IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
The 2007 farm bill passed the House in late July, and now the Senate will vote on it sometime around October. Well, if you're not a farmer, why should you care? Well, chances are, you do care about whether your food tastes good, maybe you really love groceries from your local green market; or maybe you shop in a supermarket, you do care about your health. You want to be sure the food you're buying is wholesome.
The food industry has so much influence on government, farm and food policy, not just in the U.S. but around the world, that some people say the farm bill should really be called the food bill.
That's what my next guest says. Michael Pollan is Knight professor of journalism and director of the program in science and environmental journalism at University of California at Berkeley, in Berkeley. He - four books and articles and magazines. He's been - he just writes all over the place. He's a contributing writer. He's exploring food and farming and is also talking about the farm bill, calling it the food bill.
Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Michael.
Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Knight Professor in Journalism, University of California Berkeley): Thank you, Ira. Good to be back.
FLATOW: Thank you.
Dr. Marion Nestle has also written extensively about food. She is Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Her latest book is called "What to Eat." And she says that's what people are always asking her, what should I eat, right?
Dr. MARION NESTLE (Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University): Yeah. Eat. It's a good thing to do. Hi, Michael.
Prof. POLLAN: Hey, Marion.
FLATOW: Well, let's talk about the bill - let me start off, Michael, about the farm bill. Why is this bill so important? Why, you know, it flies under the radar screen as you write, and people don't pay attention to it but we should be paying attention to it?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, they don't pay attention to it because, as you suggest, they think it's a parochial piece of legislation involving special interest called farmers. But in fact, the farm bill is - really constitutes the set of rules for the entire U.S. food system. And it really determines what's in your supermarket, how accessible organic produce is, how accessible local farmers markets are, and really the difference in price between junk food and good food. You know, you can find the cause of that in the crops we choose to subsidize in the farm bill.
So it has an enormous impact on all of us. And once the rest of us who eat start paying attention, we might actually get a farm bill that gives us the kind of food system we could be proud of and that would make us a lot healthier and happier as well.
FLATOW: Let me dig into what you've said a little bit. The farm bill subsidizes just a few bunch of crops, does it not?
Prof. POLLAN: Yes, five crops. Commodity crops are the main recipients of the billions and billions of subsidies. And those are corn and soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton; four of the five, obviously, are foods. These are - they're called storable commodities, and one of the reasons they've always been subsidized is they can be stored. And they are, really, the building blocks of the food system, and increasingly so.
What's missing from that list, obviously, are any kind of fresh fruits and vegetables. Those crops that are subsidized are the ones that you can kind of break down into the building blocks of processed food. And corn and soybeans, which dominate snack foods and junk foods and sodas, those are the ones that we're supporting, with the result that some of the least healthy calories in the supermarket are the ones we're subsidizing the most. And the sorts of foods that, you know, public health authorities are always telling us we should eat more of, like fresh fruits and vegetables, we're doing nothing to help, or very little.
There are indirect subsidies to those crops, through subsidized water and things like that. And I'm not saying we should necessarily subsidize fruits and vegetables - that may not be the solution. But making these unhealthy calories so cheap is one of the reasons that we're as fat as we are.
FLATOW: You write in one of your commentaries that that's why Twinkies are less expensive than carrots.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, which, when you think about it, is amazing. I mean, Twinkie is an incredibly complicated product, with 37 ingredients and, you know, elaborate industrial processes. I mean, here is this miracle of food science that I want on my shelf, you know? Two years later, it's still soft.
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Prof. POLLAN: And how is it that you can sell that more cheaply than a bunch of carrots? Well, because most of the ingredients in that Twinkie are getting government help.
Dr. NESTLE: Well, don't you think that the issue here is that the farm bill itself is so hopelessly obfuscated nobody can understand it, it's enormous complex, and that even advocates for good food policy are at odds with each other over some of its provisions? I think what needs to be done is to break it down into much smaller pieces so that people understand what the issues are, but it's very, very difficult to do that.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, I don't think there's, you know, I think you're absolutely right, Marion. But I don't there's a whole lot of interest on the part of the beneficiaries of this bill or the congressmen most involved, in making it any easier to understand.
Dr. NESTLE: No, I think it's deliberately obfuscating.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, exactly. And in fact, there was a quote in the Chronicle by Collin Peterson, the head of the Ag Committee in the House, who was getting kind of annoyed that people like Marion Nestle was paying attention to her - to his bill, who said, you know, these city people don't know what they're talking about when they start talking about the farm bill. They don't even want us to have this conversation.
Dr. NESTLE: I think not, because if once you start having a conversation, you start looking at all of the issues and thinking, what on Earth is going on here and how on Earth are we going to do anything to fix it?
