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I was at a small gathering of food professionals a few days ago and asked how many had read Pollan’s article in The New York Times magazine the week before, a memo to Washington about what people and this country should do to halt our reliance on oil-based food production.  Out of 50 only a few had.  What’s worse, beyond his general premise—that we need to revert to sun-fed system from an oil-fed one—and the practical notion that we need to support small farmers and learn to grow our own food I couldn’t remember what practical advice he was suggesting.

So I went back for a second look: while some may argue that his suggestions are simplistic, that they may fail to acknowledge the huge global issue of population growth (the fact that in 40 years the earth will carry 10 billion people, 80% of whom will live in urban areas), and some are giddily futuristic (bar codes on food that allow us through our hand-helds to see how the food was produced, how the meat was slaughtered, etc), they’re all of them worth considering.  Here’s a quick list for those who missed his excellent memo but are curious how Pollan, who has vigorously condemned our food production system, for the first time offers potential solutions:

—Train a new generation of farmers, spread them throughout the land, and make farming a revered profession.
—Preserve every acre of farmland we have and make it accessible to these farmers.
—Build an infrastructure for a regional food economy—one that can encourage and support the farms and distribute what they grow (rebuild or create regional distribution systems).
—Provide cities grants with which to build structures for year-round farmers markets.
—Ease federal production regulations, designed to control multi-national food companies but that hog tie small producers.
—Create local meat-inspection corps so that we can create more regional slaughter facilities, perhaps the biggest impediment to our being able to find local hand raised meat.  (This is huge.)
—Establish a grain reserve to prevent huge swings in commodity markets.
—Require federal institutions that prepare food (school lunches, prisons, military bases, etc.) to buy a minimum percentage of that food locally.
—Create a Federal definition of food, to encourage people to think about what is food and what is not, stuff we consume that has no caloric value (“junk food” should not be considered food).
—Food stamp debit cards should double in value when swiped at a framers’ market; give farmers’ market vouchers to low-income women and children (why does he exclude men, I wonder; a different subject perhaps).
—Make changes in our daily lives: teach children how to cook; plant gardens in every primary school and equip them with kitchens; pay for culinary tuitions (or forgive loans) by requiring culinary graduates to give some service back to such undertakings such as teaching kids how to cook; increase school lunch spending by $1 a day; grow more of our own food and prepare and eat our food together at a table; accept the fact that food may be more expensive and eat less of it.
—Make our food production system as transparent as possible: have a second calorie listing how many fossil fuel calories went into its production so that consumers could discourage production of fuel expensive food by not buying it.
—Finally, there should be a White House vegetable garden and our President should set the first example.  Our founding fathers were largely farmers.  This would be a good symbolic return.

It’s one thing to rail against what is wrong; another to offer realistic solutions to the problems you decry.  I’m grateful to Pollan for what he’s set out to do and hope that our legislators acknowledge the sad state of food in America, recognize that how we produce and consume our food may be the biggest determiner of the quality of life in America generally, and put it at the head of their agendas with whatever administration we elect next month.

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113 Wonderful responses to “Pollan’s Proposals”

  • Aaron

    “I think Pollan has some good points, but I don’t believe you can turn the clock on American agriculture as far back as he wants to without causing food shortages.”

    Exactly. I would add that anytime a political agenda is attached to food people pay the price.

    For example the foie gras ban in Chicago. The ban was precipitated by PETA; a group that has a large political agenda (I’m sorry the minute a group starts asking for laws to be made to support their ideology, they become political). In the end the ban was completely toothless, because chefs simply charged for the garnish (imagine a $30 toast point). It could have, however, impacted the farmer’s means to make a living. Whether you agree with the production methods or not, what you should agree with is that (right or wrong), people should matter more than animals. This isn’t a hedonist statement, but rather I’m pointing out that fact that decisions that may effect someone’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should be made slowly a carefully.

    So could, using the current example, Idaho Potato farmers grow something else and still be able to make their living? Most likely, but it is not something that can happen overnight. I has taken decades, if not centuries for some farmers to establish themselves. It is not something that can or even should change at the whim of people (like the majority of us here and I would guess Mr. Pollan) who do not have an actual stake in the game.

  • ihop

    johnmark7 — In the event that you are still reading, I would like to point out to you that the Constitution does, in fact, grant the government the right to regulate agriculture under the commerce clause. Pollan’s suggestions are no more opposed to the free market than the massive federal subsidies to industrial ag that have been in place for the last thirty years.

    Furthermore, even staunch libertarians acknowledge that the government’s most important purpose is to secure the defense of its people. A volatile or vulnerable food supply is a fundamentally insecure point in any economy or any state.

