by Kendra Pierre-Louis
There’s a rumor circulating around the foodie and agricultural corners of the internet that President-Elect Obama might choose best selling author and New York Times contributing writer Michael Pollan as his new Secretary of Agriculture.
At first blush this seems to be a ludicrous idea.
After all, Michael Pollan’s own biography lists him first as a writer and secondly as a professor (he is the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley). His educational background, he received a B.A. from Bennington College, where he focused on literature, and an M.A. in English from Columbia University, only seems to add to the ridiculousness of the idea. Where is his agriculture experience? In fact, words such as “farmer”, “agriculturalist” or “agronomist” appear nowhere on his CV.
Mr. Pollan seems a foolhardy choice, until one examines the substance of his writing. From The Botany of Desire, to his most recent, In Defense of Food, Pollan shows a nuanced understanding of how our food systems should behave, namely to feed people in a manner that sustains life. Instead, our current food system lines the pockets of agribusiness while wreaking havoc on the environment and compounding our health and energy problems.
To even a casual observer our current system of agriculture does not make sense.
We raise cattle and pork in confined feed lots located thousands of
miles away both from where their animal feed is grown, and from the
lands of the people who will dine on them. And nearly as strange, the
average apple, for example travels 1,726 miles, or the distance from
Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida, from the orchard to the table
despite the fact that most Americans live within 60 miles of an apple
As Michael Pollan eloquently wrote in a New York Times column titled “Farmer in Chief”,
the way America farms contributes more to global greenhouse gasses than
anything else we do, and it uses more energy than anything else America
does besides drive. In addition, four out of the ten biggest killers in
the United States, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer,
are chronic diseases strongly correlated to diet.
Currently, our farm policy is dominated by what’s best for a few
agricultural concerns and food distributors and not by what is in the
best interest of the average American, America as a nation, or even
more bizarrely most farmers. As family farms across the nation must
shut down or consolidate under policy rules which prioritizes quantity
over quality and gives us supermarket shelves lined with foods of
dubious nutritional nature, it is time, for every American who has ever
picked up a fork, spoon, chopstick or spork, to take a step back and
ask, “is this really what we want to subsidize?”
Our new Secretary of Agriculture cannot be myopic in his or her
focus, and has to extend beyond mid-western and agribusiness interests.
He or she must recognize the linkages between how America eats and the
gallons of foreign oil we must import each year from nations with which
we share uneasy relations. When Obama decries rising health care costs,
he or she must be able to point to the farm bill as at least one of the
reasons behind America’s ever burgeoning waistlines.
As Pollan points out in "Farmer in Chief," unless President-Elect
Obama makes the reform of the entire food system one of the highest
priorities of his administration he will be unable to make the progress
on the health care crisis, climate change, and energy independence
which he campaigned on.
The ethicurean, a blog which focuses on sustainable food issues has created a list of more likely candidates for Secretary of Agriculture.
For those hoping for change in America’s farm policies, this list is
dismaying. Most have ties to mid-western farm concerns; all have ties
to large agribusiness.
None appear to be capable of helping Obama usher in the change that we so desperate need. Michael Pollan, however, does.
What’s the most compelling argument in pushing for Michael Pollan as Secretary Of Agriculture? Obama’s a fan.
If you’re also a fan, here’s an online petition.
Kendra Pierre-Louis is a research intern for Public Citizen’s
Congress Watch division and a graduate student at the SIT Graduate
Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont. As a summer farm worker she saw
first hand the disturbing effects of our current farm policy.