FLATOW: How did it start out? It didn't start out this way, Michael, right? The farm bill was a totally different animal when it started?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, you know, we started supporting farmers in a serious way during the Depression. We had a situation in the early '30s, where basically the price of agricultural commodities had fallen almost to zero. There was a great oversupply of commodities. We had kind of cranked up production during World War I. And there was too much food being produced on farms and not enough people with enough cash to buy it.
So to help the farmers who we, you know, we want to keep in business because we need to eat, the government started supporting them through a very different system of price supports. Essentially, the government would guarantee a certain price for corn or - well, not soybeans at the time - but corn and wheat and rice. And when the price dipped below that target price, which was really based on the cost of producing, the government would loan farmers the difference, would loan farmers the cost of their - the price of their crops, so they didn't have to sell it into a weak market. And they would keep the crop back. Prices would rise because supply had gone down. And then when prices went up, the farmers would either sell then and pay back the loan, or if prices didn't go up, the government would simply buy their crop, so they didn't have to pay back the loan. And they would then put the storable commodities in the grain reserve.
The government operated a grain reserve right into the '70s, and the beauty of that was - it was sort of like the strategic petroleum reserve we have now for oil. When prices were too high - as, by the way, they are now in corn - the government could sell a little bit to even out the market. And when prices were too low, essentially, they would buy more from farmers.
So you had the government participating in the market in a way that guaranteed the good price to farmers, stabilized crop prices for consumers, and, you know, the system wasn't half bad. In most years, it cost the government nothing because they were getting paid back, and there were actually years when the government was making money from farm policy. Now, they drop, you know, what this bill is $278 billion over five years.
So why we got away from that system is an interesting story. It really happened in the '70s because of the spike in food prices during the Nixon administration.
Dr. NESTLE: And also, the general coziness between the Department of Agriculture and food producers.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, exactly. And the people who…
Dr. NESTLE: And Congress.
Prof. POLLAN: …buy agricultural commodities, you know, Cargill, ADM, Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, they didn't like the system because it kept prices high. And they wanted a system, where essentially the government would just cut a check to the farmers, allow them to sell into a weak market and essentially allow prices to steadily fall, which is what's happened.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. And of course, now there's an impact with -because corn growers are growing energy, making ethanol, there's - and impacts the farms also.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, you know, ethanol is the big new wrinkle in the farm world right now. Since two years ago in the State of the Union Address, Bush decided to get behind ethanol and the government has started subsidizing it and requiring 10 percent of our gas be ethanol. The price of corn has actually skyrocketed. I think it's over three or four dollars a bushel right now. And this is going to have an enormous impact on the food system.
And, you know, there's a real question whether mixing up energy and food is such a good idea. I happen to think it's not. I think ethanol is really a bad idea for many, many reasons. But one of which is that it's putting enormous pressure on the food system. And I just don't want us to, you know, be devoting our arable land to feeding our SUVs rather than our people.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Hi, Rebecca in Ithaca, New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
REBECCA (Caller): Hi. I'm a small vegetable grower. We have a CSA, community-supported agriculture enterprise in Ithaca. And I'm just really interested in how the farm bill seems to be - it's like a nexus of so many issues in our culture, from the use - overuse of petroleum, over-reliance on petroleum, to obesity and diabetes in our kids. It seems like we're always subsidizing corporations rather than the little guy.
FLATOW: Isn't there something in the farm bill that will stimulate local farmers…
Dr. NESTLE: Peanuts.
FLATOW: …establishing direct markets to consumers?
Dr. NESTLE: Yes, small amounts of money.
FLATOW: Small amounts.
Dr. NESTLE: Really small.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, there are. There are - you know, there's some very positive programs that get slipped into the House bill. And as Marion says, the numbers are very small, but the pressure from activists was such that the bill did move a little bit, so that there's money to convert to organic agriculture. There's now - there used to be a rule that school lunch programs had to just simply take the cheapest food available. Now, they can favor local producers. That's a very important provision.
Dr. NESTLE: That's terrific.
Prof. POLLAN: So there's some good into there…
Dr. NESTLE: Let's hope it lasts.
Prof. POLLAN: …it's a real Christmas tree bill, though. I mean, the way Pelosi got it through was she really wanted lots of money for the conventional farm programs and - but in order to get that, she had to buy off some activists and buy off the hunger lobby, as it's horribly called, with some extra food stamp money, and that's really the history of this bill is, you know, cobbled together a coalition to get it through.
But it must be said that, you know, it passed with fewer votes than normal and there was more pressure for reform this year than they have felt in decades. And that's very encouraging because when the Senate takes it up, I think we may see a very different and possibly more progressive bill.
