Chew on this

February 20th, 2009

A loyal RWG reader forwarded me a podcast of this fascinating NPR interview with journalist and agricultural visionary Michael Pollan, author of The Ominvore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. While the interview originally aired on Oct. 20, 2008, its rebroadcast earlier this week seems especially poignant in light of the continued economic crisis, as well as our ongoing challenge of freeing America from fossil fuel dependence.

According to Pollan, we’re going to need to come up with a new agricultural policy in a post-oil America. He explains how a redesign in US farming policy to drive down the cost of food during the Nixon administration has led to the agricultural quandary we find ourselves in today, including:

  • Why broccoli costs more than a candy bar. I had always just taken as blind fact that junk food is cheaper than healthy food. I thought it ironic that obesity in this country is more prevalent the lower you go down the socieconomic ladder, when throughout the history of mankind the poorest people were the ones who were skinny and starving. But Pollan makes the connection: It’s a direct result of US agricultural subsidies that the cheapest calories in the supermarket (high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soy oil) are the worst for you.
  • Why farming is one of the green jobs of the future. “If we’re going to grow food in a post-oil era…we will need a lot more hands on the land,” says Pollan. He says that whereas there were once 40 to 50 million farmers in this country, there are now a mere 2 million farmers left, in a population of 300 million people. Hey, what about taking all of the money the federal government spends on farm subsidies ($5.07 billion in direct payments in 2007, according to the Environmental Working Group) and instead creating a program to put Americans back to work as green farmers?
  • Why hard times are a perfect opportunity to grow our own food. Sure, shopping at Whole Foods (or Whole Paycheck, as it’s often called) can be expensive, but that doesn’t mean we can’t afford healthy food. Pollan cites that during World War II, 40 percent of the produce in this country was grown in small home “Victory” gardens to help support the war effort. (See, being green is patriotic.) Among his more lofty (and genius) ideas, he sees the President setting the ultimate example for the rest of the country by transforming the White House lawn into a White House garden, providing fresh produce for the White House kitchen and local food banks.

I’ve only scratched the surface–Pollan also talks about the rise of feedlots, Argentina as an example for sustainable farming, and how suburban sprawl affects our farming capability, among other enlightening topics. But if you glean only one tidbit from the interview, it’s this: The era of cheap food is over.

–Jennifer Grayson

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