rest of the world will have implications for your foreign and trade policies as well. In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food. Nations that opened their markets to the global flood of cheap grain (under pressure from previous administrations as well as the World Bank and the I.M.F.) lost so many farmers that they now find their ability to feed their own populations hinges on decisions made in Washington (like your predecessor’s precipitous embrace of biofuels) and on Wall Street. They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers. Expect to hear the phrases “food sovereignty” and “food security” on the lips of every foreign leader you meet. Not only the Doha round, but the whole cause of free trade in agriculture is probably dead, the casualty of a cheap food policy that a scant two years ago seemed like a boon for everyone. It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third. But it turns out that too much food can be nearly as big a problem as too little — a lesson we should keep in mind as we set about designing a new approach to food policy. Read the rest here.

The Last Harvest of the Year

Yesterday, on a frigid afternoon, our cooperative garden group harvested our carrots. It's been a cold autumn, so the soil was already frozen, and the carrots in turn were frozen. A bit of an unpleasant surprise, but the carrots still tasted sweet. Guess they won't keep as long.

The garlic, already in the ground, was covered with straw mulch to sleep through the winter.

We had a meeting to "de-brief" on the past growing season. What went well, what didn't go so well. It was a great, bountiful year. There was a palpable sense of our little community. I've been part of this group for a half dozen years or so, and this felt very close and rich.

Then, a feast as people gathered around the woodstove. And finally, off into the dark night. See you next year!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


This blog game was posted by my friend Luminiferous Ether. See what YOU come up with!

The Book Grab Game
* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
* Turn to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post that sentence in my comments. Post the rules on your own blog, if you wish to continue the fun.

Mine came out of....well, maybe you can guess the book:

"It has been a time of peace?"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It's not over....

As my six loyal readers may recall, I was shocked that my parakeet,
Bob, "came out" as a McCain supporter just prior to election day. Well, I figured, he's got a brain the size of a pea and it IS a free coutnry (well, sort of). It's been two weeks since the election and Bob has continued to spew what I intermpret to be pro-McCain rhetoric. A friend thought I was making this up. But that's not my style. To prove myself right, I printed out a photo of the former POW and taped it on the wall near Bob's cage. For the next hour or two, he was over as close as he could get to the photo, crooning and chirping. So....I may be living with the next head of the RNC. Wow. I'd personally enjoy seeing Joe Lieberman taking orders from a parakeet.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Top 10 questions I've been asked as a Veterinarian!

I've been a veterinarian for 13 years. I've worn a lot of "hats". Dairy vet, emergency vet, housecall vet and a brief stint as a monkey vet. Now I'm a veterinary pathologist. So I get asked a lot of questions. Amazingly, I know the answers to some of them! Here are some of my favorites!

1) Why do dogs eat grass?

2) Why do dogs eat poop? (and the related question: what can I do about it?)

3) Is my cat/dog fat?

4) My dog pees/poops/chews up the rug when I leave for work/don't let him watch the Packers/etc. Is he angry with me?

5) Need some light? (said as I'm expressing a dogs anal glands)?

6) Can you teach me to do that (express anal glands)? This is always asked BEFORE I actually do the deed. The question is NEVER repeated when I am through.

7) How big will my puppy be when he's an adult?

8) How long will my dog live?

9) So, Doc, what breeds do you see in my dog?

10) My personal favorite: Doc, isn't it true that the longer my dog keeps his testicles, the more muscular he'll get?

I can't recall learning the answers to these questions in SCHOOL. Maybe I was sleeping........

Disclaimer: That is not actually me in the illustration above. Click on illustration to enlarge.

Inaugaration Tickets Wanted

About two days after Obama won, I woke up and felt strongly that I wanted to be at the inaugaration, the swearing-in. I couldn't shake this visceral pull. I will be out in DC at the appropriate time, visiting my fiancee, so that's halfway there, right? Right?

The answer is maybe.

I heard that 240,000 tickets are going to be given out to Congress People. I heard that my Congressional Rep will get a bunch. So, I did like many others and called her office. They took my name. They said they didn't know how many tickets they would even get, nor how they were going to distribute them. A lottery was suggested. So they took down my name and how many tickets I would like.

So tonight I heard on NPR that even though the tickets are being given away, the scalpers are ready. One price was as high as 40 grand. Another scalper said $500 to $1700. A bargain. Senator Dianne Feinstein is introducing legislation to make scalping inaugaration tickets a Federal Crime.

And there's all the talk about the lack of hotel rooms in DC for the Big Day. Area residents are doing creative things to cater to the multitudes like renting tent space in their backyards, renting out their condos for $3,000 a night. I can't plunk down $1500 for a ticket. I can't plunk down much.

I started wondering if it was ok to pray to God for tickets?? I decided no, that wouldn't be ok. I mean, I don't pray to God for things like a BMW, so why should this be different? (OK, I admit I DID pray to God for the Cubs to win the Worlds Series this year, but apparently God is a Phillies fan.)

So, I'm just going to be open and see what happens. I feel so much desire to be there, even if it's cold and packed (which it will be). A huge moment in my life. I have the images of assasination seared into my brain: JFK, MLK, RFK and on and on. Death after death after death. This feels like a birth and I want to be in attendance.