FLATOW: Right. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more with Dr. Marion Nestle, who is - latest book - her latest book is "What to Eat." We'll talk about how to choose what to eat, and how do you know where the food is grown - a lot of people are concerned of finding out on the label where the food is grown. Sometimes, you can look at an orange and see it comes from Chile or something. But what about these processed foods and what's going on with them, and people worried about eating Chinese-produced foods and things like that.
We'll talk more about that with Dr. Nestle. Also, Michael Pollen will be back and we're also going to bring on a gentleman who wrote "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements." Maybe you belong to that food movement. We'd like to hear about it. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about food, nutrition, farm bill, what to eat, with Marion Nestle, and she's with us with Michael Pollen. Let me ask, before I bring on my next guest, Marion, should people be concerned where their food comes from?
Dr. NESTLE: Absolutely. Without any question. One of the things you want to know is how far it travels because you can guess that if it's traveled a long distance, it probably doesn't taste as good. It's not going to be as fresh. And it may be something that was grown in a place where you're not quite sure that the safety standards were as high as you might like them to be. And of course, the recent Chinese incidents have played right into that.
Dr. NESTLE: Congress passed a country-of-origin-labeling bill a few years ago and then in its infinite wisdom, has postponed and postponed and postponed it…
FLATOW: Is that right? Yeah.
Dr. NESTLE: …except for fish in supermarkets, which is supposed to be labeled. But they're not.
FLATOW: So can you ask your grocer? You can ask…
Dr. NESTLE: Oh, you can ask that is - you know, it's one of the nasty things I like to do when I'm in a provocative mood is to go in and ask the grocer where stuff comes from. They don't have a clue.
FLATOW: But a lot of it, if it's off, say, out of season, it's got to be coming from…
Dr. NESTLE: Has to…
Dr. NESTLE: …it has to come from a place where it's in season.
Dr. NESTLE: So, you can, you know, they very proudly say that blueberries in November come from Patagonia. That's one of my favorite ones.
Dr. NESTLE: Patagonia grows blueberries, apparently, in December or in January and November. And apples from New Zealand are another one that I find extremely amusing. We don't grow apples in this country? Well, I guess we don't in the off season.
FLATOW: Is there any way to protect our selves from, you know, the E. coli or the other kinds of things that could spread on the farms?
Dr. NESTLE: Yeah. Cook your foods. That'll do it. I mean, that's one of the great advantages of cooking is it kills bacteria. Otherwise, you depend on regulatory agencies to enforce a system of food safety, or you depend on the industry itself to do it voluntarily, which I have to say is quite iffy.
Dr. NESTLE: Iffy.
FLATOW: If you're going to be that worried, you're not going to be eating out then because you have lost control of the track?
Dr. NESTLE: Or you just make sure you cook everything; everything is cooked.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.
Dr. NESTLE: I mean, the spinach episode was a very good example of what happens…
Dr. NESTLE: …and what's part of our industrialized food system. These things are going to happen more and more often if we don't have a better regulatory system in my view.
FLATOW: Why can't we just irradiate the foods?
Dr. NESTLE: It doesn't taste good afterwards. I mean, for a lot of foods, you just can't. And also, it's what I call a late-stage techno fix. What you're doing is irradiating dirty food. And as Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant secretary for agriculture, is quoted as saying sterilized poop is still poop.
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FLATOW: Michael, you want to weigh in on any of this?
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Prof. POLLAN: Yeah….
FLATOW: I didn't mean to bring you in on that comment.
Prof. POLLAN: I - no, not on that particular comment. I think it's true, though. It's the classic pattern of the industrial food system is that whenever it creates a problem, it comes up with an industrial solution, a new business to make more money over the mess that's been created rather than trying to go back to the origin and fix the problem.
I mean, E. coli, 15787 - the bug we're really worried about - is appears to be a, you know, a bug that evolved in feedlot cattle. And when you feed cattle something they shouldn't be eating, which is to say huge rations of corn, it acidifies their gut in a way that makes it hospitable to the evolution of this particular bug. And now, we have this bug and now we're going to make money irradiating this poop we've created.
It seems to me, you know, how much better it would be to kind of fix the feedlot system so that the animals do not harbor this bug. When you put the animals on - back on grass and hay, they're - the amount of E. coli in their gut diminishes something like 60 or 80 percent. Now, the bug is here and it's out and it's in, you know, lots of cattle and now we have to deal with them, the food system.
But knowing where your food comes from, I think, is vitally important. And the fact that we don't is that our food chain is so long and opaque that people have to guess, and it just seems like shameful. It's very simple information. We're entitled to information about our food. And any producer that wants to hide details about where the food came from or how it was produced is not a producer you want to patronize.
Dr. NESTLE: Well, the really scary part is they don't know…
Prof. POLLAN: Well, that's true.
