Read more from Slate's Food issue.
The one threat that Big Food hasn't proven itself very adept at handling, however, is the multiheaded hydra of climate change, drought, and the shrinking supplies of various natural resources. The industry is not ignoring the political aspect of these threats. The farm lobby and its congressional allies were successful in excluding the agricultural sector from the climate bill currently before the House. Big Ag got exemptions for all its greenhouse gas emissions, which the EPA puts at 6 percent of total U.S. emissions (and which account for most of the country's methane and nitrous oxide emissions, gases that have a far greater warming effect than carbon dioxide). And now, Rep. Collin Peterson, last seen ripping into the EPA for its recent ruling on how to measure the climate impact of corn ethanol, has threatened to derail the climate bill entirely unless he has the opportunity to rewrite it to Big Food's liking.
But treating climate change as just another regulatory hurdle to overcome is misguided at best and irresponsible at worst. It certainly won't help Big Food—entirely reliant on fossil fuel for its equipment, its fertilizers, its pesticides, and its processing facilities—in its need to function in a low-carbon world. Last year's spike in oil prices quickly drove food prices higher, even contributing to food shortages in parts of the world. One can only imagine what $200-per-barrel oil—which may come sooner than you think—will do to Big Food's business. And then there are the reports that the world is down to a few decades' supply of phosphorus, a key ingredient in synthetic fertilizer. One of Big Food's favorite refrains is the need for synthetics in order to feed the world. Yet it continues to lack long-term plans for providing adequate, affordable amounts of the stuff.
Big Food also insists that genetically modified crops will make up for whatever shortcomings industrial agriculture may face in the future. But despite decades of research, GM crop yield growth remains flat, and companies like Monsanto don't deny that they are, at best, decades away from rectifying that. Meanwhile, persistent droughts in crucial agricultural regions like California—a state that grows almost half of the nation's vegetables, fruits, and nuts—continue to vex large food producers. It may yet be that water—the most basic ingredient of all—will prove to be Big Food's Achilles' heel.
Typically, when Big Food is confronted with these developments, it dismisses the issue, the science behind the issue, or the person who raised it—and often all three. But continuing to dismiss a warming, resource-constrained world will ultimately prove a failure. Despite what the old margarine ad claimed, Big Food—though it often succeeds in fooling us—simply can't fool Mother Nature.