Michael Pollan’s Open Letter to the next “Farmer in Chief”
In the October 12 New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan has written an open letter to our next “Farmer in Chief,” AKA President of the United States.
Calling for a new, higher, prioritization of food policy here in the US, Pollan writes, “you will find yourself confronting the fact that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.”
If the president ignores some important issues related to food, he writes, we won’t make progress on health care, energy independence or climate change. In terms of energy and climate change, a key fact is that the food system now uses 19 percent all the fossil fuels consumed by our nation.
As for the public’s health, Pollan points out that health care is so expensive due to what we all pay for preventable chronic diseases, some of the most prevalent of which can be directly linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.
“While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda,” he says, it’s come at a steep cost to public health. After all, you can’t expect to reform health care “without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.”
His overall point is that we need to transition our food system from one that is now heavily dependent on fossil fuel to one where sunshine is the primary source of energy.
His proposals are many (and most are not new). Among them:
Encourage farmers who now grow commodity crops like corn (much of which ends up as cheap high-fructose corn syrup) to raise as many different crops and animals as possible. The greater the diversity of crops, the less need for fertilizers and pesticides.
Reward farmers for planting cover crops. If Midwestern farmers simply planted a cover crop after the fall harvest, Pollan argues, they’d significantly reduce their need for fertilizer and down on soil erosion. Fossil-fuel-based fertility has been “cheaper” than sun-based fertility, but it has come at a cost.
Ban the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed beause it leads to drug-resistant bacterial diseases and to outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning. Factory farms should be required to clean up their waste like any other industry or municipality.
Make the case that paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals.
Train a new generation of farmers and help put them on the land – partly as an issue of national security. Nations that lose the ability to feed themselves will find themselves as compromised as nations that depend on foreign oil.
Preserve every acre of farmland we can and make it available to new farmers. Require real-estate developers to do “food-system impact statements” before development begins.
“All those subdivisions now ringing golf courses could someday have diversified farms at their center,” he writes.
Build the infrastructure for a regional food economy. As Pollan points out, when single factories are now grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week, the threats to the food supply are obvious. The best way to protect our food system against terrorist threats is also obvious - decentralize it.
Create a Federal Definition of “Food.” In the way we prohibit the purchase of tobacco and alcohol with food stamps, we need to “stop flattering nutritionally worthless substances” like soda, by calling them junk food — “and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind.”
Double the value of food-stamp debit cards for farmers’ markets, offer tax incentives to grocery chains willing to build supermarkets in underserved neighborhoods, teach all primary-school students the basics of growing and cooking food and then enjoying it at shared meals, plant gardens in every primary school, build fully equipped kitchens, train a new generation of lunchroom personnel to cook and teach cooking to children, etc.
The Surgeon General, not the Department of Agriculture, should have the job of communicating with Americans about their diet.
Public-health campaigns about the dangers of obesity and Type 2 diabetes should be as tough and as effective as public-health campaigns about the dangers of smoking: Explicitly talk about blindness, amputation, early death, etc.
Require that barcodes include amounts of fossil fuels and agrochemicals used in its production, and include descriptions of the animals’ diet and drug regimen.
Again these are just some of his many recommendations.
Do you agree with Pollan? Is there something specifically that you strongly agree with or disagree with? Are there people in your community already working on these issues? If so, tell us about them!
Also, you can take our short poll: