IRA FLATOW, host:
Up next, the next president and the food supply. It's been a long election season and by now we are all familiar with the issues, the economy, the war in Iraq, health care, jobs, the environment. The next president is going to have his hands and his plate very full, but missing from that full plate is food, says my next guest.
Writing in The New York Times earlier this month, he warns that the future president will have to tackle this issue, food and food policy could make or break the next administration the way we grow, produce, ship, consume our food, impacts everything, from the price of fuel, to climate change, to the costs of health care.
Joining me now to talk more about it is Michael Pollan, a contributing writer to The New York Times. Author of many books including, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." He is the night professor of science and environmental journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Welcome back to Science Friday, Michael.
Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto;" Night Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism, University of California, Berkeley): Thanks, Ira. Good to be back.
FLATOW: No one's discussed food at all in this election yet.
Prof. POLLAN: No. You know, you hear a little bit about it as the candidates trooped through Iowa last January. And there they bowed down before, you know, crop subsidies and ethanol, and make the usual noises, but since then, virtually nothing. Although, I do think that the President, whoever it is, will be surprised to find himself spending a lot of time dealing with the food issue.
FLATOW: How does food sneak into everything?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, it shadows, you know, three issues that they have been talking about quite bit, are energy independence, the health-care crisis, and rising medical costs, and climate change. That's what you heard about a lot at - during the debates, as well as the economy.
And once you - as soon as you try to tackle those issues, you find very quickly that you can't get very far without dealing with food. Because food and farming contributes mightily to our consumption of fossil fuel.
It's about 20 percent of the fossil fuel burned in this country, is going to the way we feed ourselves, and when you get to climate change, you discover that as - between 20 percent and 35 percent, depending on the estimate of greenhouse gases, can be directly traced to the food system.
Prof. POLLAN: It makes a tremendous contribution to climate change, not just CO2 but methane and nitrous oxide, which are actually even more serious greenhouse gases.
Prof. POLLAN: And then you look at, you know, our efforts to control health-care costs, and you discover that, you know, there are many reasons for high health-care costs, but one of the most important is the cost to the system of entirely preventable chronic diseases linked to diet.
Talking about, you know, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many types of cancer. So you're not going to get your health-care costs down, unless you deal with the catastrophe that is the American diet.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Michael Pollan. So you lay out a plan that you think the next President is going to have to tackle. To get us actually to - it seems in some of these cases to totally reverse course and get us out of the standard agrobusiness that we're in now.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, the food system we've had that has worked very well for many of us for the last - you know, really since World War II, and especially since the 1970s. You know, it's been successful in many ways. It's made food very cheap. It's taken food off of the political agenda.
Our leaders have not had to worry about the price of food. You know, it's an incredible thing that you can for less than what you would earn at the minimum wage in this country, you can walk into a fast-food outlet and get, you know, a bacon double cheeseburger, and a large soda, and French fries, that's kind of incredible. And that, you know, stands as an achievement of a kind.
The problem is that this food system, that miracle was achieved by adding lots of fossil fuel to the food system at every step of the way. And it begins with the fertilizer which comes - which is ammonium nitrate, which we make from natural gas. And then it passes - you know, it has to do with the pesticide. It has to do with the farm machinery.
Prof. POLLAN: It has to do with the processing of the raw materials. And you know, whether you like this food system or not, the fact is we can't count on the cheap oil it depends on. So, it's going to have to change whether we like it or not.
Prof. POLLAN: And the challenge, I think, to get ahead of this problem, which is when the oil runs out, so will the food right now, is that we need to resolarize the food system. I mean, as you well understand, but a lot of people forget, you know, every calorie we eat is the product of photosynthesis.
Food is the original solar technology. So, you know, we can grow food without lots of fossil fuel. Nature grows a huge amounts of bio mass without any fossil fuel. So the challenge is, how do you ring the fossil fuel out of the food system at every step, and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunlight?
That's really - that's the goal. And by doing that, you will solve many problems at once. You will reduce our reliance on foreign sources of oil and natural gas. You will reduce agriculture's contribution to climate change. And in fact, make agriculture a net remover of carbon from the atmosphere. That is possible, if you farm properly. And you will reduce health-care costs dramatically. I mean, it's about $250 billion a year...
