Michael Pollan Offers President Food For Thought In 2008, Michael Pollan wrote an open letter to the next president urging him to rethink the way we grow and eat our food. Fresh Air revisits an Oct. 2008 interview with Pollan.
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Michael Pollan Offers President Food For Thought

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Michael Pollan Offers President Food For Thought

Michael Pollan Offers President Food For Thought

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Last year, a month before the election, our guest Michael Pollan wrote an open letter to the next president urging him to radically transform the way we grow and eat our food. Published in the New York Times Magazine, the letter warned that unless food policy was made a priority, whoever was in the White House would not be able to make significant progress on the health-care crisis, energy independence or climate change. After cars, Pollan wrote, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy.

After Pollan's open letter was published, Barack Obama talked about it in a campaign interview with Time magazine, and there was even an online petition to draft Pollan as secretary of agriculture. Michael Pollan is the author of several bestselling books, including "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." He's a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Terry spoke with him last year.

TERRY GROSS: Michael Pollan, welcome back to Fresh Air. You would like to see the United States change its agricultural policy and its food policy. I think a lot of us don't really understand what the agriculture policy is. So would you lay out for us what you think we need to know in order to understand what's creating the problems that you've just outlined?

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Knight Professor of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley; Author, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals"): Yeah. You know, it took me along time to figure this out, too. Agricultural policy is one of the most obscure and possibly most boring corners of federal policy, but it's vitally important. And every five years, you know, we have this thing called the farm bill, and nobody much pays attention because it seems like a piece of special interest legislation for farmers.

But in fact, it really codifies the rules that govern the entire food economy in this country. It decides what kind of calories our government supports the production of and which kind it discourages. Just to give you an example, farmers receiving subsidies in the Middle West are forbidden under the farm bill from growing actual food, things like broccoli and carrots. They can only grow these few subsidized crops, like corn and soy and wheat.

So basically, if you could summarize federal food policy, it has been to drive down the cost of food and make food as cheap as possible. Now, that seems like an eminently popular thing to do. And it really took this turn dramatically during the Nixon administration where food prices, like today, had spiked. There was great food inflation, and there were women taking to the streets protesting the price of butter, and horse meat showed up in the butcher shops because grain prices had gotten so expensive. And Nixon got really nervous about this. With all his other political problems, he recognized, as all governments always have, that high food prices are politically perilous.

So, what did he do? He brought in as agriculture secretary Earl Butz - very brilliant, Purdue agricultural economist - and gave him the marching orders: redesign American farm policy to drive down the price of food.

GROSS: So when Nixon appointed Earl Butz secretary of agriculture, what did Butz do?

Mr. POLLAN: Butz set about encouraging farmers to move toward large, highly efficient monocultures(ph), mostly of corn and soy. Before that, you had a diversity of crops in a place like Iowa. But after Butz, you know, the hedge rows came down, the animals left the farm, and you had wall-to-wall or fence-row to fence-row corn and soy. He also encouraged farmers to produce more by essentially, instead of supporting the price of grain corps, he cut them checks, so that rather than keep grain off the market when the price was low, they would flood the market, and he would simply make up the difference with a subsidy check. He got rid of the Strategic Grain Reserve. He did a whole lot of different things to basically encourage them to overproduce, and it worked. The corn crop, just to give you one example, went from 4 billion bushels in the late 1970s to about 12 or 14 billion bushels today.

GROSS: So, in writing about how American food policy has encouraged the industrialization of agriculture, you write about how now animals are separated from farms, and that's created problems on both ends. What problems has that created?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, one of the interesting effects of subsidizing corn and soy and driving down the price of these crops and allowing farmers to sell them for less than it cost to grow them is that it sort of sucked all the animals off of farms in America and put them onto feedlots because owners of feedlots could buy corn and soy cheaper than farmers could grow it because they were subsidized. So suddenly, you have this - what Wendell Barry called once the elegant solution - of animals on farms with crops such that the animals replenish the nutrients in the soil that the crops deplete, and they close that nutrient cycle.

