This weekend’s New York Times Magazine is an all-food issue and features an an open letter by Michael Pollan (An Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) to America’s future President detailing the fundamentals of 21st Century food policy. The current instability in the U.S. and world economy has had a ripple effect on all industries, but food policy seems to be the last thing on people’s minds.
The crux of the Pollan’s argument is that while health care, energy independence, and climate change are hot-button campaign issues, progress can’t be made on any of those issues without considering the impact of how America grows, process and eats food.
For example, on the issue of greenhouse gases, Pollan says:
…the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.
Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis—a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.
Pollan’s letter outlines his three-pronged plan to help stabilize and reenergize American food policy and culture. Excerpts include:
I. Resolarizing the American Farm
Your challenge is to take control of this vast federal machinery and use it to drive a transition to a new solar-food economy, starting on the farm. Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops”—farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. (This rule was the price exacted by California and Florida produce growers in exchange for going along with subsidies for commodity crops.) Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops—including animals—as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.
II. Reregionalizing the Food System
A decentralized food system offers a great many other benefits as well. Food eaten closer to where it is grown will be fresher and require less processing, making it more nutritious. Whatever may be lost in efficiency by localizing food production is gained in resilience: regional food systems can better withstand all kinds of shocks. When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is obvious: decentralize it.
III. Rebuilding America’s Food Culture
Changing the food culture must begin with our children, and it must begin in the schools. Nearly a half-century ago, President Kennedy announced a national initiative to improve the physical fitness of American children. He did it by elevating the importance of physical education, pressing states to make it a requirement in public schools. We need to bring the same commitment to “edible education”—in Alice Waters’s phrase—by making lunch, in all its dimensions, a mandatory part of the curriculum. On the premise that eating well is a critically important life skill, we need to teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals.
Our agenda puts the interests of America’s farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry’s. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more “populist” or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd. Yes, sun food costs more, but the reasons why it does only undercut the charge of elitism: cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence (both of which we will end), not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced—it is in fact unconscionably expensive.
The article is very long, but like all of Pollan’s writing, it’s eye opening and well worth the read.