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Michael Winship: Michael Pollan's Food For Thought

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Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

Michael Pollan's Food For Thought
By Michael Winship

The writer and activist Michael Pollan has no interest in becoming Barack Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, thank you very much, even though there are a lot of people who think he’d be perfect for the job.

Pollan disagrees. Laughing, he told my colleague Bill Moyers on the latest edition of public television’s BILL MOYERS JOURNAL,” I have an understanding of my strengths and limitations…I don’t want this job,” then turned serious as he added, “What Obama needs to do, if he indeed wants to make change in this area-- and that isn't clear yet that he does, at least in his first term -- I think we need a food policy czar in the White House because the challenge is not just what we do with agriculture, it's connecting the dots between agriculture and public health, between agriculture and energy and climate change, agriculture and education.”

There’s been an Internet-fueled citizen’s movement to draft Pollan for the cabinet post. As the author of countless articles and such books as The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, his thorough reporting, literally getting his hands dirty working on American farms and writing about it, has made him one of our country’s greatest experts on how and what we eat.

In an open letter to whoever would become our next president -- or “Farmer in Chief,” as he put it in the October 12th NEW YORK TIMES magazine -- Pollan wrote, “It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration — the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril...

“But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention.”

In 2007, before the financial meltdown had even struck, some 32 million Americans -- at least one in nine households -- had trouble putting enough food on the table. Now, according to the WALL STREET JOURNAL, food banks across the country are struggling to meet a surge of people uncertain about their next meal. They’ve seen a 20% increase in demand -- middle class families, they say, account for most of the growth.

And the day before our annual Thanksgiving binge, the WASHINGTON POST reported, “The number of Americans on food stamps is poised to exceed 30 million for the first time this month, surpassing the historic high set in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.”

Contrast this with the big bucks being shelled out in the recent $307 billion farm bill, much of it going to massive agribusinesses -- “A welfare program,” as TIME Magazine described it, “for the megafarms that use the most fuel, water, and pesticides; emit the most greenhouse gases; grow the most fattening crops; hire the most illegals and depopulate rural America."

In a press conference on Tuesday, President-elect Obama cited a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office: “From 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff to qualify for such subsidies, “ he said. “If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president.”

All well and good, but as a senator, Barack Obama supported that monster farm bill (although he was absent for the actual roll call). He also supported the production of ethanol (a politically expedient move when the Iowa Democratic caucuses were at stake), even though using corn for fuel rather than food raises the price of grain and results in huge emissions of greenhouse gases.

Thus, where food and agriculture are concerned, connecting the dots, as Michael Pollan told Bill Moyers, is a tortuous journey involving internecine politics, international diplomacy, big business, every branch of government and every issue from morbid obesity to homeland security.

Pollan is hopeful that Obama will take advantage of his oratorical skills and bully pulpit to set an example for the American people, perhaps even suggesting “meatless Mondays” for the country – which according to Pollan would have the ecological effect of taking 30-40 million cars off the road for a year – and encouraging home gardening and eating locally; supporting the small farmers who grow fresh food nearby – without chemicals or subsidies.

“I think we have to figure out different solutions in different places, and it's not all or nothing,” he said. “We need to let a thousand flowers bloom. We need to try many things in many places, and figure out what works…

“Vote with your fork, for a different kind of food. Go to the farmer's market. Get out of the supermarket… Plant a garden…. Declare your independence from the culture of fast food.”

Regardless of who Obama chooses as his Ag Secretary, it will be interesting to see if the new president sees fit to make Pollan an unofficial advisor on food issues, an influential voice in his – you should excuse the expression – kitchen cabinet.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.


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I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

I have been gardening for 50 years. Large gardens when the land was available and container gardening when it wasn't. No matter the size of the garden, I always had more fresh vegetables than I could eat and or can. I have grown corn, tomatoes, beans, beets and more on a 4th floor balcony using container methods. My parents always taught me where there is a will there is a way. Gardening not only improves your diet, it improves your mental and physical well being. It has always given me a feeling of accomplishment seeing my efforts come to fruition.

Any idea what Pollen's view of Vilsack is?

After listening to Michael Pollan's interview with Bill Moyer, I felt compelled to write about farm susidies. I am a wheat farmer whose business collects these agricultural payments.

I do agree with Pollan that more emphasis on local and regional food production and markets for communities should be supported in some way. The food is healthier and brings us all back to how food is produced. But like most government programs, there are abuses and inefficiences and the agricultural subsidies are no exception.