Prof. POLLAN: Going to treat these chronic diseases linked to diet. So, it's kind of nice if you can pull this off. You can solve a great many problems at once, and you can actually improve the environment and improve public-health at the same time.
FLATOW: All right. Well, we're going to take a break, Michael, and when we get back, I want to get in to some of the details of what we need to do. What the farmers need to do? What the government needs to do? How we get back to a more solar-oriented agriculture system? And I want to hear from farmers.
If you're a farmer out there, and you like to do that, give us a call. Our number 1-800-989-8255. Would you like to change the way you're farming, became less chemical intensive, more solar intensive, and we'll talk about it with Michael Pollan how he says we might be able to do that. So, stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break. I am 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 am Ira Flatow. My guest is Michael Pollan, who is author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," also "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto," and a large piece in The New York Times Magazine, October 12th called "The Food Issue: Farmer in Chief," and it sort of an - written as an open letter to the next president, it says, dear Mr. President Elect.
And he goes on in a large way to talk about how we need to revamp the country's way of eating and making food, and one of the things you talk about in particular, is - you mentioned earlier, about resolarizing the American farm, and you've talk about the fields in Iowa in the winter. And how we need to change what's going on in those fields year round.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, one of the things the candidates may have noticed when they passed through Iowa last winter, is that the fields, for the most part, are black. From, you know, late October until May, when the corn and soy is not on the fields, there's nothing else in the fields.
And what that tells you, is that we're wasting a huge amount of solar energy. You know, those fields are vast solar collectors that we're not using. And why is that? Well, because our source of fertility on the modern, industrial farm is now fossil fuel, rather than crops. Rather than using cover crops to fix nitrogen as legumes can do.
And we have moved to this fossil-fuel source of fertility. We also used to have animals on those farms, and they were providing a source of fertility.
Prof. POLLAN: You know, that wonderful close cycle where the animals replenish the nutrients that the crops take out of the land, and the crops feed the animals.
FLATOW: So, you're saying that farmers need to bring animal there - not very separate, aren't they. You have either cattle ranchers or you have farmers.
Prof. POLLAN: Exactly.
FLATOW: Now you're saying we should integrate them back again into the family farm?
Prof. POLLAN: We need to, yeah. We need to depopulate these feedlots, and put the animals back on the farms where their waste can be a precious asset, rather than a pollution problem, as it is on the modern American feedlot. I mean, the big problem, if you want to, you know, simplify it, is monoculture.
I mean, that is really the original sin of American agriculture. Whether you're talking about a single crop of corn, or a single animal in a feed lot. As soon as you do too much of the same species, nature has a serious problem with that. You will, you know, diminish the fertility of the soil, because you have the same crop taking the same nutrients out.
And you will have lots of problems with pests, because pests love a monoculture. It just means lots of food for whatever the pest of that crop is.
Prof. POLLAN: So, the key really to resolarizing farms is to diversify them. To move from monoculture to polyculture. The model really is, you know, how does nature replenish fertility? Nature doesn't use fertilizer - fossil-fuel fertilizer.
Well, nature does it in two ways. One is the decomposition, the returning of wastes to, you know, the forest floor, which happens with the decomposition of leaves, essentially compost. And we need to do that too. I think we need mandatory composting in our cities, so that - and then we need to give that compost back to farmers.
And return all those nutrients we're now wasting.
Prof. POLLAN: We waste about 15 percent of the food we eat. And the other way nature does it is with certain kinds of crops, legumes, in particular, that can actually fix nitrogen. They can take nitrogen from the air, and because of the soil bacteria they have on their roots, put it into a form that is usable by plants, and then in turn by us.
So, basically, it is diversity and recycling that nature uses to essentially use the sun to replenished fertility. And we need to model those systems, rather than the factory model of just adding inputs like fossil-fuel fertilizer and pesticide.
FLATOW: Let's go to Berril(ph) in New Haven. Hi, Berril.
BERRIL (Caller): Hi, Michael, I think your book should be required reading for every single person.
Prof. POLLAN: Thank you.
BERRIL: I have Type 2 diabetes. I can't eliminate corn. It's all over the place. Corn is really bad, because it's ethanol, and it is also cows which give out methane on both ends.
Prof. POLLAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
BERRIL: I have a big problem with NAFTA, because they do not allow you to source the ingredients, and I've picked up apple juice at Costco, where the apples are from six or seven different countries.