And you've neatly divided that solution into two new problems. One is, fertility deficit on the farm because there's no longer that source of nitrogen in the manure. And the other is a pollution problem on the feedlot because you can't use that manure when it's so concentrated on the feedlot. So the first problem, we remedy with fossil fuel fertilizers - again, putting oil onto our land, in effect. And the second problem, this feedlot pollution, we don't remedy at all. We just collect it all in giant lagoons which release methane and nitrous oxide into the air and contribute mightily to global warming.

GROSS: Also, in criticizing American food policy the way it is now, you say that it's contributed to the growth of big agribusiness tracks of land as opposed to a more regional food economy with smaller farmers and farm food being shipped to markets that are close to the area where the food has been farmed. What's the connection between the agricultural policy and the somewhat collapse of, you know, the regional food system?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, there's a couple of ties. One is simply the existence of all this cheap subsidized grain leads to bigger and bigger farms. I mean, if the price of grain keeps going down and you're getting a subsidy, it kind of make sense to farm more and more land, so you tend to buy out your neighbors over time. The margins are so small in agriculture that you - it's a volume business, so that encourages concentration. And also, we don't have a cap - we don't have a serious cap on subsidies. So until you have that, you're going to have farmers getting bigger and bigger.

The other problem, though, and this is not directly agriculture policy but federal policy, is we have not enforced antitrust laws when it comes to agriculture with the result that we have incredible concentration at every level - very few companies selling seed, very few companies selling fertilizers, very few companies selling pesticides. Four meatpackers are responsible for 84 percent of the beef in America, the same is true for chickens, the same is true for pork. We've permitted an incredible consolidation of the food system, and over time, the consolidation of farmers has kind of emptied out the farm bill. There are very few people left in the farm bill. So it's very hard to have a local food system when there's nobody left to eat it.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the ways you'd like to see farm and food policy change. First, you talk about resolarizing the American farm. What do you mean by that?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, food is the original solar technology. Every calorie you've ever eaten, Terry, was ultimately produced by a chloroplast in a green plant or an algae. It's at the root of all - everything we eat. But over time and with the industrialization of agriculture and because we didn't think growing food was quite speedy enough, we have introduced a lot of fossil fuel into the food system to grow more efficiently, to grow more quickly, to grow without rotating crops, all this kind of thing, and move food around and process it a lot.

So what has to happen in the biggest sense is that we need to stop eating fossil fuel and spewing greenhouse gas and start eating sun-based or solar-based food again. We need to ring the fossil fuel out of the food system because we don't have the cheap energy anymore. We won't have it anymore. We really have little choice but to ring the fossil fuel out of most of our lives. The thing about food is it's rather easier to do there than it is when it comes to how we transport ourselves and how we heat ourselves because we are beginning with this fundamentally solar technology. So, the big move I'm advocating is from a food system based on fossil fuel to one that is based on contemporary sunlight, using the sun in the most sophisticated way we can to grow lots of food without fossil fuel.

GROSS: Would that basically require breaking up the huge industrial farms into smaller farms or do you think the huge industrial farms could resolarize?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, that's a good question. I think that many large farms could resolarize and that there are models around the world we could look at. One that I've looked at a little bit is Argentina. Now, there you've got farms up to 15,000 acres in size, big even by U.S. standards. And they manage to grow the world's best beef and lots of grain on these farms without a lot of fossil fuel. And here's how they do it.

They have a very sophisticated eight-year rotation. So they'll do five years of growing beef on grass, on pastures, and then after five years, they'll till those pastures and plant grain crops, whether it's soy - which is not actually a grain, it's an oil seed - or corn or wheat. And they'll do that for three years, and then they'll go back to beef. Now, the genius of this rotation is that after five years of cattle on the grass, there is so much nitrogen that has been built up in the soil by their manure and by grasses regenerating the soil and legumes, that they need no fossil fuel fertilizers to grow those three years of grain. They also need very little pesticide because the kind of weeds that would bother a perennial pasture cannot survive once you start tilling a land, and the kind of weeds in row crops can't survive in pasture.