Dr. NESTLE: You know, I've been dealing a lot - because I'm working on this book about pet food, and I've been dealing a lot with pet food manufacturers about where they get their ingredients. They don't know.
Prof. POLLAN: There was a wonderful article in the Times about a loaf of bread that Sara Lee had invented and it had something like, I don't know, 40 or 50 ingredients, which is a story in itself, you know. Bread can be made with flour…
Dr. NESTLE: Five.
Prof. POLLAN: …water and…
Dr. NESTLE: Five ingredients.
Prof. POLLAN: …salt and yeast. But it's gotten a lot more complicated. And they listed how many of those ingredients were from overseas and how far they had come from. I mean, essentially right now, something like ascorbic acid, Vitamin C, which is in lots of foods because it's an antioxidant, you know, is controlled by the Chinese. They control something like 80 percent of the market for that food.
So I think it's true. I think the food chain is long and global and a lot of people lose track of where things come from. And that is a problem because you can't count on - certainly in China, you cannot count on the regulatory regime in China - the real questions about the food coming from China, particularly the so-called organic food coming from China, which is now all over the supermarket, and there are real questions as to, you know, in what sense is it organic if at all.
FLATOW: Well, let me bring on my next guest, who has solved all of those problems by growing his own food, knowing where it comes from, and is the author of the book, "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements." Maybe he didn't realize there was an underground food movement or movements?
Dr. NESTLE: I didn't think it was underground…
FLATOW: Well, not literally. But here to talk about it is Sandor Ellix Katz, who practices, I say, what he preaches, growing his own food organically, of course, in rural Tennessee. He is a food activist and author of that book. He joins us from Nashville. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Mr. SANDOR ELLIX KATZ (Author, "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements"): Pleasure to be with you today.
FLATOW: It's funny that Michael is talking about bread because you have a really interesting part in your book. You talk about a growing but secret kind of club, a new way to produce, buy and eat food called the Bread Club. Tell us about this underground club.
Mr. KATZ: Well, I mean, I wouldn't call it a new way of producing food. I mean, it's actually a very old way of producing food. The Bread Club is a fellow who I met who lives on the West Coast in a city that I can't identify without potentially endangering what he's doing. But he built himself a really beautiful wood-fired brick oven, and every two weeks, he bakes about 100 loaves of bread and sells it to people in his town in the place - and what's illegal about it is that he does not have a licensed, code kitchen. In the United States, we've created a regulatory system which has made traditional small-scale cottage industry food production virtually impossible.
And, you know, the regulations are certainly appropriate to mass production, but they're applied to all food productions so that his, you know, pretty much made it, you know, impossible or very difficult for small-scale producers to exist. So he has gone underground in the sense that he is producing something which does not conform to the regulatory codes.
FLATOW: Why isn't he shut down?
Mr. KATZ: Well, I mean, he's producing something that actually is incredibly safe. I mean, you know, bread is baked in an oven. A wood-fired oven like that is, you know, 600 and some degrees when he breaks - bakes the bread, so that's actually a very intrinsically safe food. But, you know, it does not conform to the letter of the codes. And, you know, the codes all dictate what types of surfaces, that it can't be in a kitchen in which, you know, a household prepares its daily food.
But he is part of a, you know, a movement of people who are trying to produce food, really, in accordance with traditional methods and sell them and, you know, enjoy them in their local areas. I mean, he's really actually carrying on an ancient tradition and not doing anything that's particularly new at all except for the fact that it violates the law.
Prof. POLLAN: You know, this is going on all over the place, what Sandor's describing. And I was in a farm stand today - and I won't name where, but - on Martha's Vineyard - and I was offered - I was buying tomatoes - hey, we've got some raw milk in the back, which is, you know, I don't know whether it's legal or not to sell off the farm, but it's illegal to sell in stores in the state of Massachusetts.
And there is a growing underground food movement that Sandor documents really beautifully in his book. But they're different levels of safety involved, though, obviously, and I think bread is probably a very different product than raw milk.
FLATOW: Sandor, you do believe in raw milk, too, right?
Mr. KATZ: Well, yeah. I mean, I - this morning, I milked our goats before I came here to the studio. So I've been raising goats for the past 14 years and have had access to wonderful raw milk and I did not get into raw milk sort of through the underground movement, but I have definitely become aware of the underground movement, and it's such a huge movement.
I mean, it relates to some issues that you all were talking about a little bit earlier, and that is like do we use the techno fixes to, you know, make dirty food safer? Or do we create food that is of good quality in the first place? And I think that that's really, you know, at the core of this whole question of raw milk versus pasteurized milk.