    Subsidies were put in place to reduce volatility. They’ve done that effectively, but centralization of the food supply has also left it vastly more vulnerable in certain respects.

    Much of what Pollan suggests is best accomplished not with additional regulation or spending but simply by repealing current regulations (i.e., those in place against raw milk or local slaughterhouses). There’s great demand in a growing number of cities and towns for things like raw milk and locally-raised, humanely-slaughtered beef — it would take time to develop to significant scale, but if we’re talking purely Friedmanesque free market economics, the demand is in place. The government has, for the last thirty-plus years, imposed artificial controls on the supply.

    Them’s the facts. Of course, you could always accuse me of being un-American and suggest that if I like facts and reason so much than I should just leave the country.

  • Julie B.

    Yes, but if his proposals hinge upon agriculture changing in the way he wants it to change, it’s doomed.

    You’re talking about returning to a model of agriculture that’s at least 100 years old. A hundred years ago almost 40% of the population worked in agriculture. Returning to that model will never happen.

    I like his federal definition of food, and I’d like to see a return to the imitation label. (How non-fat sour cream could be labeled sour cream is beyond me.) But a return to agriculture of our great-grandparents is simply not possible.

  • Bookman

    Some interesting points made here in the comments. No one rally has a complete grasp on the issue (including me), but it’s worth discussing.

    The problem with what Ruhlman laid out in his article is that it only addresses one third of the situation with any practicality, that of food quality. More on that in a bit.

    The point of getting people to demand higher-quality, locally-produced food, and cook more for themselves is largely a pipe dream, though. Education won’t cut it, although it’s not a bad thing. It’s easy for a bunch of people who love cooking and fine food to imagine that everyone is just like them, but they ain’t. Most people would far prefer nuking a frozen lasagna to spending a few hours of making one on their own.

    The economics issues are essentially ignored, unfortunately, especially regarding “regional” production, which assumes that all regions are equal – which they ain’t! Citrus is not grown in Minnesota for a good reason.

    I’ll say that encouraging higher prices for food is, IMO, a highly coercive measure. If organic product was cheaper than “evil” product, people would buy organic automatically, without the need for coercion.

    Which brings me back to quality. If organic stuff tasted twice as good, and half again as much, I’d pay the extra – it doesn’t. “Organic” is more sales pitch that reality, quality-wise.

    What I find most disturbing is the subtle implication running through the article (and the comments) that low-tech is the way to go, here. A horse-drawn plow does nothing to improve food quality, since any fertilizer value from horseshit is easily ofset by the risk of tetanus associated with same. Higher technology has been improving diets for thousands of years, and cannot be ignored – most especially with ignorant comments about splicing in rat genes. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the poster who made that comment believed that food preserved by irradiation was “radioactive”. Feh.

    But there you have it: Eat less of what you like, learn how to spend a lot more time preparing food, pay a higher price for that food, and demand that the food you eat be grown in places that aren’t suited to it. Wonderful plan.

    The points addressing government regulations are less egrigious, but are still subject to the law of unintended consequenses.

  • milo

    “You’ve never been to Idaho, have you? The farmers there would starve to death if they only grew for local consumption.”

    What’s magically different about the soil there that it only grows potatoes. And nobody is saying they need to grow for ONLY local consumption – you start by growing SOME for local consumption and work your way up.

    Of course growing other crops would require making some changes. But there are benefits to those changes. And it seems pretty alarmist to insist that if a potato farmer in Idaho starts growing and selling some broccoli it will lead to food shortages.

    “So could, using the current example, Idaho Potato farmers grow something else and still be able to make their living? Most likely, but it is not something that can happen overnight.”

    Of course. Nobody is saying it can or should happen overnight. But even slow change is better than no change.

    And since we all are food consumers, we all DO have a stake in the game. If people increasingly buy more local food, farmers eventually may have no choice but to change.

    “You’re talking about returning to a model of agriculture that’s at least 100 years old. A hundred years ago almost 40% of the population worked in agriculture. Returning to that model will never happen.”

    What makes you think 40% of the population would have to be farmers?

    You’re skeptical that this could happen, but people are doing it ALREADY, and in many cases they are doing far better than people doing “modern” farming. Farmers are already proving you wrong.

    Is it going to go 100% back? Of course not, but it doesn’t need to. But as time goes on more and more farmers will switch to sustainable methods, and more and more people will insist on buying food raised in that way.

    “The point of getting people to demand higher-quality, locally-produced food, and cook more for themselves is largely a pipe dream, though.”