So you see, they've solved two problems merely by going to that rotation. And they grow terrific beef, and by the way, beef grown on grass is a much healthier product. And they're doing this in a geography that is roughly comparable to the American Middle West. There is an example of how you might resolarize a large-scale farm and grow lots of beef and a fair amount of grain.

DAVIES: Michael Pollan, speaking with Terry Gross. His article, "Farmer in Chief" about how to remake the way we grow and eat our food, was published in the New York Times Magazine last year. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with food journalist Michael Pollan. She spoke with him last year after his open letter to the next president about how to transform the way we grow and eat our food was published in the New York Times Magazine.

GROSS: You think that the food system should be less about agribusiness, more about regional farmers, more farmers markets that would save a lot of money and energy when it comes to transporting foods a great distance. But in order to do anything like that, we'd really have to reverse the trend that a lot of farmers have left the farms for the suburbs and the cities. There's far fewer farms than there used to be. So, how do you reverse that trend so that more people go back to farming, and how much land is there left to farm now?

Mr. POLLAN: We still have plenty of land. It tends to be a little further from cities than you'd like, but there still is plenty of land for farming, and we have - you know, we have wonderful land. I mean, the quality of the land of the American Middle West is just some of the best in the world. But I think the hardest part of this sun food agenda that I'm laying out is what you just pointed to. The fact is, we don't have enough farmers to farm this way right now. We have less than 2 million farmers left in this country in a population of 300 million. You know, we used to have 40, 50 million farmers. One farmer in America is now feeding a 140 of the rest of us, which is one reason we're so disconnected from our food.

But we are going - make no mistake. If we're going to grow food in a post-oil era, which we will need to do, we will need a lot more hands on the land. We will need millions more people, and we need to encourage them. We need to teach them in our land grant colleges. We need to elevate the prestige of farming in this country, which I think is happening, thanks in large part to the chefs of America.

We need to put them on the land, and that is a very hard part because the land near the cities that you need to support a local revival of local food economies is being sprawled very quickly. We're losing 2,800 acres of agricultural land every hour in this country. So, I think that we need programs to preserve that land.

You know, in the same way, when we discovered the supreme ecological importance of wetlands and we erected these very high bars to their development, I think we need a program where if you're going to develop grade-A farmland, you'd better prove it's absolutely necessary. You'd better file a food system impact statement before you develop that land because we're going to need it someday, and once you put a house or a highway on it, it's going to be very hard to use it to feed people ever again.

I also think we should take all those failing condo developments with golf courses in the middle and put diversified farms there, lease it out to a young farmer. There are a lot of farmers who want to get back to the land but can't afford to. So I see the farmer of the future as being one of these, you know, green jobs that everybody's talking about creating, and that we need to accord it the same sort of respect that we accord these other kinds of green jobs.

GROSS: You would like the government to regulate confined animal feed operations, and those are those big industrial animal farms, those feedlots where - it's just, what - miles and miles of cattle or chickens being prepared for...

Mr. POLLAN: They're astonishing places. There are these vast cities of animals, and they have all have the problems of cities, one of which is waste. The interesting thing about feedlots is you take a feedlot that produces as much waste as Philadelphia. Now, there are clean water laws that require Philadelphia to treat all that waste, but that feedlot has no such laws. We do not regulate them as we would regulate a comparable municipality or a comparably-sized factory. We regulate them as farms. And there is this funny little conceit that you're still allowed to call the feedlot a farm, and farms are relatively lightly regulated.

So all I'm asking is nothing special, but just treat these factories as the factories they are or treat these cities as the cities they are. They just happen to have animal waste instead of human waste.

GROSS: You want to regulate antibiotics that are used for the animals too. What's the problem with the antibiotics?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, the problem with the antibiotics is a public health problem. You cannot keep animals in such close confinement without daily doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy. I mean, they would get sick. Diseases would just, you know, wipe out these giant animal cities. So they use antibiotics, and very often they're using antibiotics that are very important to us, that treat human diseases. And when you put so much antibiotics into an environment, an ecosystem, you are in effect selecting for resistant strains of salmonella, of E. coli, of listeria, and that's what we've been doing.

