Michael Pollan on what the candidates aren’t talking about: Food

Michael Pollan had a fantastic article in the NYTimes magazine earlier this month entitled Farmer in Chief. If you haven’t heard of Michael Pollan before, go pick up a copy of the Omnivore’s Dilemma immediately. It has been garnering a lot of buzz for a few years now and in that book Pollan does an amazing job of making the politics of industrial agriculture interesting. A large portion of that book focuses on how corn is at the center of almost everything we eat and how the government influenced this change in the national diet.
In Farmer in Chief, Pollan outlines an impressive food policy for the new administration. He explains how everything from farmers markets, to an official definition of the word “food” to who is chosen as the White House chef could make an impact on the global culture of food and the future of climate change. Check out the full piece here. It’s long, but worth the read.
Some highlights:

It is one of the larger paradoxes of our time that the very same food policies that have contributed to overnutrition in the first world are now contributing to undernutrition in the third.
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. The American people are paying more attention to food today than they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken.
If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.
More recently, cheap energy has underwritten a globalized food economy in which it makes (or rather, made) economic sense to catch salmon in Alaska, ship it to China to be filleted and then ship the fillets back to California to be eaten; or one in which California and Mexico can profitably swap tomatoes back and forth across the border; or Denmark and the United States can trade sugar cookies across the Atlantic.

: Obama actually did reference Pollan’s letter, check out his comments here.

Thanks to Mike T for the link

Join the Conversation

  • Rachel

    As a food historian and also one who is health-conscious in general, I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan. Be sure to also check out a 20-minute related interview with him on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate show. Interview audio available here.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    This was a great article. When this whole oil crisis started one of my reactions was, “well maybe this will be the impetus we needed to advance the real changes that are so desparately needed in agriculture.” My friends thought this was a little harsh, and maybe it was, but I still stand by it. What else is going to prompt the profound systemic change we need?
    All the rest of the Rachels on Feministing can now feel free to comment on this post :D

  • http://litcritter.blogspot.com MikeT

    Actually, one of the candidates has talked about it.

  • ageofsolar

    Ugh, Michael Pollan. Being an animal rights vegan, I have huge issues with him. I mean, I’m glad someone is touching on the issues…but that is all he is doing. We haven’t even begun to start talking about food.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    Ooh, this is the first time I’ve responded to a comment! Yeah, I agree, but am glad that somebody’s finally acknowledging how dependent we are on cheap oil and how bad conventional agriculture is for the environment. It’s a start, anyway.

  • Grace

    Obama has also talked about food some before, when people have asked him about it–here’s a post about his response to a vegan’s question about factory farming/the environment back in August

  • Melinda

    There’s actually quite a bit out there in aggie-land. I posted some earlier but it appears to have been moderated (maybe it looks like spam?). Anyway, if you go to places like Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture, Whiskey Burn, the DTN Ag Policy Blog, and so on you can find some stuff. Over the summer Tiller posted a couple of things covering both candidates’ positions on agriculture in reasonable detail.

  • Melinda

    Speaking of which, there’s a new post over at Whiskey Burn (I’d post a URL but I don’t want to be moderated again – Google’s your friend) answering the question “Should we look forward to Obama?” He frames the answer in terms of appointments, and closes with “Obama may not appoint sustainable ag angels, but on the whole it would no doubt be a serious improvement.”

  • MoonPie

    So excited to see feministing covering food sustainability issues. Internationally, agricultural policy disproportionally affects women, particularly in terms of labor and health. Obama has addressed the need to change food systems more than anyone in the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt!

  • Melinda

    Hi, Moon Pie – two words for you: “Earl” and “Butz.” Mind you he took the USDA and American food policy in a terrible, terrible direction. Robert Bergland was an excellent, activist Secretary of Agriculture but nobody remembers Ag Secretaries except farmers and you might not have heard of him (he worked for Carter). Whiskey Burn is 100% right that presidential food policies come down to who they appoint to key positions, so keep an eye on what he does with the Department of Agriculture. And, of course, write letters.

  • Rachel_in_WY

    Mmm, now I want one of those cookies.

  • dedqgirl

    you know, this may sound trite, but i’m impressed that one of the candidates is actually paying attention to the media. he references the article and acknowledges the merit of what the author has to say. this tells me that unlike our current president, he will actually hear the people when they have something to say….

  • the15th

    Pollan is very big on calling for massively time-consuming changes to how the average American prepares food, not so big on exploring who might be expected to do all this extra work. Except for making a lot of references to “Mom” as the natural arbiter of food culture. I wish feminists would look at him a bit more critically.