Certainly, the milk that's produced by the methods of factory farming, we definitely need to pasteurize that because that milk is dangerous to consume and the pasteurization renders it safe. But what the pasteurization can't do is endow it with the qualities that the milk of healthy animals possesses.
FLATOW: Well, you know, I've seen this - I've seen the raw milk stories done on the local - on the media network news now, and people who drink raw milk just sing the praises of how much better tasting, whatever it is…
Prof. POLLAN: It's wonderful stuff. I mean, I - you know, when I've had a good source of it from somebody I trusted, I have indulged. And it's terrific. It does taste better.
Dr. NESTLE: And you lived to tell the tale.
Prof. POLLAN: And I lived to tell the tale.
FLATOW: And, Marion, there's got to be some legitimate concerns.
Dr. NESTLE: There are legitimate concerns, but there are legitimate concerns largely over industrialized milk or the milk that's produced. I mean, the main place where raw milk gets into trouble is in queso fresco, the Mexican soft cheeses. And they get contaminated with Listeria and it's - if they're not made well and if the processing isn't done right. And there are - have there been many, many examples of very severe illnesses due to contaminated raw milk.
And so - but, you know, I'm now blogging these days on whattoeatbook.com, and I blogged about raw milk this week. The responses that I've gotten to it have been some of the most thoughtful discussions of the issue that I've ever seen. I mean, I'm really kind of blown away by how thoughtful people are about this issue.
And one of them pointed out, you know, we have laws in this country that allow tobacco to be sold, why is everybody worried about raw milk, you know? And in the greater scheme of things, this seems like something that could be a matter of personal choice as long as it's labeled properly so that people make their own decisions about it, and the society isn't picking up the results of some terrible problem. It does cause problems.
Prof. POLLAN: But, you know, this…
FLATOW: Well, I…
Prof. POLLAN: This issue of regulating small farms and artisanal production that Sandor is addressing, I think, is really a key issue. And holding these small operations to the same standards that you're going to hold a huge meat packer or milk producer is having the effect of killing off what could be a very important revival of local food systems.
You know, when you talk to farmers, and you say what do you need to thrive -you know, people selling local food and raising local grass-fed meats and things like that - they're not looking for handouts. They're looking for some regulatory relief, you know? If you want to slaughter your own animals, you know, you've got to - you have to have a USDA-approved, you know, bathroom for the inspectors and…
Dr. NESTLE: One for men and women.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, one for men and women. And it's, you know, and this kind of - these scale-neutral regulations, as they're called, are absolutely killing this local revival. The farmer that I profiled in my book, Joe Salatin, just came out with a new book called - he's a wonderful meat producer and struggles with the regulators all the time to do what he's doing. He feeds about twelve hundred people in Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. His - the title of his new book is "Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal."
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Dr. NESTLE: Or fattening, I guess.
FLATOW: Hang on, Michael. I have to pay the bills. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Michael Pollan, Sandor Katz and also Marion Nestle. I'm sorry. Who did I interrupt first?
Mr. KATZ: Well, I just wanted to sort of throw in another absurd example of this, which is a couple of summers ago, a health - agriculture department inspector showed up at a farmers market here in Tennessee and they targeted the people who were selling - the farmers who were selling products like zucchini breads and jams and basically shut them down, and said that they couldn't sell those things without creating a special, code kitchen. I mean, these are the types of products called value-added products that have really enabled farmers to survive - small-scale, diversified operations.
And, you know, I think that, you know, as a society, we have big choices to make. I mean, do we want further concentration? Do we want bigger and bigger operations, monoculture, factory-style farming? Or do we want to create the possibility for a revival of local food production and getting more people involved in farming, which is really what we need to do? We don't need to be dependent on huge corporations for our food. We're all inherently capable of creating our own food, and we - and we're all more than consumers. Human beings are more than consumers, and more of us need to be food producers.
FLATOW: Let me - I have to go take a break, but let me get the call in from Gary in Minnesota. Hi, Gary.
GARY (Caller): Hi. Hi. I'm an organic vegetable farmer here in the heart of corn country. And what I've seen - we've been here now for five years, and what I see is I can probably count the number of small families on, maybe one hand, that are our neighbors. I can probably count the number of bachelor farmers on my two hands. And what I see, like, our farm being a CSA - we're a 200-member CSA - we're really trying of be a hope in this darkness. I mean, this is - there isn't much hope in a rural economy.
And these farms, you know, just keep on getting bigger and bigger, and this aspect of our communities, we've lost. It's dying. And, yeah, that's all I have to say. But I also wanted to thank Michael for bringing these perspectives into the mainstream press because it's really important for small producers like ourselves to hear those voices and to get those voices out there.
FLATOW: Do you have to pay a fee to be a certified organic farmer there?
