I don’t often print out long documents, but after working online most of yesterday, I transferred from the internet to some scrap paper this thirteen-and-a-half page letter, published October 12 in the New York Times Magazine, and settled into a hot tub to soak and read.
The main argument of Pollan’s correspondence addressed to the future president and “Farmer-in-Chief” is that we cannot solve those three major crises of global warming, health care, and energy without first recognizing that our current food system has contributed to them, and that an overhaul of that food system will be necessary to alleviate them.
The candidates, he argues, have been campaigning and speechifying on these three crises extensively, but these crises have in some part been caused, and in large part been exacerbated by our global food system and the first world’s (and especially the United State’s) fast-food culture.
Too, the government policies of the last several decades are implicated in the coming (and in many places current) food crisis. Pollan points to the huge monocultures of the midwestern landscape, the reeking feedlots, the chemical fertilizer industry, and the fencerow-to-fencerow planting policies of Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, all as disastrous pieces of our quantity-over-quality, cheap-but-empty-calorie, contamination-prone, oil-gobbling food supply jigsaw puzzle.
I could not agree more with Pollan’s assessment of the food crisis, that has thusfar mostly been felt in this country by a frightening rise in food prices on the grocery store shelves. I’ve written about those prices, and about how local farmers are now able to compete with them instead of basing their produce prices off those at the grocery store, in my article, “Changing Pricing Strategies in Farmers Markets,” published in the current edition of Farmers Markets Today.
The cheap energy (and government subsidies for shipping costs) that once made it difficult for local farmers to compete with products shipped in from thousands of miles away is now history. Pollan asks the future Farmer-in-Chief to consider that, although the old policies
are in a shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute[…]The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation. [Pollan, Michael. “Farmer in Chief.” New York Times Magazine, 12 October 2008]
Pollan advocates a return to polycultural farms that rely less on the outside inputs of chemical fertilizers. Taking the animals off the farm and raising them in CAFOs created two problems: lack of fertility on the farm and animal waste disposal issues at the CAFOs. Pollan advocates putting the two back together, further advocates use of sustainable farming practices such as cover-cropping and composting, and suggests we “make municipal composting of food and yard waste mandatory.”
There are further recommendations here, and I agree with most all of them–especially about how diversifying and localizing food systems is safer, healthier, and just plain better for producers and consumers alike, but I think in a couple respects, Pollan goes a bit too far:
The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on the screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced.
The argument here is that the eating public is ignorant, and they shouldn’t be allowed to be ignorant. While it’s hard to disagree with Pollan on the first part, it’s also hard to argue with people who just want to eat a burger and not be assaulted by stories and images of every ingredient under the bun.
Too, the slaughtering process isn’t pretty no matter how you slice it, and while showing those images might be edifying, and might also in some part alleviate our obesity epidemic, it’s not going to help the local meat-producers or processors to have electronic images of bleeding-out carcasses attached to their products.
If Pollan wants to see us return to a culture where food is whole, real, and fresh, and is purchased in the region where it was produced, and is raised by a real farmer you can actually shake hands with, then isn’t that by definition a culture where food doesn’t carry even one bar code, never mind two? Processed foods with multiple ingredients might then become suspect, and consumers more prone to read labels. But, if they’re not reading the labels now, one can’t assume they’d be interested in scanning that second barcode into their cell phones.
Another part of the discussion that I am troubled by is Pollan’s assertion that food is too cheap and we should be spending a larger portion of our family incomes on food. I’ve heard Pollan say this before, and to a certain extent I agree: recently, when a customer at the Farmers Market told me that my canned dilly beans were too expensive (they were $3.50/pint), I responded that I grow the beans, and I grow the dill and the garlic, and I prepared and processed them myself, so I know how much they’re worth. She bought them, and she convinced another couple to buy a jar, too.
But. And this is huge. While you can say that the cost of food should reflect the full price of its production, shipping, packaging–everything that goes into it, it is a lot more politically tricky to say that food should be more expensive–especially in tough economic times. Foods that are produced and processed locally can reflect that true cost without being outrageously-priced, which I believe is Pollan’s point.
The next “Farmer in Chief” would do better to follow Pollan’s other advice–tearing out a chunk of the South Lawn to grow a White House Victory Garden, and encouraging others to turn their lawns to food production as well, rather than to tell cash-strapped citizens that in addition to emptying their pocketbooks at the pump, they should also be paying more for their organic arugula, er, “rocket.”
Read the full text of Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” letter here.