RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President-elect Barack Obama has been busy filling remaining Cabinet posts this week. He picked a former governor of Iowa to lead the Department of Agriculture. Mr. Obama touted Tom Vilsack's credentials at a press conference yesterday.
(Soundbite of press conference)
President-elect BARACK OBAMA: As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision, promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.
MONTAGNE: For one view on Mr. Obama's choice, we called Michael Pollan. He's a leader in the sustainable food and agriculture movement, and he recently published an open letter to Mr. Obama, suggesting the Department of Agriculture be renamed the Department of Food.
Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Journalism, UC Berkeley; Author, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto"): Well, the basic premise of the article was that, you know, you're not going to make progress as a president on climate change, energy independence, or the health care crisis unless you address the food system because the food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases. It is responsible for the catastrophic American diet that is leading 50 percent of us to suffer from chronic disease, and that drives up health care costs.
So I was arguing for, yeah, making it a Department of Food, a secretary of food, and focus more on growing real food, diversifying our farms, re-localizing the food system, in order to address all those problems at once.
MONTAGNE: Back to the choice of Tom Vilsack. From what you know of him, is he a choice for change in the Agriculture Department and agriculture policy?
Professor POLLAN: Well, I was very disappointed in that news conference not to hear Vilsack use the word "food" or "eaters" and that the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is agribusiness as usual. That said, there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. Vilsack has spoken encouragingly about capping subsidies and using that money to drive a conservation agenda. That's great. He's talking about increasing local food production.
On the other hand, he presided over the biggest expansion of feedlot agriculture in Iowa. He passed a bill to take away the power of localities to control the siting of those feedlots or regulate them. He also took away the ability of municipalities to deal with biotechnology. So, you know, he's what you'd expect from a governor of Iowa. I'm hoping that now he will take a broader view.
MONTAGNE: Although, talking about making a great transformation in our farming industry, do you think it would be smart, even if it was possible, given that it would drive up the cost of food?
Professor POLLAN: Well, I think the first point you have to keep in mind is what has driven up the cost of food this year. It's the embrace of corn-based ethanol that has driven up all food prices. It's not making agriculture more sustainable. I also think that there is a lot of money to be saved by changing the food system.
Obama himself, when asked about how he was going to cut government spending last month, the one example he cited was, you know, our habit of paying huge subsidies to very wealthy farmers, and that. So I think that there's a lot to be saved in agriculture as well. I think if we could back off on ethanol, that will buy us a lot of wiggle room.
MONTAGNE: Although Tom Vilsack has been a great supporter of biofuels. Would you expect that to change?
Professor POLLAN: You know, Obama has been a supporter of corn-based ethanol. Vilsack has been a supporter of corn-based ethanol. I think what's interesting to watch, though, is that the new secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a pretty fierce critic of corn-based ethanol. You have a Nobel Prize winner explain to you why it's a bad idea and I would imagine will be arguing for moving away from corn as a feedstock for ethanol toward other crops. And hopefully those crops will not compete with food crops.
So the challenge is to move to things like crop waste - you know, trees, grasses that don't compete with food. And whether Vilsack and Obama are ready to go there remains to be seen, but certainly Steven Chu will be pushing them that way.
MONTAGNE: Michael Pollan is the author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto". Thanks very much for joining us.
Professor POLLAN: Thank you, Renee.
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