Michael Pollan's "Farmer in Chief" is Well Worth Revisiting

On my friend and neighbor Kathy's advice, I just re-read Michael Pollan's outstanding letter to our nation's "Farmer in Chief," first published in the NY Times on the eve of Barack Obama's election. It's a wonderful letter, all 9 pages of it, a true embarrassment of riches. Pollan's letter starts with a summary of where we're at currently in terms of food, health, and the environment. Unsurprisingly, the way we eat and grow food is very connected to how healthy we are. In short: our quest to continually produce more food at lower costs (since the days of Richard Nixon's administration) has polluted our soil and our bodies.

I'm not one of those people who believes that cheap food is intrinsically a bad thing, but it's clear to me that we've gone way overboard. We are no longer producing food inexpensively in order to feed the world; instead, we have grown to devalue good food, to think about it less, and to - more often than I'd like to admit - feed ourselves with the cheapest, quickest food available. Sometimes we lean on the word "fortified" to feel better about our choices. As Pollan's letter to our new President continues, we get a brief history lesson, followed by several pages of what we need to do now. Here's an excerpt:

It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat. It probably will — as it should. You [Obama] will need to make the case that paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals. Meat and milk production represent the food industry’s greatest burden on the environment; a recent U.N. study estimated that the world’s livestock alone account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than all forms of transportation combined. (According to one study, a pound of feedlot beef also takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce.)

And the article goes on. Michael Pollan, as always, makes his case clearly and compellingly; he's the Malcolm Gladwell of food. In fact, Pollan's In Defense of Food is very much what inspired me to write Simple, Good, and Tasty. I could go on about the "Farmer in Chief" article, but I won't. Instead, I recommend that you sit down with all 9 pages of it - you can print it out if you want - and learn about (or reacquaint yourself with) the state of our nation's food supply, and the way we eat. Here's another short excerpt from the article:

You’re probably thinking that growing and eating organic food in the White House carries a certain political risk. It is true you might want to plant iceberg lettuce rather than arugula, at least to start. (Or simply call arugula by its proper American name, as generations of Midwesterners have done: “rocket.”) But it should not be difficult to deflect the charge of elitism sometimes leveled at the sustainable-food movement. Reforming the food system is not inherently a right-or-left issue: for every Whole Foods shopper with roots in the counterculture you can find a family of evangelicals intent on taking control of its family dinner and diet back from the fast-food industry — the culinary equivalent of home schooling. You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat — meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever.

There is also a strong libertarian component to the sun-food agenda, which seeks to free small producers from the burden of government regulation in order to stoke rural innovation. And what is a higher “family value,” after all, than making time to sit down every night to a shared meal? Our agenda puts the interests of America’s farmers, families and communities ahead of the fast-food industry’s. For that industry and its apologists to imply that it is somehow more “populist” or egalitarian to hand our food dollars to Burger King or General Mills than to support a struggling local farmer is absurd. Yes, sun food costs more, but the reasons why it does only undercut the charge of elitism: cheap food is only cheap because of government handouts and regulatory indulgence (both of which we will end), not to mention the exploitation of workers, animals and the environment on which its putative “economies” depend. Cheap food is food dishonestly priced — it is in fact unconscionably expensive.

And Pollan's path is clearly working already. Just last month, Michelle Obama helped plant the White House Garden. Onwards!