GARY: We do. It's kind of interesting. I mean, we pay close to - I think, this year, it will be close to fifteen hundred, maybe $2,000, in order to prove that we're doing all the things that we're doing. Whereas, my neighbor, you know, next door, he owns hundreds of acres, you know, he gets these subsidies. I mean, I talked to him a couple of weeks ago and he was saying about how this new farm bill, he'll get, you know, close to $75,000 for virtually doing nothing. And so there's great inequalities. And Collin Peterson, you know, I'm in his district…
Dr. NESTLE: Oh, dear.
GARY: …and I voiced my concerns loud and loud and loud, and he did one exciting thing. He did have a local food dinner a few months ago, but, you know, I hear a lot of talk but not a lot of action.
FLATOW: All right.
GARY: And this is the - this new farm bill just shows that there isn't a lot of action on any of the congresspeople.
FLATOW: All right, Gary. Thanks for calling.
FLATOW: We have to take a short break. We'll come back and take lots more of your calls. Talking about nutrition, local farming and the farm bill - all interesting and relevant to us talking about food this hour, so stay with us. We'll be right back.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking this hour about food, farming and nutrition with my guests, journalist Michael Pollan; nutritionist Dr. Marion Nestle, author of "What To Eat," also out with a special edition of Scientific American this month called - an article called, "Eating Made Simple." So you might want to pick that article up. Sandor Ellix Katz, author of "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements."
Michael Pollan, did I leave out a book of yours you want to talk about?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, my last book on food was called the "Omnivore's Dilemma."
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Prof. POLLAN: Thanks for mentioning it.
FLATOW: That was a great book. It's a great book. So I want to give everybody equal time.
Dr. NESTLE: I'm using your book and Sandor's book in my class this fall.
FLATOW: You all have so many books out at the same time, so I don't know which book, you know - I only get one out every few years so… And I have one coming out in September also.
Give us a call. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Although, I haven't figured out how to interview myself yet…
Dr. NESTLE: Well, I'll help you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: 1-800-989-TALK - yes? Go ahead, Sandor.
Mr. KATZ: I would just love to sort of follow up on something that the farmer who called earlier was talking about. But I just like to point out to people that, you know, when you spend a dollar on food at the supermarket of - an average of 19 cents of that dollar goes to farmers, and the other 81 cents, the USDA groups together as marketing, you know, which includes transportation and processing and all those other things that, you know, happen to most of the food before it ends up at the supermarket.
But this is one of the things that makes small-scale farming operations not sustainable. When you buy directly from a farmer, they get the whole dollar, and that makes farming a much more viable profession. So if you're interested in, you know, supporting the growth of local foods and supporting farmers in your area, find ways to spend your money directly with the farmers. Go to farmers markets. Join CSA, community-supported agriculture, which is farms by subscriptions, and these are all ways that you can help support local food production by spending your money directly with the farmers so they get the whole dollar and not just 19 cents on the dollar.
FLATOW: Let's go to Mike(ph) in Kansas. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks. I, you know, I think growing your own food and patronizing local growers is a wonderful thing, but I just - being affiliated - having been affiliated with agriculture, I have a hard time seeing that feasible on any large scale. And I also think that, you know, given our goal should be to move people away from the Twinkie to the carrot as one of your panelists have said, you know, I think a more common sense thing to do is to be, maybe, focus on something like irradiation that takes a relatively safe product and eliminates a moderate amount of danger and allow this to take whole food and natural food and move it through the chain a little more safely, a little more efficiently.
FLATOW: Marion Nestle?
Dr. NESTLE: Yeah. I think most of the - I've heard that argument a lot about the productivity issue. And there've been some studies of it, and those studies show that growing things organically and sustainably can be almost as productive and really marginally different than conventional agriculture, but leaving the soil in much better shape, and the environment in much better shape. And maybe we ought to be looking at multiplying the amount of land that we're using for growing food, but doing it in smaller batches so that we're not talking about thousands of thousands of acres, but talking about lots more people doing smaller numbers of acres.
And I don't see that as being utopian or necessarily idealistic. I think there's a big science base that backs up the effectiveness of doing that sort of thing. And I think it would do a lot for rural America. I'm very struck, driving and flying in and out of the Midwest at how dead those small towns are.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Sandor, I'd like to…
Prof. POLLAN: And by the way, the - you know, the farm bill has a lot to do with that. I mean, the way we're - the fact that we're supporting, you know, these small handful of crops and the way we're supporting it, is leading to consolidation of all those farms. And it also leads directly to the emptying of the - of animals from these farms and onto feedlots. Because if you're subsidizing the price of corn and soy, you're making it cheaper for a feedlot operator to fatten cattle or pigs than it is for a farmer.