  • A male

    This was impressive. I hope an agricultural policy will also look into sustainable ways of utilizing water, as well as energy. There are various ways to produce energy. In a worst case scenario, people could rely on human power and small scale production, as do many traditional farmers in modern day Japan. But as one local utility company says: Water has no substitute. Much of America’s breadbasket relies on groundwater irrigation. For example, see
    “About 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States overlies this aquifer system, which yields about 30 percent of the nation’s ground water used for irrigation. In addition, the aquifer system provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundary.”
    However, due to the modern rate of consumption of this resource dating back to the last Ice Age,
    “The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at a rate of 12 cubic km (420,000 million ft3 or 9.7 million acre feet) per year, amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers. Some estimates say it will dry up in as little as 25 years.”
    Such realities as groundwater depletion and changing, unpredictable weather patterns which may be linked to global warming or even natural cycles occurring throughout the earth’s history, and more extreme dry conditions than those seen today,
    could mean the security of the food supply in the US and the world, is uncertain. As a single nation (not the EU), the US is the world’s biggest exporter AND importer of food. What happens if there isn’t enough to go around due to simple lack of rain, or putting corn into our gas tanks?

  • A male

    I like the Obama cookies.

  • A male

    BTW, from the Civil Eats site, with the photo of the “Obama cookies”
    about food security, production, and inequality as they relate to women.
    And for “slow food,” I liked the article on the “KFC challenge.”

  • southsider

    I’d like to respectfully disagree with part of what the 15th said. Who is supposed to do all the time-consuming work? Is it right to refer to “Mom” as the arbiter of food culture?
    Two important words: “food deserts.” This negatively affects women-headed households disproportionately. If you are carless or dependent on public trans, you find food at a corner store which is too frequently a lotto/liquor seller with chips and packaged food on the side. No fresh vegetables, no fresh fruit. This has got to be bad for our kids. When when a system puts women and children last, I do consider it a women’s issue.
    As new farmers markets finally open in less chi-chi neighborhoods, people are all over it! Yes we do want fruits and vegetables! Most of what we learn about food (men, women, children) is passed to us from women, and even the men who are good cooks will give credit to the women in their families who taught them. So I don’t think it is entirely wrong to portray “Moms” as arbiters of food culture; the problem is that “Moms” don’t get to control the food economy.
    As far as time-consuming tasks being dumped on women, the 15th is probably right. . . up to a point. Do you mean “time-consuming” for the consumer? It is not such a chore to wash a piece of fruit and boil water for oats/grits/whathaveyou (so easy a boy could do it!) and this is a better breakfast than a bag of chips or a candy bar and a soda from the corner store. ( I see kids at the bus stop doing this every morning and it makes me cringe. This is no way to start the day!) It depends on how much help you demand from your “family” (whatever your deal is) and what your priorities are. I don’t need a fancy food network meal: I need a head of cabbage and some beans, and I can get it on the table for you quicker than going thru the drive-thru, just like they said on Civil Eats. I think women deserve to eat healthy. The burden isn’t cooking the stuff, it’s getting the stuff.
    If you mean time-consuming (and back-breaking) for the people who grow/process our food, then maybe you are right. I need to educate myself more about this. Maybe I didn’t understand you. I mean no disrespect.
    If you don’t live in a food desert, then maybe you see this differently. But from where I sit it is a problem and it is a women’s issue.

  • the15th

    I don’t disagree with Pollan’s call for fresh fruits and vegetables to be more readily available. What I don’t like are his absolutist stance against convenience foods (anything with more than five ingredients is out, no matter what the ingredients are) and overall anti-technology sensibility. Then combine this with a total refusal to admit that he is calling for extra work. He claims that his recommendations aren’t time-consuming because it takes him only 20 minutes to make dinner. This is obviously false unless he doesn’t count cleaning and shopping as part of the dinner. Maybe his wife does these tedious tasks; at any rate, as a journalism professor, he almost certainly has more time to do these things than most full-time workers.
    Pollan’s references to “Mom” would be fine if he mentioned that women have traditionally been expected to do all the food-preparing work, and that this is unfair. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of him ever acknowledging that.

  • ava.meinguter.name

    Any calls for a reform of the food system which does not put a vegan system as it’s goal is time wasted.
    I don’t think “small-happy-farms” can work if they have to tend to non-vegans. The very reason soy, corn and wheat is grown as feed for animals, is because these crops are superior to grass. You need a whole lot more grass to get the same results as these crops supply to the animal exploiters. Since grass is less efficient, you need more land to tend to nonvegan consumers.
    So Pollan’s fantasies installed would mean a paradox: So many “small-happy-farms” that their mass and effects altogether would put a much bigger strain on the environment than effective factory farming. Factory farming did not appear because some evil people got bored. They are the result of the need of efficiency. That factory farming is much like the financial bubble is a different issue, I won’t get into the mathematics of evolution.
    However, we, and I say we as a German, speaking globally, need a reform way more radical than Pollan advises.
    The human population needs to embrace veganism not as we vegans have intended, as a shift in ethical consideration, but for far more profane reason: The biophysical limits of our planet.