However, a few thoughts came to mind after listening to Pollan that I hope people will think about.

1. Grain subsidies have allowed family farmers to continue to produce a cheap and plentiful food supply for this country. I feel pretty secure to have a grain supply scattered throughout the counry and not have to rely on buying food from other countries.

2. Farm subsidies have allowed our nation to continue to produce new wealth each year for export.

3. And finally, the farm subsidies have allowed US citizens to spend a very small amount of their disposable income on food. We spend about 10% to 12% of disposable income on food compared to other countries whose citizens might spend up to 50% of their disposable income. Having more disposable income to spend on other items has contributed to a comfortable life style enjoyed by many.

The agricultural subsidies are not a perfect solution, but I think there are some well intentioned reasons why these supports have developed over the years but are sometimes overlooked by people.

Terri Kaercher

As a local, small-scale organic vegetable and poultry producer, I really appreciated the Michael Pollan interview. But they ran out of time before adequately answering Mr. Moyer's final question: What are things that people can do...? Mr. Pollan aptly suggested that people grow a garden. The next suggestion should be for people to seek out local organic farmers and support them by buying their produce, meat, eggs, milk, etc. Building strong local food economies is best thing we can do to strengthen our country's food security, reduce the stranglehold that big agribusiness has on our food supply, minimize the carbon footprint resulting from long distance transportation, and feed ourselves the healthiest possible fare.

Michael Pollan has done good work on some food issues, but he doesn't seem to understand farming well enough to make a capable Secretary of Agriculture. To his credit, he is one of a minority of progressives who understands the importance of price floors (and related policy mechanisms) in the commodity title of the farm bill. That's because he interviewed George Naylor, one of the world's leading farm bill reformers. Still, Pollan is a weak advocate on this issue, barely mentioning it in Omnivore's Dilemma, ommitting it (and the whole the farm bill) in his lates book, and not mentioning it in his "Farmer-in-Chief" essay.

Price floors (& etc.), the core issue in farm and food justice, must become understood by progressives. It was not 2007-2008, as seen in comments here. (Ie. "farm subsidies, which are mainly paid to rich farm corporations, keep fast food cheap and fast food available." "The huge farm lobby, is financed by huge rich corporations, that receive millions of dollars in federal subsidies that keeps that cheap bad and unhealthy fast food coming." Both are false. It's price floors and below cost gains that does these things. (See below.)

There are many components in the farm bill, but the core is it's impact on domestic and world market prices. Farm subsidies (not the core) have indirect impact on this, (probably less than 5% to -5% for key commodities (Tufts U. Paradox of Agricultural Subsidies, online pdf, p. 21.) In contrast, price floors (with supply management, price ceilings and commodity reserves, can determine these prices, (if effectively implemented, especially with international agreements, within a range, and perhaps excepting certain extremes of possible market conditions). The problem is that main farm commodities lack "price responsiveness" on both supply and demand sides (Search "Daryl E. Ray" and "price responsiveness.") Price floors were lowered 1952-1995 and then eliminated 1996-2008+ (and this includes most recent so-called "progressive" proposals). The impact of this is in the billions, hundred billions, and (historical world wide price and economic multiplier impacts) trillions. This is much larger than subsidies and the Nutrition Title combined. Both Tyson and Smithfield got, not millions, as discussed by Moyers (WSJ expose) and most progressives, but 2.5 billion each (1997-2005) in below cost gains (Tufts U., "Industrial Livestock Companies’ Gains from Low Feed Prices, 1997-2005"). I estimate Cargill has often received a billion a year in below cost gains, just on corn (just US, not their worldwide gains) every year, even if they received few actual "commodity subsidies".

The National Family Farm Coalition ( leads on these issues, and is the key source for Sec. of Ag candidates who know this, the core justice and sustainability issue in the U.S. and worldwide. For environmental and food impacts of the farm bill that are blamed on subsidies-- that is false, as my sources here show. The historical cause has been low, then no price floors (etc.).

Pollan is also weak on understanding farm sustainability issues, (as most progressives are). NFFC farm leaders much better understand how low prices (losing money vs full costs 1981-2006 except 96, USDA, ERS; dumping on the world's farmers, IATP "US Dumping on World Agriculture markets"), hurt sustainability and animal wellfare. (Mega "price gain" subsidization of unsustainable, inhumane animal factories, removing diverse animal feeds from most farms-- pastures, hay, small grains-- all key to resource conserving crop rotations and reduced pesticide and non organic fertilizer use). Also impacts "value added" livestock for farmers, including those in the world's poorest countries.

