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Thoughts On Michael Pollan’s Latest Article “Farmer In Chief”

Posted Oct 21 2008 5:22am

A few days ago, I came across Michael Pollan’s latest NY Times article, Farmer In Chief (requires an account to read it…there are ways around that ;-) ). After reading it (a lengthy read) and taking some time to digest it, I wanted to offer some of my own thoughts on Pollan’s ideas.

Rising Prices, Falling Quality
He opens the letter to whichever candidate wins the election discussing the rising price of food and how a nation’s food supply is a key element of national security. I think this is a key point with which to begin things. If a nation can’t feed itself, it cannot survive. But the scary piece is that we’ve outsourced much of our food production, much of it to China, where quality and safety appear to be on-going issues.

Americans now spend roughly 10% of our income on food, about half of what it was in 1960. This is the result of a Farm Bill that promotes production of commodity crops like wheat, soy, and corn, which are turned into all of the cheap, empty calories that fill our supermarket shelves. Of course, increases in income have also resulted in a decrease in the percentage spent on food. Cheap calories are why we’re able to have 3000 square foot houses, two BMW driveways, and 55″ TVs. I think it’s up to people to reprioritize and choose higher quality foods.

Localizing Food
Today, most food is provided by huge corporations, shipped in from who-knows-where. To really improve our food system, we need to allow small farmers equal access to the market, removing barriers that are made in the name of “safety,” but which serve namely to stack the deck in the favor of large operations. As Pollan points out, food safety is more likely to come from a system that allows many suppliers rather than a system that allows few. For proof, just look at the widespread food recalls of recent times. Remove the barriers and let the market dictate who is supplying quality and who isn’t.

The local movement is in full swing. Farmer’s markets are popping up everywhere, bringing fresh local produce to all areas of our cities, even the poor areas. Pollan proposes having card readers that double the value of the food stamps when used at farmer’s markets. I like the idea of allowing farmer’s markets to accept food stamps. I don’t like the idea of doubling the value. Our welfare system is already in serious need of reform. The last thing we need to do is throw it further out of whack. But allowing the poor access to nutritious foods from local farmers is far better than restricting them to the grocery where dollars often go to high-calorie, high-sugar, processed garbage.

Eating locally means we all come to understand the natural growing seasons of our foods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t eat anything from other places. Trade has long been a part of civilization and some of us just can’t get certain items in our area. For instance, no one grows avocados or olives here in Kentucky that I’ve found. So when I want them, I purchase them at Kroger. Seafood is obviously flown in, as well.

Returning To The Farm
Pollan calls for a return to sun-based farming, rather than relying on our current system of confinement feeding operations and monocropping. I’m sure most of us here are big proponents of this. Milk and meat from grass-fed and pastured animals not only tastes better, but is more nutritious. The fatty-acid profiles are better, more “natural” if you will. The animals aren’t loaded up with antibiotics and hormones. Organic produce contains more vitamins than non-organic produce.

This move means returning power to small farmers and undoing policies that remove the free market from the equation. It means putting policies in place to raise animals and produce in polyculture, using the waste of one as fertilizer for the other. Argentina pulls off raising nothing but grass-fed meat in rotation with other crops. Why can’t we? Why do we penalize farmers for growing crops that aren’t in The Big Three?

What Pollan proposes is cycling fruits, vegetables, and commodity crops. The real problem that I see with this is that it requires knowledge that may not exist widely any longer and labor that has moved to the city. It would require a hefty investment in education for the kids that are leaving the farms for the glamour of the city life. And I’m just not sure how that’s going to happen. The biggest issue is really one of motivation: are people motivated to choose farming as a profession when there’s better money to be made to pursue the American Dream?

The Wrong Focus
Part of how we got here is by focusing on calories rather than on nutrition. We can produce loads and loads of calories, primarily from the aforementioned commodity crops. Soy is turned into cheap protein and fat. Corn is turned into cheap sugar and fat. Wheat becomes the base for nearly everything that comes in a package. Between the three crops, it’s virtually impossible to pick up a pre-made food that doesn’t contain one of them.

This same focus on calories drives our school lunch program.

Even food-assistance programs like WIC and school lunch focus on maximizing quantity rather than quality, typically specifying a minimum number of calories (rather than maximums) and seldom paying more than lip service to nutritional quality. This focus on quantity may have made sense in a time of food scarcity, but today it gives us a school-lunch program that feeds chicken nuggets and Tater Tots to overweight and diabetic children.

Perhaps the focus should be on producing food rather than merely calories. Looking at the waistlines of my fellow Americans, it’s obvious that we have more than enough calories, and unfortunately mostly of the wrong type.

Creating A Food Culture
I’ve pointed out before that what the United States really lacks, the root of many of our problems, is no real history of a food culture due to our nation’s youth (that is, we’re only 200 years old, not the actual youth of the nation). While Mexico, Italy, Japan, and India have definite cuisines, the US seems to lack that. Our national cuisine is marked by fast, tasty, and not very nutritious.

Pollan proposes starting with the youngsters, improving kitchens in schools so they can do something other than preheat ready-to-serve processed stuff, and planting gardens in schools so kids can learn about real food. The President doing some local eating and gardening wouldn’t hurt things a bit. Practice what you preach. Can you imagine how much food costs could be cut if people tilled up one-quarter to one-half of their lawns and planted food?

Fossil Fuels
Pollan focuses heavily on the fossil fuel usage of our food system. From fertilizers and pesticides to shipping California oranges to Florida and Florida oranges to California, our food system is a prodigious consumer of oil. He proposes an idea that I frankly think is ridiculous: a second calorie count showing how much oil was used in processing the food. Seriously? And a second bar code detailing where the food comes from, etc? I think time would be better served getting people to stop buying so many bar-coded products and shifting them to real food. Getting more consumers of locally produced food will only make the shift back to the farm easier.

Can It Happen?
So I guess the real question is, “Can we make it happen?” Even if Pollan’s ideas aren’t spot-on, can we create a nation that is better able to feed itself from available resources, reduce our dependence on foreign food manufacturers and fossil fuels, and move forward (not backward) to a system that respects nature rather than fights nature?

Any other thoughts on Pollan’s Open Letter? Where is he right? Where is he wrong?

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