Then I had this dream. And in the dream, God was offering me two tickets: one was to Game 7 of a Cubs World Series game. The other to Obama's inaugaration....before I could make a choice, I woke up! OH no! Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dog Intelligence

A recent comment left by Mr Ether to an earlier post claimed that Corgis were more intellignet than Standard Poodles! A bit rankled by this, I Googled "dog intelligence" for the correct information. This site Dog Intelligence Site ranks dogs according to different levels of understanding commands. 79 breeds are listed. The top ten, according to this site are, in order:

1: Border Collie
2: Poodle!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
3: German Shepherd
4: Golden Retriever
5: Doberman
6: Sheltie
7: Labrador
8: Papillon
9: Rottweiler
10: Australian Cattle Dog

According to the site, these dogs are "able to understand new commands in less than 5 repetitions" and "respond to a first command 95% of the time". Well that describes my Standard Poodle. NOT! But he is working on a Masters Degree in Science.

As for the Corgi, according to this site, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi comes in at #11. Not bad, but not quite good enough to get into a GOOD obedience school!

The least intelligent dog is the Afghan Hound, which barely beat out the Shih Tzu for the bottom of the doggie IQ barrel.

Presidential Dogs

As I wrote the previous post, speculating on an appropriate dog for Mr Obama, I wondered which other presidents had owned dogs, and what breeds. So, here goes:

W: "Spot", an English Springer Spaniel.

Clinton: "Buddy", a chocolate Lab, shown in the photo above. Sadly, Buddy was hit by a car. One wonders where the Secret Service was on that incident? presidential dogs get Secret Service protection at all? (maybe they have to walk the dog.....?)

George HW Bush: "Millie", an English Springer Spaniel.

Reagan: "Lucky", and English Springer Spaniel and "Rex", a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Carter: "Grits", an unspecified breed given to him by his daughter's teacher. Later given away....

Ford: "Liberty", a Golden Retriever.

Nixon: Well, "Checkers" the Cocker Spaniel, of course. But Nixon had several other dogs: "Vicky" the poodle, "Pash", a terrier and an Irish Setter.

LBJ: Four beagles, a white collie and a mutt.

JFK: "Charlie", a Welsh Terrier owned by daughter Caroline, a bunch of mutts, and a German Shepherd.

Eisenhower: "Heide", a Weimaraner

Truman: "Feller", a Cocker Spaniel and "Mike" and Irish Setter

FDR: He and Eleanor owned a host of dogs. a German Shepherd, Scottish Terrier, Gread Dane, a Mastiff, an Old English Sheepdog named "Tiny", and several other pooches.

Hoover: 9 dogs.

TR: "Pete", a Bull Terrier.

James Buchanon: "Lara", a Newfoundland.

James Monroe: a Spaniel

Jefferson: 2 Briards

The First Poodle?

As most every one knows, Barack Obama promised his two daughters that if elected, he would get them a dog. As most every parent knows, once you let the, ahem, cat out of the bag, it's hard to be a "flip-flopper". This morning I heard that one of his daughters is....allergic to dogs! I briefly worried that this might be the first campaign promise that Mr Obama breaks. However, I have a suggestion for the president-elect, which could get him out of some family hot water! (and no, I'm not trying for the position of "First Veterinarian") My suggestion is a simple one: get a Standard Poodle! Great for people with allergies! And, the smartest dog out there, so perhaps the dog can help with the economic crisis or orchestrate a US troop withdrawal from the Middle East. Imagine it: The First Poodle!

Mr Obama did state yesterday that: "Of course I'd like to get a shelter dog, but that might not work out" given the allergy situation. So, Mr Obama, a Standard Poodle may be just the thing for you and your family. As every parent knows, getting one's child to clean their room or do their homework is MUCH more difficult than foreign policy. Therefore, getting the "right" dog could really help maintain domestic tranquility. So best of luck, Mr President.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Night


I watched Obama speak last night, along with millions. All over the world. There was this tangible vibration. Emotions bubbling up. Remembering the King assasination. Forty years seems like a long time. It was hugely scary to me, at age 12, to see this violence. But right now, there's a man, on a stage and it's awesome. I didn't think I'd ever see this happen. Nor did I think the Berlin wall would ever come down. As a colleague put it, this is a "historical day". I am soaking up the moment before I move on with my next forty years.
(click on the photo to make it larger, although it will never be large enough)

Monday, November 3, 2008

The dog says it's time to go.

November and it’s still so warm
says my dog.
Is it a zephyr, he asked?
I said I didn’t know
as we started on our evening walk.

On the sidewalk, along the lake, warm wind
but somehow a chill
blew into my body
raising goose bumps.
A warm chill.
Not scary.
Beckoning me and my dog
down to the shore
amongst the tall trees.
Cradling and wrapping me in fingers and blankets unseen.

I ask questions into the breath wind.
God, I’m worried, anxious and scared.
Tell me, God, who will win the election?
A feeling fills me
with more warmth
and certainty.
God is saying
there is a plan.
I might not see it or understand.
But God has a plan.

Even if the “bad guy” gets elected?
Are you kidding me?
Are you messing with me, God?

I have a plan, said God.
Not a voice.
Instead, a shimmering, rolling heat down my nerves
branching out to tickle every cell, every chromosome, gene and nucleotide.
Stunned and curious,
I plunk my self down on a bench by the river mouth
And soak it up.
After a time
And some tears
The goose bumps leave me.
The dog says it’s time to go.
So we head home.