Additionally, the term "farm lobby" is grossly misleading. The power resides, not with subsidy recipients, but with the mega money, the below cost gain recipients. They're so powerful, so dominate in the debate, that they weren't even mentioned by most mainstream media (see EWG's list of editorials) or most progressives. Threats to their power (price floors) weren't even discussed in Congress or by most progressives (ie. by Environmental Working Group, by Moyers (WSJ, Expose, David Beckmann,) or by articles at Common Dreams).

Pollan probably knows most of this, but his readers know almost none of it, demonstrating conclusively that he fails as a national farm policy (& politics) leader. (But apparently Pollan doesn't know much about the history and politics of this fight, so read Mark Ritchie, Crisis by Design and George Naylor, Legacy of Crisis, both online.) In the end, Pollan is too weak in the social sciences and too weak on the science of sustainable farming itself to lead the change we need, (even as he's strong elsewhere in the natural sciences). In the end, he mobilizes too little truth to be a winner in the highly contentious arena of farm, food and agribusiness politics.

When Michael Pollan recommends all get pots and pans to cook in he may not be aware that it is a custom to beat pots and pans with spoons as a form of public protest and solidarity in South America. Let me suggest that on the night of the Inauguration of Obama (01/20/09)every person who wants the Bush gang prosecuted beat on a pot for 5 minutes at midnight. That would be an anonymous and audible vote, especially in urban areas. I will do it alone at my trailer near the Delaware River. Everyone, even David Eddy and Mumia are invited to join in. I'm sure Bill Moyers' and Michael Winship's household servants can find them an old scorcher so that their pricey gourmet cookware is not marred for societal display, then they can vent properly.

While I agree with much of what Pollen says, the Moyers interview included a comment from Pollen about "how young" this movement is....young? My great grandparents worked on a facet of this movement in the 1910s. My grandparents and parents also did this work. I now follow in the "family business" working on aspects of sustainable agriculture.

I first noticed this sudden swell of interest in sustainable food and agriculture in 2003. Gas prices were inching up and big food processors were looking for ways to save $ when shipping raw product to processing plants. Consumer interest in "green" and organic was going gangbusters. Those two concerns converged and -- bam! Now 5 years later those of us working this movement -- many of us since the 80s -- are reaping a bountiful harvest of public interest in our efforts. Working in this field is now unsustainable - a lack of funding and other support has tapped our reserves and capable committed people are burning out, trying to respond to the need.

We sense that our efforts are being "oversold". Despite our best efforts to maintain a healthy local fruit and vegetable supply, the last fresh WI carrot was bagged for wholesale market in 2000. Before carrots went spinach, lettuce, other greens. Our Midwestern horticultural industry became another victim of West Coast subsidized industrial agriculture.

We haven't impacted the food system to the extent that the supply of sustainably-produced and processed food can make it to public schools and hospitals. The relationships necessary to support a longer supply chain embedded with values takes time to rebuild. The current system is addicted to efficiency -- and relationships are by nature inefficient.

Great food for all-- a laudable goal, but we have a ways to go before we get there.

Liz, I guess you did not read my post under the Pollan interview blog.

Anyway, I racked my memory of geography and did not find any place in Northern Colorado that I would consider "urban."

And I think those families are eating dreams for about 9 months of the year. I would also assume that 24 families means about 100 people. My guess is that most of them snuck out and bought food at the grocery store most every week of the year.

But no, I am not against gardening and I have reluctantly done quite a lot of it.

Liz, I guess you did not read my post under the Pollan interview blog.

Anyway, I racked my memory of geography and did not find any place in Northern Colorado that I would consider "urban."

And I think those families are eating dreams for about 9 months of the year. I would also assume that 24 families means about 100 people. My guess is that most of them snuck out and bought food at the grocery store most every week of the year.

But no, I am not against gardening and I have reluctantly done quite a lot of it.

Margie Miller: The work of Dr. Neal Barnard may be helpful to you and your spouse (See Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes- Type 2) Barnard is a medical doctor and researcher at George Washington University and the University of Toronto who has conducted dietetic research under auspices od NIH. The conclusion has been that a change in diet can reverse later onset diabetes in most patients. The culprit pinpointed was meat and dairy fat, and success was achieved by adhering to a vegetarian diet.