And when you have a problem like we did with spinach and with some of our other salad greens, I'd buy guess what, it was a farm in Mexico, but nobody would just put an embargo on agricultural products to Mexico and you could have solved it.
FLATOW: All right, Berril. We're running out of time. I need to get a question or an answer.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah.
BERRIL: OK. I - can we expand your wonderful thing with the use of cows, and the chickens to make it economically feasible to feed a large number of people?
FLATOW: Yeah, can you expand that from a small farm to the whole world, and has anybody shown how you're going to do that?
Prof. POLLAN: And yes, I'm optimistic we can do it. There are two things that have to happen. One is we have to move the focus of our - all our agricultural research from this fossil-fuel system to a solar system. If we - you know, all the research we have done for the most part in the 20th century, to advance agriculture, has been based on an industrial model. It doesn't have to be.
That's just a set of choices we've made. In terms of scaling up, we have seen small farmers come up with incredibly ingenious polyculture systems. I've talked about them in my book, and we've talked about them on the show, that can produce huge amounts of food, from the small amount of acreage without any inputs whatsoever, without any pesticide, without any fertilizer.
So, we know it can be done. The question is, can we scale it up? And the most helpful model I know that has scaled it up, is if you look at Argentina. They have a very clever eight-year rotation, where they do five years of beef cattle on pasture land. And then, they break up the pasture, they till it, and do three years of grain, both corn, and wheat, and soy.
Now the interesting thing about this rotation is, first, in those first five years, they're producing what is generally thought to be the best beef in the world, completely grass fed, a very sustainable solar way to raise beef. Then when they start planting the grain, they discovered they don't need any fertilizer at all.
And the reason being that the five years of cattle on grass has built up enough nitrogen in the soil, to essentially feed the crop plants. They also find that - and by the way, I'm talking about farms that are more than 10,000 acres in size, OK. These are not little hippy, organic farms, these are big, industrial farms.
They also find that they don't need herbicides, and the reason for that is, that the weeds that would afflict a pasture cannot survive tilling, and the kinds of weeds that afflict raw crops can't survive in a pasture. So, you break that cycle, and that eliminates the need, or dramatically reduces the need for herbicides. So we can - you know, we have to look at a rotation like that as being a technology as brilliant as a genetically-modified crop or organophosphate pesticide. Those are the kind of technologies we need to develop, really clever processes, that will harness the energy of the sun to grow our food.
FLATOW: You're asking us to go back to the future, are you not, to pre-World War II type of agriculture?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, it is - you know, it is the future though. It is not back.
Prof. POLLAN: I mean, a lot of these rotations actually are - you know, have been recently discovered. The chicken-cattle rotation that I described in "Omnivore's Dilemma," where the - you use chickens to clean up a pasture in which cattle have been, and fertilize that pasture.
Prof. POLLAN: And the cattle stimulate the growth of the grass, and build up soil from the bottom. I mean, these are new ideas. They're based sometimes on traditional methods.
Prof. POLLAN: But I'm talking about a post-industrial agriculture, not turning back the clock.
Prof. POLLAN: There's a lot we know now about ecology, about carbon sequestration, about entomology, that we did not know then. So, I think it's a mistake for people to say that we're talking about turning back the clock.
Prof. POLLAN: But it is back to the future...
Prof. POLLAN: In that this is a farming based on some old principles that once were well understood.
FLATOW: HI, Richard, Ohio, welcome to Science Friday.
RICHARD (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call.
FLATOW: Hi, there. Mm-hmm.
RICHARD: And my question was kind of related to that crop rotation, was just when we're talking ethanol, wouldn't there be some - ethanol be able to be produced from like the fallow fields if we plant the correct crops, that they're in rotation with corn, instead of getting the ethanol from the corn, but whatever the rotated crop would need to be? I don't know what that one would be, but...
FLATOW: Let say soy beans for biodiesel, something like that?
RICHARD: Yeah, something like that.
Prof. POLLAN: Yeah, there's no reason you couldn't include some sort of biofuel crop. Although so far, you know, the ecology and economics of biofuels are actually not very attractive. Corn-based ethanol is a real loser from any measure. You know, whether you are trying to help with greenhouse gases, or reduce our use of fossil fuels, because it takes so much fossil fuel to make the ethanol.