So you see how it's all connected. And, you know - and it doesn't have to be this way. And the idea of local agriculture and its limitations - you know, it was only 50 years ago, by and large, that most regions fed themselves. You know, that New Jersey was called the Garden State because it fed New York. And it, really, the rise of California as the vegetable and fruit basket is a fairly new development. And we assume this food system, this globalized and national food system, is inevitable and has always been this way. But of course, it isn't. It's a creation of very specific policies that could be changed.
Mr. KATZ: I'd also like to just address the issue of what is efficiency. Is efficiency the maximum production per hour of labor, which I think that, you know, the current system really does maximize production per unit of labor? But the other way of thinking of efficiency is maximizing production per acre of land. And most of the studies that I've seen have come to the conclusion that labor-intensive cultivation of land with polycultures - growing many different types of plants in succession on the same land - actually produces much more then monoculturing the same amount of land. So, you know, what type of efficiency are we looking for? And frankly, you know, land is the limited - is the fixed, you know. The amount of people to work the land would certainly change the equations of the cost of food. But if we're seriously talking about how do we maximize production on limited amount of land, labor-intensive methods absolutely can produce more food.
FLATOW: Well, Sandor, you have your own farm. You tell us you milked your goats this morning before you got here. What's your advice to someone who wants the freshest food but doesn't know anything about organic farming or tending goats or any of that stuff - but they still want that good fresh food.
Mr. KATZ: Well, let me, first of all, say that I'm not a farmer. I'm a gardener. I'm not attempting to sell the food that I'm producing to anybody. And I think that that's important distinction.
FLATOW: Is that the definition if a farmer? You sell stuff?
Mr. KATZ: Well, I mean, I would say that's one of the distinctions between a farmer and a gardener.
Mr. KATZ: However, I mean, I would say that, you know, anybody can start to grow some of their own food. If you live in an apartment in the city, you know, in a window, you can grow some herbs. On the, you know, in pots on the roof, you could grow some tomatoes.
Dr. NESTLE: I've got tomatoes on my terrace.
Mr. KATZ: Okay. Okay, great. But, I mean, you don't have to, you know, people sometimes are intimidated by the idea of, you know, growing all of their own food. Well, you know, nobody can just sort of start growing all of their own food. And I'm not even sure that it's desirable to aspire to total self-sufficiency. But, you know, the place to start is where you're at, and just learning how to grow something. And if you - and, you know, the next year, grow a little bit more.
There's a learning curve to all of this. Nobody starts out being an expert in all of this. But there are community gardening programs in, you know, pretty much every city. There are lots of, you know, public institutions there devoting space to community gardening. You can, you know, ask somebody you know who has some land, if you can grow some food on their land. There are lots of possibilities. But, you know, don't wait for everything to be perfect. Just start growing something. The only place to start is where you are at.
FLATOW: Karen(ph) in Sacramento. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
KAREN (Caller): Hello. Hello.
FLATOW: Hello. I didn't mean to scare you there.
KAREN: I live in (unintelligible) about three blocks from the capitol building. You actually answered my question. And it's part of what I belong to - is buying from the farmer direct. And we have drop-off points every week to pick up the vegetables and fruits and things that we bought. And they're always seasonal. So you adapt based on the vegetables (unintelligible) that you get. And it's been wonderful. And basically, the other thing you already addressed was being personally responsible for your diet and what you take in, and what you purchase and that. So, just thank you so much for this. Because if I can live in a city like Sacramento and - just so you know, we're really not the fruit-vegetable capital because half the things I go and buy, I go to the regular store. You know, like - when I mean regular, it's not the coop where it's organic. There are foods from Chile, I mean, fruits - oranges, apples -from every place but California. So we too are importing. So anyway, thank you very much for just the whole topic.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling.
KAREN: I appreciate it.
FLATOW. You're welcome.
Prof. POLLAN: You know, in fact, California exports tomatoes to Mexico and imports tomatoes from Mexico. I mean, there are a lot of absurdities in the system, where we're moving food around the country, you know, and around the world, sort of pointlessly. I mean, it makes an economic sense.
Herman Daly, the economist had a great line about this. He said, you know, we export sugar cookies to Denmark. We import sugar cookies from Denmark. Wouldn't it make more sense to just swap recipes?
FLATOW: But there's also another aspect to this. And that's…
Dr. NESTLE: The butter is different.
FLATOW: …the increasing the cost of moving the food energy wise.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah. It's temporary. I mean, I don't think that this globalized food system, you know, when it meets up with the end of cheap oil, will survive. And that's one of the reasons it's critically important to preserve our ability to grow food, both nationally and regionally, because we're not going to be able to move it around the way we have been doing.