I am one of those lucky ones and I enjoy my new way of voting with my fork. I also garden, near a trailer park and flea market where I live. As a voluntarily poor person I find fresh is cheaper than flesh, and I have no trouble bypassing the window food along the highway. I just pulled some of my mulch sheltered carrots and beets this Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanks for the Michael Pollan exposure Bill Moyers. He ain't "all that" but he's better than most food experts. Next try Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute for the bigger picture. He reports nuclear is suicidal energy and corn ethanol as more costly than hydrocarbons because of food displacement and processing costs. It is a shame we have paid lobbyists on this blog. Please speak from what you know personally and suggest resources, but quit lying for pay and personal gain.

Jim Bullis,

I am curious to know if you have ever gardened. Do you understand how food grows in the ground when you plant it?

In Northern Colorado, where the growing season is VERY short (about 180 days).

One man planted gardens in 8 of his friends front yards. It is the equivalent of about 1/3 of an acre of land. On that land he grew enough to provide 24 families with fresh, organic produce for 20 weeks.

This is only one example of what community organization and community gardens can provide.

It seems that you don't understand what you are speaking of by commenting "...urban vegetable gardens are cruel hoax, since these can not possibly feed more than a tiny fraction of such communities, and if at all, it will only be for a short harvest period."

The ENTIRE point of such gardens is that there should be many of them. Feeding 24 families on 1/3 of an acre is not a cruel hoax.

Jane, urban vegetable gardens are cruel hoax, since these can not possibly feed more than a tiny fraction of such communities, and if at all, it will only be for a short harvest period.

As far as education in nutrition, that is quite another matter. Here is hope that people can learn to live on healthy food from large and efficient farms that actually are possible, and actually exist in adequate numbers.

There is potential progress if people realize that hunger can be greatly reduced by rejecting prepared foods in favor of basic grains which are incredibly cheap because they come from large and efficient farms.

Government should regulate to the degree necessary to assure that these foods are as they should be. At the present time, I am not convinced that "organic" is necessary, and sometinme it seems to be only a false claim.

Back in the day (1976/1977) there was a grant that was accepted by the Department of Agriculture that taught urban vegetable gardening and nutrition in low income areas of many US cities. If you do a goggle search with the title "Urban Gardening Program" you can learn more about the grant and how it was implemented. A year after the grant was funded hundreds of urban gardens were started. It makes me very happy to see a ressurgence in urban agriculture for many reasons and I want everyone who desides to grow an urban garden to know that a vegetable garden is beautiful too and peaceful. How can we teach children and ourselves to be better stewards of the land if we never get to connect to the beauty of the earth? Growing a simple radish can inspire all of us. Start with radishes...they are easy...please keep caring. Jane

Thank you Bill. We were glued to the tube watching the Michael Pollan interview. The use of pesticides and fertilizers is akin to eating oil. This statement from Michael says someone is doing their homework on what we consume everyday in our diet. Let's also note that the EPA and FDA allowance for aluminum's in our food chain is well over the amounts they envision. The human's ability to rid itself of Aluminum's found in our bodies will be a health concern for all of us.

Two comments, first in response to Thelma Eli: Russian citizens could not feed themselves very well, even with gardens, during WWII. One can hardly imagine German or Russian soldiers respecting the rights of citizens and not looting or pillaging food stores or gardens. Starvation was rampant and lack of food supplies killed many thousands during that time.

Second, in response to Michael Winship's statment that using corn for fuel increases greenhouse gas emisions. That's an incorrect statement, and one he should have researched further to find the real answer. Ethanol has a smaller environmental footprint than the petroleum product it replaces and emits fewer greenhouse gases.

And as for that "$307 billion monster farm bill," mentioned, less than 16% of that total goes for farm programs. The rest funds school lunch programs, welfare food programs, meals for the elderly programs, etc..

So, who's getting rich on what's left? All of those alleged fat cat agribusiness corporations? Hot even close. The balance goes to fund CRP programs, USDA extension programs run by local FSA committees, and some comes in the form of direct payments to family farmers.

In summary, Michael Pollan knows little of the agricultural farm programs that he claims to be an expert at. He may know something about food that's on his plate, whether it's nutritious or not, but he knows little else.

I was horrified to hear what bad food we are all eating. Everything we eat is loaded with high fructose corn syrup, which our pancreas cannot process, therefore does not create enough insulin, which causes type 2 diabetes and other horrible health problems such as obesity and heart disease.

The huge farm lobby, is financed by huge rich corporations, that receive millions of dollars in federal subsidies that keeps that cheap bad and unhealthy fast food coming.
Corn fed cattle on large feed lots are creating unhealthy beef for our tables. Piles and piles of manure and piles of piles of corn can be found on these horrible feed lots, where cattle are crammed in to be fed up for slaughter.