    While “better quality” is one aspect, don’t forget about plain old fear. Look at the poison milk in china. Look at the increasing awareness that most meat is raised ankle deep in crap. Look at the tomato/pepper scare.

    While the public is never going to suddenly become a bunch of food snobs, when people fear for the health of themselves and their kids, that’s a pretty big incentive to make changes in your food buying. And with economies of scale and increasing fossil fuel prices, sustainable food will become more and more competitive with factory food.

    As the price difference drops, more and more people will say it’s only a few more cents, why not get the safe stuff? And as more and more people buy it, supply will go up and the price difference will keep dropping.

    The home cooking thing may never happen, but people will buy more sustainable/local microwave frozen lasagnas than CAFO ones.

    “Citrus is not grown in Minnesota for a good reason.”

    Absolutely. Some things will never be local. But the problem is trucking in apples from california to places that grow apples perfectly well, even during local apple season.

    “If organic product was cheaper than “evil” product, people would buy organic automatically, without the need for coercion.”

    But people ARE being coerced to buy factory food. The government heavily subsidizes it, and there are many regulations that make it more difficult for small and organic farmers. Organic food could be much more price competitive if there was just a level playing field, which there isn’t.

    “If organic stuff tasted twice as good, and half again as much, I’d pay the extra – it doesn’t.”

    Depends on what you’re eating. In the case of fruits and vegetables, I’ve never tasted the difference. But in the case of meat and poultry, there is a huge difference, it’s amazing how much better the sustainable stuff is.

    And even if you don’t taste the difference, isn’t it worth paying more to get the health benefits? Aside from the fact that factory food is pumped with chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics (I don’t want those, are you OK consuming them), there is evidence that organic food is simply healthier, simply higher in nutrition.

    “What I find most disturbing is the subtle implication running through the article (and the comments) that low-tech is the way to go, here.”

    I think you’re assuming something that isn’t there. While some specifically “low-tech” methods are proven, there’s no blanket dismissal of technology, just use it when it makes sense. Neither the article nor the comments mention horse drawn plows.

    “any fertilizer value from horseshit is easily ofset by the risk of tetanus associated with same”

    Do you have a source showing that fertilizing with animal manure isn’t any safer than chemical fertilizers?

    “Higher technology has been improving diets for thousands of years, and cannot be ignored”

    Actually, that has been disputed as well. Sure, there’s more quantity and choice. But the nutritional value of some specific foods has actually dropped over the years. A number of “improvements” during the course of food history have actually caused public health to get worse.

    “Eat less of what you like”

    Isn’t that what healthy eating is already? Or do you dispute that eating less hot fudge sundaes and more vegetables is healthy?

    “learn how to spend a lot more time preparing food”

    Again, how is learning to cook and spending some time cooking a bad thing? And it doesn’t have to be a lot more time, any switch from tv dinners to homemade meals is an improvement. You don’t think if people cooked homemade more it would be a good thing?

    “pay a higher price for that food”

    You get what you pay for. Just ask the people in China who got a great deal on baby formula…that turned out to be so cheap because it was diluted with poison and killed their kids or made them sick. Is food really one of the things in life that you want to cut corners on, something where you’ll settle for low quality to save a buck?

    And as a taxpayer, frankly I’m pissed that my tax dollars are going toward subsidizing crappy food. I want to see those subsidies end, and if food prices go up, so be it. We’re still paying for that “cheap” food, the cost is just getting hidden.

    “and demand that the food you eat be grown in places that aren’t suited to it.”

    Nobody is demanding that. We just recognize that it’s wasteful to truck food across the country to a place that’s perfectly capable of growing that exact same food.

    I’d definitely recommend reading more about these issues if you’re truly interested in them. This article only scratched the surface, and you definitely have some misconceptions that would be cleared up with some more reading.

    Let us know if you’d like any recommendations.

  • faustianbargain

    i am sure idaho potato farmers are finding it difficult to make ends meet by farming solely for simplot. economics at work and thats the way the cookie crumbles.

    southern idaho has ‘volcanic-ash’ soil, plenty of irrigation and plenty of sun. i am sure they can grow something other than potatoes.

    interesting article dated 10 oct, 2008,

    http://www.wtopnews.com/?nid=111&sid=1494731

    […]That overall total is down from the 13 billion pounds harvested a year ago because some producers switched to crops like wheat, corn and hay which are fetching better market prices than potatoes this year.
    […]
    This year, the commission anticipates that about 60 percent of spuds planted in Idaho will be processed into frozen or dehydrated products. About 30 percent of the crop will be shipped to grocery stores or restaurants nationwide, while less than 10 percent will be used to grow more potatoes next season.
    […]
    Across the state, farmers planted potatoes on about 300,000 acres, down from 350,000 acres a year ago.
    […]
    Idaho typically produces about one-third of the nation’s fall potato crop, and about 60 percent of the state yield is produced in the eastern part of the state.
    […]
    ***
    idaho agriculture stats:
    http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Idaho/index.asp

    there you go…they wont starve if they dont feed american mcD french fries..:)

  • Lamar

    Hmmm…I too smell a new book in the works.