You know, Sandor talked rightly about this, you know, our obsession with efficiency. But there's a second term that's just as important, and that's resiliency. And if a system doesn't have resiliency, it's very brittle and very dangerous. And that's the problem with a globalized monoculture-based agriculture. It will not respond very well when shocks come along, whether those shocks are, you know, the end of oil - cheap oil - or disease or whatever. And the way you have a resilient system is many, many sources of production, many, many crops on each acre. And then you have a measure of safety that you can't get any other way.
FLATOW: Sandor, what other underground movements - you talked about that bread store. What other things like that going?
Mr. KATZ: Well, sure. I mean, I think that there are a lot of different food movements, not all of them are underground. And I mean I don't mean to sort of glorify the idea of things that are not legal. But, you know, to give you another example of an underground movement, you know, according to some estimates, as much as half of the food that's produced in the United States goes to waste. And, you know, our whole system of, you know, sort of so many different foods being available at any different time sort of hinges on, you know, throwing away the excess. And there's a huge movement of, you know, people mining the food that's in dumpsters and, you know, and recycling those wasted food resources, you know, and to feed people who are hungry.
You know, we have, you know, all of this excess and it gets thrown in dumpsters and then at the same time, we have all these people who are hungry and don't have access to food. So, you know, there are all these people digging through dumpsters, trying to recycle that. And, you know, and frankly, actually last year, there was a case in Colorado where a fellow got sentenced to six months in jail for going into a dumpster and, you know, taking out food that had been discarded by a retail establishment.
Dr. NESTLE: Shades of "Les Miserables."
FLATOW: Taking about food this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in before we have to go. Let's go to Ken(ph) in Greenville, California. Hi.
KEN (Caller): Hello. Thank you very much for covering this subject, which is probably one of the core issues of our society today. Thank you so very much. And for bringing the people together, that you have discussing it.
My concern is specifically about what we, as individual consumers, as individual citizens, do to help this situation - I'm part of an organization. I do things myself. I'd be happy to describe some of those things, but also I'm most interested in what your guests have to say about that question.
Dr. NESTLE: Oh, join organizations that are working on issues that you care about. There are lots and lots of issues in the food movement.
KEN: Such as…
Dr. NESTLE: There's the community food security movement, there's the marketing - the anti-marketing to kids movement. There's the school food movement. There's the fix the farm bill movement. And there are many organizations that are working on these. You pick your issue and work on it. They are all part of the food movement today.
Prof. POLLAN: You know, the other thing I would just point out is compared to so many of the issues we confront in the world today, and the problems we have, this one is a lot more amenable to the individual doing something today. I mean, you get three votes every day - actually, four now. We're up to four eating occasions a day - I've just read. But to vote with your fork, essentially, for a different kind of food system and where you spend your money, we have seen, has a very powerful effect. We've seen the organic movement, which was essentially created by consumers and farmers connecting with one another.
The grass-fed beef and poultry movement also, you know, created with no help from any institutions. So that, you know, this is something - you know, you have this fundamental political power, which is what you're going to take into your body and what you're not going to take into your body and where you're going to spend your food dollars. So it is an issue all of us can start on tonight.
FLATOW: Are we going to see any real movements in this farm bill as it moves through the Senate?
Prof. POLLAN: I think we will. I think that Harkin - Tom Harkin, who's going to write the farm bill in the Senate, is determined to write a more progressive bill and to put some real limits on subsidies. And put money into something called the conservation security program, which will reward farmers for being good stewards of the land for growing sustainably rather than cutting them checks for, you know, for every bushel of corn they can grow. So, you know, he's going to have to then negotiate his bill with Collin Peterson's in the House. The history of farm bill is they get written behind closed doors in conference committee. So it's really important that citizens keep up the pressure, and simply by writing your representative and your senator.
You know, I talked to a lot of people in Washington and, believe it or not, that quaint practice really works. It really can silence the lobbying dollars when they actually hear from citizens, because they hear from them so seldom. And especially when these urban and coastal representative hear from people about the farm bill, they will stop doing what they've been doing, which is essentially trading their vote away, you know, for something else that they care more about. They have to realize that, you know, that eaters have a stake in this bill. And when they do, we'll get a better farm bill.
FLATOW: All right.
Dr. NESTLE: And it's really easy to lobby Congress. All you have to do is Google Contact Congress and up it pops. You don't even have to know anything. You could just send an e-mail and they really do count them.
FLATOW: All right. We've ran out of time. I want to thank my guests. Michael Pollan, Knight professor of journalism, University of California at Berkeley; Dr. Marion Nestle, author of "What to Eat," professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University here in New York; Sandor Elliz Katz is farmer - no, he's a gardener - sorry Sandor…
(Soundbite of laughing)
FLATOW: …author of "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements," a very interesting book. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.
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