Even our eggs from the grocery store are a problem as huge corporations keep the chickens in small cages just to capture their eggs as they drop them. To keep them from pecking each other to death, because of the terrible close quarters in which they are kept, their beaks are burned off....with no anesthetic.

Just as bad is the plight of pigs, also kept packed together until they are frantic. To keep pigs from trying to bite one another's tails off, their tails are pinched off with pliers, again, with no anesthetic.

Because of my husband's newly diagnosed diabetes, we check every label and we have found very little food without high fructose corn syrup. Even our bread is loaded with it. Most of the bread from the market has it listed as the second ingredient, which indicates that it is the second largest ingredient. I may buy another bread maker and begin making our bread again.

The new administration will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of their new administration: unless this is done, we will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues that were campaigned on — but as we try to address them we will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and we will have to change it if we hope to solve them.

In a recent press conference President-elect Obama cited a report released this week by the Government Accountability Office: “From 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff to qualify for such subsidies, “ he said. “If this is true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end as president.”"

But the farm lobby exploded over this announcement and Obama backed down.

So farm subsidies, which are mainly paid to rich farm corporations, keep fast food cheap and fast food available. Something needs to be done about the future farm bill. Our best recourse as consumers at this point is to read labels and cook at home where we do have some control over the ingredients in the food we eat.

Two comments. One is the question of the time it would take to buy fresh produce and cook, freeze or preserve it for future use. My comment is that poor health takes far more time in waits in Doctor's offices, lines at pharmacies and down time from poor health caused by poor nutrition. I'll take cooking any day.

The second is whether the world can feed itself on the efforts of small farmers worldwide. A growing number of communities are doing just that, providing for themselves and their friends and neighbors with their produce. During World War 2, the Russians sustained themselves with their family gardens, during the same war,England started gardens to eat while the fighting went on and the health of the population improved. The waste in agribusiness is failing the world. The efforts of small gardens worldwide, can save populations.

Interesting study!

Fast-food linked to Alzheimer's: study
November 29, 2008

Eating fast food could contribute to the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, according to a new Swedish study published on Friday which offered possible clues to preventing it.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute, a leading medical university in the Swedish capital Stockholm, fed mice on a diet rich in fat, sugar and cholesterol for nine months to study their behaviour.
"On examining the brains of these mice, we found a chemical change not unlike that found in the brain of Alzheimer's sufferers," said Susanne Akterin, who conducted the experiment for her doctoral thesis.
The study detected increased levels of phosphate, which makes sufferer's cells become tangled and eventually leads to their death.
The team also found cholesterol in food reduced the body's ability to produce another vital memory-storage protein.
The cause of the disease remains unknown, but previous studies indicate diet could be a factor.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia and there are believed to be more than 24 million sufferers worldwide, a figure set to double every 20 years, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
There are about 860,000 carriers in France alone, with 165,000 others showing symptoms each year. Sweden has 90,000 reported cases of the disease, according to the Karolinska Institute

This is such a wonderful idea! I, and several Master Gardeners, volunteer educating and gardening with the youth at the Champaign County juvenile detention center, and I can not express the sheer pleasure and rapt interest the children in the facility have for learning about raising vegetables and flowers. It is such a great idea on so many levels. Such as taking children back to elementary play, learning how to germinate, plant, tend and grow many varieties of plants, demonstrating uses of plants as food, dyes, musical instruments, the list goes on and on. Life is improved often on the personal level, ask a community organizer .......

Good news.....the 2008 Farm Bill includes provisions for schools to preferentially buy fruits and vegetables from local farmers and farmers a grant of 60 dollars per student for fresh fruit and vegetable snacks....and for schools with more than 50% of their students on free lunch programs the government will fund garden curriculum and the start up cost for those students to grow food on land of their, eh?

2 thoughts on the movement to draft Michael Pollan for AgSec:

This is very refreshing. Cabinet ministers are usually chosen in secrecy by a tiny group. At best intentional leaks allow for random public comment. It is a good sign of future events in an administration which owes much of its victory to the democratic and progressive webworld

Second. Michael Pollan's comments about "knowing his limitations" reflect a need for him to grow in a way that this crisis demands, and also a misconception on how ministries work. The top person need not do everything.

Both Teddie and Franklin Roosevelt were Undersecretaries of the Navy, reporting to more famous and better established heads...but they were the operating chiefs.

Pollan could be ensconced in a collective leadership in which his magnificent awareness could be harnessed, and he could also grow from a gadfly to a leader...

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