Acclaimed journalist Michael Pollan penned a detailed prescription for setting American agriculture on a path to sustainability and quality
by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell
Yesterday’s edition of the The New York Times Magazine featured an engaging essay by Michael Pollan, the UC Berkeley journalism professor and bestselling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food which explored the ways in which Americans eat and raise food.
His essay was in the form of a letter to the next President of the United States, whoever it might be.
Pollan contrasts the open and hidden costs of “fossil foods”—today’s monoculture system, dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides—with the comparable costs but far greater rewards of “sun foods”… a term by which he means foods grown with largely natural, fully sustainable methods.
We encourage you to peruse Michael Pollan’s essay, titled “Farmer in Chief”.
This enlightening excursion into farm policy and future possibilities offers a wealth of ideas and inspiration.
The following excerpts—re-printed here with Mr Pollan's permission—will give you a taste.
Excerpts from Michael Pollan’s new essay
His essay begins with the salutation, Dear Mr. President-Elect:
“Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought [to]... But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close… you, like so many other leaders through history, 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.”
“After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy—19 percent… the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do—as much as 37 percent… when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”
“Spending on health care has risen from 5 percent of national income in 1960 to 16 percent today… Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.”
“In drafting these proposals, I’ve adhered to a few simple principles of what a 21st-century food system needs to do.
- First, your administration’s food policy must strive to provide a healthful diet for all our people; this means focusing on the quality and diversity (and not merely the quantity) of the calories that American agriculture produces and American eaters consume.
- Second, your policies should aim to improve the resilience, safety and security of our food supply. Among other things, this means promoting regional food economies both in America and around the world.
- And lastly, your policies need to reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change.”
Pollan’s daring… and ultimately practical proposal
Michael Pollan’s proposal to the next President focuses on getting away from land-damaging agriculture that’s dependent on costly, polluting fossil fuels, and back to farming systems that rely on free, renewable solar energy.
“…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… If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food… 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.”
And he has answers for those who dismiss the ability of sustainable, organic-style approaches to do the job of producing good food that’s cheap enough to be affordable to almost all Americans… with or without food stamps:
“…the average yield of world agriculture today is substantially lower than that of modern sustainable farming. According to a recent University of Michigan study, merely bringing international yields up to today’s organic levels could increase the world’s food supply by 50 percent.”
“The power of cleverly designed polycultures to produce large amounts of food from little more than soil, water and sunlight has been proved… by… giant-scale operations (up to 15,000 acres) in places like Argentina.”
“There, in a geography roughly comparable to that of the American farm belt, farmers have traditionally employed an ingenious eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after five years grazing cattle on pasture (and producing the world’s best beef), farmers can then grow three years of grain without applying any fossil-fuel fertilizer. Or, for that matter, many pesticides: the weeds that afflict pasture can’t survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don’t survive the years of grazing, making herbicides all but unnecessary.”
“There is no reason—save current policy and custom—that American farmers couldn’t grow both high-quality grain and grass-fed beef under such a regime through much of the Midwest.”
“Federal policies could do much to encourage this sort of diversified sun farming. Begin with the subsidies: payment levels should reflect the number of different crops farmers grow or the number of days of the year their fields are green—that is, taking advantage of photosynthesis, whether to grow food, replenish the soil or control erosion.
“If Midwestern farmers simply planted a cover crop after the fall harvest, they would significantly reduce their need for fertilizer, while cutting down on soil erosion. Why don’t farmers do this routinely? Because in recent years fossil-fuel-based fertility has been so much cheaper and easier to use than sun-based fertility.”
Subsidies hide cost of unhealthful, unsustainable food
Pollan’s parting shot makes a critical point… that when you include direct subsidies, and the hidden costs of poor nutrition and environmental damage, today’s cheap, industrial food is costlier than the sustainable, solar-powered alternative:
“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.”
There’s much more to be gleaned from Michael Pollan’s excellent essay… we hope the next President reads it and takes it to heart.
- Pollan M. Farmer in Chief. The New York Times Magazine. October 12, 2008. Accessed online October 12, 2008 at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html