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This Holiday, Give Thanks and Get Real (About Our Food!)

Fall is about food. Approaching Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, copious food-rich words are written before we all sit down with loved ones to celebrate food abundance. But in this fall food season, what do we most need to know about food for all seasons?

It is this: Our exceedingly bright species has ended up creating a "food" system so inefficient that much of it doesn't really produce food at all!photo: donkeycart via flickr

Sound extreme? Here's what I mean: First, there's no inherent connection between what we grow on most of the world's farmland and what human bodies need to thrive.

In the U.S., 43 percent of all cropped acreage, and the most fertile share, goes to just two crops -- corn and soy. Yet they aren't really food but raw materials that hardly ever turn up in our mouths directly. Forty percent of corn, the biggest crop, now goes to fuel tanks. The rest, along with 98 percent of soy meal, becomes raw material for creating products like grain-fed meat that (except for cooking oils) greatly shrink the capacity of the original ingredients to meet nutritional needs.

For a quick, animated intro to what's behind it all, see Anna Lappé's Food MythBusters debut video. Obviously a lot of people care. In just the first few weeks, it's attracted more than 60,000 viewers.

About grain-fed meat, consider this: Over eons of time, there was no such thing. Instead, humans got a great nutritional deal from ruminants -- mammals like cows that "double digest" their food. These amazing animals can eat grasses and waste products inedible to us, and convert them into highly useable protein -- giving humans eating ruminants a big nutrition boost from stuff they could never digest.

But giant-scale, chemical agriculture has created what I called in Diet for a Small Planet "a protein-factory in reverse." Ruminants still graze, of course, but increasingly they're fed vast quantities of crops grown on land that could just as well be growing food that humans eat directly. We've turned livestock into our competitors. Does that make sense?

Beyond wasting the special talent of ruminants, our highly concentrated food industry -- on average twice as tightly monopolized as most U.S. industries -- is grossly inefficient in another way: Its manufacturing and endless promotion of processed food products -- especially those with high-fructose corn syrup -- have helped turn the whole system into a "nutrition-factory in reverse."

So today, 40 percent of calories American children eat are nutritionally empty.

Then there's the literal waste. The UN estimates that one-third of our food spoils or is tossed out. One-third! In the U.S., it's over 40 percent. Food analyst Lester Brown estimates that U.S. food waste could provide the entire caloric need of a population as big as ours.

And all this, while we've made our food into a national health threat: Our diet is implicated in four out of six of our most deadly diseases.

Why would humans be so senseless?

My hunch is this: We are creatures of the mind. Humans see the world through culturally formed filters -- thought-systems that can lead us to accept what defies common sense. Today, our dominant thought-system is driven by fear -- fear of scarcity, as agribusiness and even some distinguished scientists warn us that more chemicals, more genetically altered seeds, and more giant-scale farming is needed or we'll go hungry. Scary.

But, guess what? Trapped in this frame, we end up creating the experience of scarcity -- no matter how much we grow: Today 868 million are "officially" hungry although the earth produces more than enough, 2,800 calories for each person each day.

To stop this massive inefficiency disconnecting food growing and healthy eating, we have to break this mindset's power.

Humans, we now know, can do that, too. With scientists' discovery of "neuroplasticity," we now realize the capacity of new insights to create neural pathways, so let's start with new facts: Authoritative studies demonstrate not only that there's enough food now, but here's the really great news: We can align farming with nature's laws -- enhancing soil health, water conservation, species diversity, and helping fight climate change, too -- while we produce as much food, and, likely even more.

A 2009 report by 400 scientists, now endorsed by 59 governments, affirms that indeed embracing sustainable, ecologically sound farming practices is the only pathway to real food security.

This Thanksgiving, take a moment to imagine yourself free from the scarcity scare. Imagine yourself feeling powerful knowing that that your healthy food choices and acts of food citizenship are not a luxury, or mere pastime. They matter: Your choice to support local, family farms using sustainable practices and to grow food yourself. Your choice to demand a shift of public support from chemical to ecologically aligned farming. Your choice to work toward ending the power of private wealth to corrupt our political decision making. All are part of remaking the world's most inefficient food system.

So with every food purchase, every tasty morsel, every brave act to build real democracy, we can help to relink our food system with thriving bodies and a healthy earth. Now, that's efficient!