And so, unless you're growing that corn in a sustainable way, you're really doing nothing for the environment by turning it into ethanol, except making people hungry in the developing world. But we will learn, I'm sure, how to make ethanol from other products, including crop wastes.
Prof. POLLAN: And when we can do that, it would - it might make sense to include energy in what we're doing in these rotations. But we're not there yet.
FLATOW: David in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Hi.
DAVID (Caller): Hi. I've got a question sort of related to Mr. Pollan's solarization goal. I - after reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" - have been trying very hard to find pasture-fed beef for its environmental and positive health effect. I find it pretty difficult, especially in restaurants to find pasture-fed beef.
My question is this. Does Mr. Pollan believe that we're going to be able to completely replace our current beef supply with pasture-fed beef? And if not, how much are we going to have to reduce our beef intake to eat only pasture-fed beef?
FLATOW: OK. Good question.
Prof. POLLAN: Well, that's a great question. You know, I think if we were willing to return cattle to the grasslands of the Upper Midwest in the High Plains, we could grow quite a bit of pasture-fed beef. The High Plains supported about, what, 60 million bison very comfortably, very sustainably.
That's less than the number of cattle we now have, I think we have about a hundred million. So there would some reduction, but you know, a reduction in meat consumption is actually something we need to consider from an environmental, as well as a health point of view. We - you know, we're - the average American is eating nine ounces of meat a day, that's half a pound per day and that is simply unsustainable.
Because whether those cattle are grass-fed or grain-fed, they are releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases. About 18 percent of greenhouse gases are attributable to livestock. So, I don't know that we can replace meat pound for pound, but we can - I'm glad you brought up grass-fed beef, because it actually is one of the more sustainable food chains, since really the sun feeds the grass, and the grass feeds the ruminants, and the ruminants feed us, and the ruminants replenish the fertility of the soil. And it is a very elegant food chain, yet it does still contribute to greenhouse gases...
Prof. POLLAN: And it does take more land and more time to grow beef that way. I think you will find grass-fed beef much easier to find very soon. Because as the high price of oil drives up grain prices, feedlot meat is going to get very expensive, and grass-fed meat is going to look relatively more attractive.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What kind of administration? What kind of leadership - of a person in the White House or the Department of Agriculture? Which direction is that going to come from? I guess, one will appoint the other. What kind of - it's going to take some real shaking up of society - American agriculture, where it is now, won't it?
Prof. POLLAN: It will, and it will happen gradually, but it will take some radical leadership on the part of the Department of Agriculture. We will have to reconsider the farm bill. You know, this piece of legislation that passes every five years, that basically writes the rules of the whole economic game, that is the food system.
Right now, the incentives in the farm bill, the crops we choose to subsidize and how we subsidize them, drives farmers to plant monocultures of corn, and soy, and wheat, and rice. And discourages the plant - it discourages diversity, because you only get rewarded for planting those very few commodity crops.
And in a million other ways, it encourages a monoculture agriculture. So to begin with, we need an agriculture secretary, and we need agriculture committees in both houses. Because right now, those committees are dominated by farm-block senators and representatives who are representing commodity farmers, and they are not representing eaters.
Prof. POLLAN: They are not representing the public-health interests of agriculture, and they're not representing the environmental interest of agriculture very well.
FLATOW: Let's just talk about…
Prof. POLLAN: So we have to change the composition of these committees.
FLATOW: I've about a minute left, Michael. This Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. One last question, why - farmers out there are saying, Michael Pollan has never plowed a field in his whole life. Why should I listen to him?
Prof. POLLAN: Well, because food policy is not just about farming. And that the interest of the eaters are as important as the interest of the farmers. And so, the - you know, we need to represent - we need a farm bill that's really a food bill.
We need a farm policy that really considers the whole food chain, and people like me, who are merely eaters and not growers of food, although I am a gardener, I would point out…
Prof. POLLAN: Are - have a very important voice in this process.
FLATOW: All right. Thank you Michael and good luck to you. And thank you for taking time to be with us.
Prof. POLLAN: Thank you, Ira. Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: You're welcome. We look forward to you in the future. Michael Pollan, whose latest writing is in The New York Times, "The Food Issue: Farmer in Chief," talking with us about food policy.