And a lot of the outbreaks of food-borne disease we see are the result of the way we're raising our animals. We are breeding bugs that are not susceptible to our antibiotics. That's enormously dangerous. And we're doing it merely so we can make meat a little cheaper. We're squandering this extraordinary public good, which is an antibiotic that works.

GROSS: In describing how you'd like to rebuild America's food culture, you say you'd like to create a federal definition of food. I mean, that's something I never would have thought about. What would you like to do?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, this is, I would admit, one of my wankier(ph) ideas, but consider this. Here we have, what - $40, $50, $60 billion in food assistance money that the government pays to at-risk Americans. At-risk Americans can and do use these funds to buy food that is very deleterious to their health. You know, you can use your food stamps to buy lots of candy. You can use it to buy soda. Now, it's very patronizing for me or anyone else to say, let's just, you know, use your food stamps for healthy food. We'll give you a better deal if you buy produce food.

But interestingly enough, we already kind of moralize the use of this money. We tell you can't buy alcohol with your food stamp money. Now, arguably, soda is less nutritious than red wine. So what's the basis of that? I think we do this because those foods I'm describing - sodas, candies, chips and things - we call junk food. But we still call it food. And I think that's a mistake. I think we need to define food in such a way that it excludes completely empty calories such as soda.

So, how would you define it? Well, it's kind of tricky. You remember when President Reagan tried to define ketchup as a food, he got in all sorts of hot water. So I don't doubt the political riskiness of it, but I think, you know, defining food upward rather downward might be a little bit easier.

So, let's say you had a certain ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy, and that that made something a food. Now, I'm sure there would be all sorts of fooling around here, and they would suddenly start adding lots of vitamins to sodas to pass your definition, so we need a good policymaker to figure this out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But I think that we need to kind of think outside of the box about food assistance. I also think we need the federal government, with all the money it spends buying food, to dedicate a tiny percentage of that procurement to buying food within a hundred miles to rebuild these local food systems - military bases, school lunch(ph), the national parks. Imagine if they were also spending some of their vast sums on food locally.

GROSS: Here is an idea I love because it seems so preposterous but it's really kind of interesting. You would like the next president - and we are talking about your open letter to the next president about how to change food policy - you would like the next president to instead of having a White House lawn to basically have a White House garden, which the president set an example for the rest of us by having this, you know, garden of locally grown foods.

Mr. POLLAN: Now, why is that preposterous, Terry? I mean, I think that actually is one of the more practical things I proposed because the president can do it without the permission of the chairman of the House agricultural committee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You got me there.

Mr. POLLAN: So, it's actually easier to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: And we've done it before. Back in World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt, over the objections of the Department of Agriculture, by the way, planted a Victory Garden and help spearhead this movement toward Victory Gardens all over the country. People were ripping up their lawns and planting vegetables, and they ended up making a tremendous contribution to the war effort. We were growing 40 percent of our produce on home gardens.

So, for the president to set that example - I mean, look, the White House lawn is beautiful. I've seen it up close. But imagine the pesticides that go into it. Imagine the amount of fertilizer that goes into it. I mean, the carbon footprint of the White House lawn is tremendous. And in fact, I tried to get all that data from the White House, and they were incredibly secretive about it.

But if the president did this, and if the president and their family got out there and pulled weeds every now and then, it would really set the tone. And you know, one of the most important things we can do to combat the high price of food, the global warming impact of food, the health problems of food, is to grow just a little bit of it ourselves. You get exercise in the process. You reduce your carbon footprint. You're not driving to the market. You're sequestering carbon in your soil. Many, many problems are solved by that one simple act. So, I resent your suggestion it's preposterous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: I also suggest we need a farmer in chief. You know, we have a White House chef, but it would be great to have a White House farmer.

