I managed to finish the Michael Pollan interview last night, and I have to say the guy knows his stuff and has some great suggestions, but he’s no pie-in-the-sky idealist. He’s extremely realistic about what can be done, which makes his ideas and suggestions all the more compelling. A few examples and one-liners I took note of:
Eating healthier is more expensive because the crops used in junk food are subsidized by the government. Every five years the Farm Bill comes up, where the government decides which crops will be rewarded with subsidies and which ones won’t. In fact, farmers who receive subsidies aren’t allowed to grow any other crops on their farms besides the subsidized ones. This means that farmers are rewarded for monoculture farms and penalized for growing vegetables and other actual food on their farms.
The era of cheap food is over. We’ve wrung all the financial profit we can out of big agriculture and the results are coming back to bite us. The reason real food seems to cost more is because we were paying artificially low prices for food in the first place (because of the subsidies, again). In fact, Americans spend less of a percentage of their income on food than almost all other countries. For example, Americans spend around 10% of their income on food, while Europe spends 15-18%. In some ways the rising food prices are just a reflection of paying what it actually costs to grow food.
Our food economy is crazy. Because of cheap oil and cheap labor (in other countries), it is not uncommon to find that fish caught off the coast of New England are shipped to China to be filleted, then shipped back to America for consumption. We also do this with chicken.
This isn’t a "left" issue – all kinds of people from all kinds of political and religious persuasions are joining this movement, including evangelical Christians. What could be more "family values" than instead of eating out at McDonald’s, sitting down together as a family, eating real food, grown and raised locally by people you know, and cooked at home.
Part of the answer is returning to eating real food that is grown locally and regionally. But a big problem with this is that there are so few farmers left. For local and regional agriculture to make a comeback, millions of people will need to return to farming. Pollan has several interesting ideas for how we might do this: returning a sense of dignity to the vocation of farming, offering incentives for people to start farming again, etc.
One of his more "fun" ideas was instead of having a White House Lawn the next President should have a 5-acre White House Garden, with a Farmer-in-Chief to grow food right there in front of the White House to send to local food banks. Obviously it’s more of a symbolic action than anything else, but it would be a striking symbol, and oftentimes those kinds of symbolic actions are more important than we realize. Instead of seeing images of the President going out for a run, think about images of the President and his family pulling weeds in the White House Garden…
Whatever happens, according to Pollan, our food economy has to change, because we’ve reached the limits of trying to produce food cheaply. I’ll have to read his books now… maybe over Christmas I’ll have some time. Cheers!