    But please Mr. Ruhlman, do not add to the growing pile of organic excrement that makes up the world of fresh/regional pamplheteering. Those books tend to drone on about carbon footprints, antibiotics, mutant tomatoes, and big box stores.

    In short, most of what’s out there is more likely to depress people than to inspire them to throw out the hot pockets.

    If I could humbly request something seen more through the eyes of chefs and their hero farmers…you know, fun stuff. Hell, even a recipe or two (i.e. what to do with really great f-ing tomatoes). The best books on food are the ones that make people want to try something new…not the ones that give them a mental beat-down for all the mummified food they’ve been buying.

    Just a humble thought or two.

  • milo

    Lamar, have you actually read any of those books? Your post makes it sound like you haven’t but I don’t want to make a false assumption.

  • Lamar

    Read? As in from cover to cover? Hardly! “Browsed” would be a better way to describe it. I’ve gotten through a chapter or two, and skimmed around quite a few volumes, but the only one I could digest fully was Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Which, I’ll add, was great.

    For the most part though, I (and I suspect others like myself) get excited about finding fresh, local products because they taste good. Really good. But I only discovered that because I drifted accross a T.V. show segment that was focused on how to find fresh eggplants, how incredibly great they are, and how to prepare them. It had nothing to do with whether GMO is good/bad, or how many miles the eggplant had traveled.

    Books seem to be focused either on the production chain, or on the final cooking process. There’s not alot out there (as far as I know) that bridges the gap in a way people can easily identify with and get excited about.

    How would that be done? I haven’t a clue!

  • Bookman

    @Milo

    Since you ignored my comment regarding subsidies, and heavily parsed the rest, you wouldn’t be the one I’d ask for recommendations regarding reading on the subject. Your reference to the scandal in China is a similarly dishonest straw-man.

    I would be mildly interested on an expansive breakdown on how new technology is making food worse. I suspect most of what you are referring to are things like tomatoes being bred for transport, which was, TTBOMK, accomplished by old-fashiioned cross-breeding.

    I will admit that new technologies aren’t implemented without risk – when foods canned in metl were introduced, lead poisoning from the solder used to make the cans was a problem – but that doesn’t mean that preserving food in metal cans was a bad concept. Ironically, technologies such as genetic engineering could improve the practicality of growing fresh, local produce, more organically and cheaply – but the propagandists don’t admit that one. They’d rather implant false fears in hopes of derailing the concept entirely.

    Nice of you to prove my assertion by avoiding the economic issues, though. Thanks.

  • faustianbargain

    bookman said earlier: “What I find most disturbing is the subtle implication running through the article (and the comments) that low-tech is the way to go, here. A horse-drawn plow does nothing to improve food quality, since any fertilizer value from horseshit is easily ofset by the risk of tetanus associated with same.”

    where did you get that from..? re horse drawn plow?

  • milo

    Lamar, glad you liked the omnivore’s dilemma, I liked that much of it was devoted to the success stories instead of being all doom and gloom.

    Bookman: “Since you ignored my comment regarding subsidies…”

    Sorry, I don’t see anything in your post specifically mentioning subsidies, could you clarify?

    I mentioned China because it’s an example of a potential worst case scenario, one that may make people more willing to pay more for food if they think they are getting something safer. I also mentioned the recent pepper/tomato scare, which happened here, which I think is an entirely reasonable reference.

    One example of tech makng food worse is going from whole grains to more highly processed flour, when there were widespread outbreaks of diseases due to the lost nutrients. I guess I’m talking more about the more and more intensive processing of food which tends to take out nutrients (and often try and replace them with a sprinkling of vitamins, with mixed results).

    Again, nobody is making a blanket dismissal of “high-tech” or endorsement of “low-tech”. (that’s a strawman on your part) Both have their place.

    And what assertion of yours exactly did I “prove”?

    I DID talk about the economic issues, including higher prices and subsidies. Which economic issue do you think I avoided, I’m happy to address it?