On Food and Politics

by | Oct 16, 2008

This week the New York Times Magazine—centerfold of the New York Times Sunday edition—was dedicated to my favorite subject, food. As grain prices continue to rise and food safety comes under increasing scrutiny, food politics has emerged as a volatile, heated topic in the United States and around the globe.

In this issue Michael Pollan, best-selling author and UC Berkeley professor of journalism, pens an open letter to the next president of the U.S., “Farmer In Chief,” addressing the issue of food policy and painting it as a critical component of national security.

Pollan begins by pointing out the notable absence of food policy from the campaign trail and suggests that the time has come to give it due attention, because food will inevitably be central to the agenda of the next White House administration. The reason, he argues, is because our entire system of food production and distribution is critically dependent on inexpensive fuel, a luxury we “can no longer count on.” Furthermore, without crafting a new, sustainable agriculture and food policy the next administration will be unable to make meaningful progress on issues that have been central to the campaigns: energy independence, health care and climate change.

Our food system is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gases emitted by the U.S.—as high as 37 percent—thanks to agriculture practices, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, packaging, processing, distribution and those stinky cows. It is also the second largest consumer of fossil fuels—second only to automobiles—since chemical fertilizers are made from natural gas and pesticides from petroleum. As Pollan bluntly states, “when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

This same food system is also a significant contributor to our nation’s current health care crisis, as the largest increases in expenses are coming from diet-induced chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke (hypertension), type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Pollan asserts that a new food agenda is necessary for global trade as well, since cheap industrial food has caused the collapse of agriculture economies in dozens of developing countries. International trade will be stymied because these nations will now be forced to close their doors to American goods in order to rebuild their own systems.

In other words, food is a national security issue that is central to meeting the needs of the 21st century.

But while Pollan describes the current state of the agriculture and food industries as a crisis, he also strikes an unambiguous note of optimism by emphasizing this as a time of tremendous opportunity that can be seized by the incoming administration. Pollan proposes several goals for the new food agenda, with the primary message being that “we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.”

Our current system, Pollan argues, is not a product of free market enterprise, but rather reflects government policies that have supported quantity over quality from farmers. Massive government subsidies reward high output from the corn, soy bean, wheat and rice industries, resulting in artificially low food prices. Subsidies also discourage farmers from growing more diverse crops, while petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers allowed for the creation of vast monocultures on U.S. farms. Combined, these forces have dramatically increased U.S. agriculture productivity with just a handful of different crops.

This government-sponsored increase in production flooded our economy with artificially cheap processed grains and ultimately, cheap meat. The shift to monocultures on farms forced animals like cows to be moved off the land to feedlots. There cattle are bred to consume the inexpensive surplus grain (traditionally cows feed on grass), and undergo unnaturally quick weight gain.

The removal of animals from the farm has had several unfortunate side effects, not the least of which is the transformation of animal waste from a valuable fertilizer to an environmental pollutant. It also meant animals needed to start being treated with antibiotics “in order to survive their crowded, filthy and miserable existence.” Note that it is precisely these unsanitary feedlot conditions that lead to food safety issues such as E. coli outbreaks in our meat supply, as well as outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Thus Pollan recommends the new administration focus on 1) Providing a healthy diet for everyone by advancing quality and diversity (rather than simply quantity) in growing practices, 2) Aiming to improve safety, security and resilience in our food supply by promoting regional, de-centralized food economies, and 3) Supporting agriculture as a solution to environmental problems such as pollution and climate change.

He goes on to outline an extensive agenda designed to answer these concerns. Key to Pollan’s proposal is shifting government subsidies away from monoculture crops to rewarding farmers for crop diversity and year-round farming practices (currently farms lay dormant from October to April). He also recommends the Food and Drug Administration ban the use of antibiotics in feedlots, thereby encouraging ranchers to use healthier and more environmentally friendly practices.

Pollan directly addresses the question of whether these new policies will be able to meet global food demands and admits that the future is uncertain, since such sweeping changes have never been tried. However he makes a compelling case that his policies can work, and that failing to try is not a practical option.

He argues that organic farmers today can produce nearly 80 to 100 percent yield compared to conventional farms on normal years and even exceed conventional farm production in drought years (since organic soil is more resilient). Moreover, worldwide production does not yet match that of organic farmers in the U.S., so there is much room for improvement globally.

But yield does not need to be the primary concern, because currently many of the calories produced in the U.S. are devoid of nutrients, such as those from high fructose corn syrup (from corn) and trans fat (from soy oil). Additionally, 40 percent of U.S. grain output is fed to animals (cattle, not humans) and 11 percent of the corn and soy bean crop is “fed to cars and trucks, in the form of biofuels.” Reducing demand for these items increases the amount of food available for human consumption.

Importantly, Pollan acknowledges that sweeping changes must be made in every step of the food chain, from farming to distribution to the American dinner plate. A new food culture must be developed in our nation and this effort ought to be headed by the new White House administration and the first family.

Pollan invokes images of President Reagan’s T.V. trays and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden on the White House lawn, urging the next president to step up and present his own family as an example for 21st century habits that the United States and the rest of the world must learn to embrace.

UPDATE: This article can also be found at Synapse.

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One Response to “On Food and Politics”

  1. Jed Wolpaw says:

    My thoughts in no particular order are:1. Stymied is a fantastic word2. You might have hurt some cows feelings by calling them stinky3. I think Michelle Obama’s victory garden on the front lawn of the White House should be in the shape of a V…you know, for victory.4. I think if your name is Pollan you have to seriously consider writing about flowers or bees, and since bees make honey which is a kind of food then food counts too. 5. Which reminds me how about an all honey diet? Don’t knock it till you try it.6. I wonder if the New York Times knows they have a centerfold because if not they would probably appreciate it if someone told them so they could use it in their advertisements.

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