Thought for Food
One evening in late November, my wife and I were browsing through the fare on the San Francisco public television station when we found ourselves at the beginning of an episode of Bill Moyers’ Journal. We do not ordinarily watch Moyers, but we were pleased to see that Moyers’s guest that evening was Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, whose article on food policy, whimsically titled “Farmer in Chief,” we had admired when we read it online in the October 9 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
The article was in the form of an open letter to the winner of the then-upcoming presidential election. Pollan’s starting point was that, although agriculture had not been a subject of debate in the campaign, the new president would soon learn that reform of our nation’s dysfunctional and vulnerable system of industrial agriculture was an essential part of any program initiated to solve the problems that the candidates did address, including national security, energy independence, skyrocketing health care costs, and environmental protection.
According to Pollan, the underlying weakness that makes it impossible to continue our existing food production system is that, although everything we eat comes ultimately from photosynthesis (the natural chemical process by which plants use the sun’s energy to convert atmospheric carbon to oxygen and food), industrial agriculture has become dependent upon the consumption of fossil fuels—for fertilizers, insecticides, farm machinery, and the transportation of food from farms to distant processing plants and markets. When we promote solar power, we ought to begin not just with innovative ways of producing electricity, but also with the re-solarizing of agriculture, that is, with a return to sustainable ways of producing food by abandoning crop monocultures and gigantic animal feedlots.
A More Rational Policy
A reasonable farm policy, Pollan believes, will include encouraging crop rotation to reduce the need for artificial fertilizers and insecticides. A related reform would be to return to raising farm animals on the land, where their wastes can fertilize the soil, rather than in gigantic feedlots, where their wastes provide only environmental pollution. In these lots, the miserable animals avoid fatal epidemics only by the large-scale use of antibiotic drugs in their feed, a practice that often leads to the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens, making the drugs ineffective against human diseases.
We can also, Pollan says, encourage the consumption of fresh vegetables and other produce grown near the cities where they will be eaten, rather than transporting them hundreds or thousands of miles in fuel-hungry vehicles.
Pollan argues that instituting a rational national farm policy would not mean replacing the efficiency of the free market with a regimen of government regulations and subsidies—which are aimed at maximizing the production of staples—because the present wasteful system of agriculture is itself the product of regulations and subsidies. There is bound to be a government policy for agriculture. It is simply a matter of replacing our current policy of encouraging the maximum production of staple crops like corn, wheat, and soy beans for a more rational policy that takes into account all costs of particular methods of production, including costs to the environment and to public health, as well as needless cruelty to animals.
In the Public Interest
Any radical change of policy invites the question, will the public accept the change? Pollan observes that change of the kind he favors is already underway in the choices of individuals and families, who in many cases are choosing to buy organically grown produce and to shop at local farmers’ markets. There are even pioneering urban farmers in such big cities as New York and Philadelphia.
A bold president who used his “bully pulpit” to make re-solarized food production a national policy would find a bipartisan basis of public support already in place. Pollan suggests that the president himself could set a powerful example by converting the south lawn of the White House into a vegetable garden and by allowing himself to be seen gardening and eating the vegetables.
Most of the Moyers program dealt with the enthusiastic public reaction to Pollan’s article, which led to a movement urging President-elect Obama to appoint Pollan Secretary of Agriculture. Pollan said he was not interested in the position, as he does not feel qualified to manage a giant bureaucracy. In the event, Obama named a former governor of Iowa who has a record of lobbying for corn subsidies under the rubric of ethanol production.
I am a skeptic regarding the reform of farm policy, because I know that politicians regard farm subsidies primarily as a way of buying votes in farm states, so the concept that farm policy should serve the public interest is alien to them. The appointment of a farm state governor allied with the interests of corn monoculture did nothing to quell my skepticism, but a colleague has told me that the new secretary has both the desire and the ability to achieve reform. What I would really like to hear is that Obama has read Pollan’s article and told his staff to read it and be prepared to discuss it. I can’t help being skeptical, but time will tell.
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“Thought for Food” first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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