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Mountain News: Telluride symposium looks at food chain

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TELLURIDE, Colo. - Ski towns sit atop the food chain. That's true in the metaphoric sense in that even the most third-tier resorts cater to the world's richest people. But it's also true in the literal sense of food.

First, nearly all meats, vegetables and deserts must all be hauled up-valley. There is little local agriculture. As is true more generally across the developed world, food is hauled long distances. The average food item in the United States is transported 1,500 miles.

But people in developed countries eat lots of meat, and those in places like China and India aspire to eat much more meat. Ultimately, industrialized meat production requires vast amounts of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, of course, have caused our nasty problem of global warming.

At Moving Mountains, the annual symposium held prior to Telluride Mountain Film, the global - but very rarely local - food supply system was examined in great detail. As National Geographic - a sponsor of the session - noted in a recent issue, it's a big, big problem. The world population, which sat at 2.5 billion in 1950, has now reached 6.7 billion, with projections that it will hit 9 billion by mid-century.

More alarming, evidence has emerged that technology innovations that produced the so-called green revolution of the late 20 th century are coming up short in trying to meet this growing population. In 2007, the most recent year for which evidence was available, 40 million more people became hungry.

To Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic , the problem starts with the soil. He grew up on a farm in Oregon, and for a decade has agitated for attention to the role of soil. "The question is, can we save our soil, and in the process save ourselves?"

Salinization of soil - which results from salts being deposited on farm land during irrigation - is a big, long-term issue, he said.

He also noted that unlike in the United States, where food has become cheaper over the decades, it remains a major cost to people in poor countries, where individuals spend 50 to 70 per cent of their income on food.

Jerry Glover, of the Kansas-based Land Institute, said achieving a sustainable food supply will require more use of perennials, which do a better job of using water and regulating nitrogen, than the annuals.

Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California-Davis, called for a balance of genetically engineered plants with organic farming. Pesticide use annually causes the death of 300,000 people, she said. But the need for food is great, and organic farming currently is responsible for only 1 to 3 per cent of total production.

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