A Response to Pollan’s Letter to the Next President

A Response to Pollan’s Letter to the Next President

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Sunday’s New York Times Magazine contains another of Michael Pollan’s occasional pieces on food politics. This one breaks new ground in a couple of ways. Rather than take the form of a feature article, it’s written as an open letter to the next U.S. President. And while past Pollan articles were geared to explaining the problems with America’s food production, this piece is all about offering a set of proposals for rebuilding America’s farming system.

The fact that Pollan is now focused on offering solutions makes this the most important thing he’s written for the Times. The route he’s taken in this piece is of special interest. This is not a piece asking consumers to follow their conscience in how they eat — it is instead a call upon government to make radical changes based on economic necessity.

Some excerpts, with my responses:

Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

If you’re going to have a meat-producing nation, this is probably the best way to do it. I think it’s fair to say that factory farming has proven to be such an animal welfare disaster that smaller is always better when it comes to reducing animal cruelty.

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 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.

The interesting thing about Pollan and other conscientious omnivores is: yes, they want meat. But they actually want it to be a lot more expensive. They object as much as any vegan to cheap, cruel, unsustainable factory farmed meat.

I sometimes talk about how getting rid of factory farms would wipe out the 99 cent cheeseburger. Sure, people would still eat meat. But in a country where bean burritos were $5 and pork burritos $12, you can guess what sort of burritos most people would purchase.

According to one study, a pound of feedlot beef also takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce.

I debunked that water claim at length in Appendix B of Meat Market. It’s sad to see Pollan undercutting his credibility by needlessly advancing sketchy claims. It’s a shame that he seems unwilling to read the more scholarly books in the vegan literature.

Today most federal messages about food, from nutrition labeling to the food pyramid, are negotiated with the food industry. The surgeon general should take over from the Department of Agriculture the job of communicating with Americans about their diet. That way we might begin to construct a less equivocal and more effective public-health message about nutrition.

On second thought, maybe he has read Meat Market. This recommendation comes straight off pages 102-103.

And you should also let it be known that the White House observes one meatless day a week — a step that, if all Americans followed suit, would be the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year.

I’m skeptical that the environmental impact would be as large as he claims, especially as factory farms add methane capture devices and whatnot. But still, it’s great to see somebody of Pollan’s influence advocating flexitarianism.

You should support hunting as a particularly sustainable way to eat meat — meat grown without any fossil fuels whatsoever.

This recommendation will doubtless rub many vegans the wrong way. But for people who won’t consider going vegan, I’d rather see them eat thirty pounds of venison each year than one or two hundred pounds of factory farmed meat.

*****

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s naive to hope that even a writer of Pollan’s status can successfully lead a revolution that topples a half-century of food policy. If the present system of agriculture can no longer support 99 cent factory farmed cheeseburgers, perhaps what Americans want instead is $1.99 factory farmed cheeseburgers — and not a complete overhaul of every element of agriculture.

Would Pollan’s proposals take us in the direction of a more compassionate, more sustainable system of agriculture? Absolutely. But in a country comprised largely of food illiterates, with a deeply corrupt USDA dictating food policy, it might well be beyond a new President’s powers to topple the existing order. I guess we’ll know our prospects when the next Ag Secretary is named. Me, I’d love Vegas to set the odds for whether said Secretary once worked for Tyson Foods. Link.

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