GROSS: Who would do what?

Mr. POLLAN: Who would take care of this garden, which I picture is about five acres. They've got 17 acres to play with there. So you can still have - CNN can still do their stand-up somewhere else but with a better backdrop, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: And so the farmer takes care of it, and he is a solar farmer who gets tons of produce off this that end up going to local food banks. So you have this powerful image of the White House feeding Americans. You know, what could be better than that?

DAVIES: Michael Pollan, speaking with Terry Gross last year after the publication of his article, "Farmer in Chief," about how to remake the way we grow and eat our food was published in the New York Times Magazine. More after break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Michael Pollan. He has written extensively about food, including in his latest book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Terry spoke with Pollan last year after his open letter to the next president about how to transform the way we grow and eat our food was published in the New York Times Magazine.

GROSS: You know, a lot people think of the sustainable food movement as something for hippies, or for, you know, elitists with a lot of money. What's your reaction to that?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, they've had a point. I mean, look, you know, in this country, eating well, eating healthy, freshly grown local food costs more than eating fast food. And like many movements, this movement has started with people who are well heeled(ph) enough to eat in a different way. We have to make this kind of food more accessible to more people. We have to fight that reality and that perception.

But the reason that the cheapest calories in the supermarket are the least healthy calories - and I'm talking about high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil - is because those are the kinds of calories we subsidize. I mean, it is a shame and an absurdity that broccoli costs more than a hamburger, a fast food hamburger. But there are reasons that have to do with agricultural policy that can explain that. So we need to change the playing field. We need to make the healthy calories in the produce section more competitive with the junk food calories in the middle of the store. And that is a question of policy.

GROSS: So you're writing about redoing our food policy, emphasizing the sustainable food movement at a time when people are really struggling financially. And the regionally grown produce is sometimes more expensive, the health food stores, the whole foods kinds of places are often more expensive than the regular supermarkets. So, do you feel like this is a bad time to be emphasizing an idea like this? Do you feel like most people will either be unreceptive or unable to follow through because of their personal finances?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think it's a challenging time to be talking about these kind of issues, but these issues are not driven by my desires. These issues are driven by the fact the era of cheap food is over. It's over because of high energy prices, and it probably won't come back. So, we are going to have to rethink the whole food system.

You know, Americans spend less on food than any people on the planet. Less than 10 percent of their disposable income goes to food. To give you an example, in a place with equal or higher standards of living like Europe, people spend 15 to 18 percent of their income on food. So we are going to be spending more money, and for some people, it's really just about readjusting their priorities and realizing, well, I'm going to put more money into better quality food and less money into health care, into, you know, telephone bills, TV bills, all this kind of stuff that we do spend the money we're saving on food on. So, I do think that we're going to have to dig down in our pockets a little deeper.

For people who can't do that, though, and there are probably 20 to 30 million people in this country who can't afford to spend another nickel on food, we have to look at food assistance programs. We have to make good local food more accessible. We need programs that give you vouchers that you can spend in farmers markets specifically. We need to teach people how to cook because if you cook - I mean, to have healthier food, you either have to invest more money or more time. And some people who can't afford to invest more money could invest more time.

And what I mean by that is cooking the food yourself, spending a Sunday making three or four meals for the week. You know, once again, learning the traditional talents of the kitchen, which in the old days got, you know, three or four meals out of one chicken rather than just buying chicken breasts, you know, and getting one meal out of it. So, the arts of the kitchen are one way that people have always dealt with hard times.

And then there is, of course, growing food, which I think can make an important contribution for anybody who has a little sunlight on their land, a little bit of lawn or access to a community garden.

DAVIES: Michael Pollan, speaking with Terry Gross last year after the publication of his open letter to the next president was published in the New York Times Magazine.

We checked in with Pollan, and he said that before the inauguration he was approached by the Obama transition team and participated in a couple of phone calls about agricultural policy. Pollan says the new secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is talking about representing eaters, not just farmers. But he added, we'll see if the policies and appointments reflect the rhetoric.

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