Michael Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” Letter: An Overview/Review


I don’t often print out long documents, but after working online most of yesterday, I transferred from the internet to some scrap paper this thirteen-and-a-half page letter, published October 12 in the New York Times Magazine, and settled into a hot tub to soak and read.

The main argument of Pollan’s correspondence addressed to the future president and “Farmer-in-Chief” is that we cannot solve those three major crises of global warming, health care, and energy without first recognizing that our current food system has contributed to them, and that an overhaul of that food system will be necessary to alleviate them.

The candidates, he argues, have been campaigning and speechifying on these three crises extensively, but these crises have in some part been caused, and in large part been exacerbated by our global food system and the first world’s (and especially the United State’s) fast-food culture.

Too, the government policies of the last several decades are implicated in the coming (and in many places current) food crisis.  Pollan points to the huge monocultures of the midwestern landscape, the reeking feedlots, the chemical fertilizer industry, and the fencerow-to-fencerow planting policies of Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, all as disastrous pieces of our quantity-over-quality, cheap-but-empty-calorie, contamination-prone, oil-gobbling food supply jigsaw puzzle.

I could not agree more with Pollan’s assessment of the food crisis, that has thusfar mostly been felt in this country by a frightening rise in food prices on the grocery store shelves.  I’ve written about those prices, and about how local farmers are now able to compete with them instead of basing their produce prices off those at the grocery store, in my article, “Changing Pricing Strategies in Farmers Markets,” published in the current edition of Farmers Markets Today.

The cheap energy (and government subsidies for shipping costs) that once made it difficult for local farmers to compete with products shipped in from thousands of miles away is now history.  Pollan asks the future Farmer-in-Chief to consider that, although the old policies

are in a shambles, and the need to address the problems they have caused is acute[…]The good news is that the twinned crises in food and energy are creating a political environment in which real reform of the food system may actually be possible for the first time in a generation. [Pollan, Michael. “Farmer in Chief.” New York Times Magazine, 12 October 2008]

Pollan advocates a return to polycultural farms that rely less on the outside inputs of chemical fertilizers. Taking the animals off the farm and raising them in CAFOs created two problems: lack of fertility on the farm and animal waste disposal issues at the CAFOs. Pollan advocates putting the two back together, further advocates use of sustainable farming practices such as cover-cropping and composting, and suggests we “make municipal composting of food and yard waste mandatory.”

There are further recommendations here, and I agree with most all of them–especially about how diversifying and localizing food systems is safer, healthier, and just plain better for producers and consumers alike, but I think in a couple respects, Pollan goes a bit too far:

The government should also throw its support behind putting a second bar code on all food products that, when scanned either in the store or at home (or with a cellphone), brings up on the screen the whole story and pictures of how that product was produced.

The argument here is that the eating public is ignorant, and they shouldn’t be allowed to be ignorant. While it’s hard to disagree with Pollan on the first part, it’s also hard to argue with people who just want to eat a burger and not be assaulted by stories and images of every ingredient under the bun.

Too, the slaughtering process isn’t pretty no matter how you slice it, and while showing those images might be edifying, and might also in some part alleviate our obesity epidemic, it’s not going to help the local meat-producers or processors to have electronic images of bleeding-out carcasses attached to their products.

If Pollan wants to see us return to a culture where food is whole, real, and fresh, and is purchased in the region where it was produced, and is raised by a real farmer you can actually shake hands with, then isn’t that by definition a culture where food doesn’t carry even one bar code, never mind two?  Processed foods with multiple ingredients might then become suspect, and consumers more prone to read labels.  But, if they’re not reading the labels now, one can’t assume they’d be interested in scanning that second barcode into their cell phones.

Another part of the discussion that I am troubled by is Pollan’s assertion that food is too cheap and we should be spending a larger portion of our family incomes on food.  I’ve heard Pollan say this before, and to a certain extent I agree: recently, when a customer at the Farmers Market told me that my canned dilly beans were too expensive (they were $3.50/pint), I responded that I grow the beans, and I grow the dill and the garlic, and I prepared and processed them myself, so I know how much they’re worth.  She bought them, and she convinced another couple to buy a jar, too.

But. And this is huge.  While you can say that the cost of food should reflect the full price of its production, shipping, packaging–everything that goes into it, it is a lot more politically tricky to say that food should be more expensive–especially in tough economic times.  Foods that are produced and processed locally can reflect that true cost without being outrageously-priced, which I believe is Pollan’s point.

The next “Farmer in Chief” would do better to follow Pollan’s other advice–tearing out a chunk of the South Lawn to grow a White House Victory Garden, and encouraging others to turn their lawns to food production as well, rather than to tell cash-strapped citizens that in addition to emptying their pocketbooks at the pump, they should also be paying more for their organic arugula, er, “rocket.”

Read the full text of Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” letter here.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve seen some other ways of publicizing where food comes from that don’t go quite as far as what Pollan suggests, and perhaps they would be easier on producers. This fall, at least one of the natural food co-ops in Minneapolis is not only putting “local” stickers on the produce signs and identifying the farm and geographic location it came from, but also adding photos and names of the farmers (or their adorable three-year-old children). The Organic Valley producers’ co-op soymilk also has a neat thing now where you can enter the sell-by date of a carton of their soymilk on their website, and it will tell you which farm it came from and give you a profile of the farm. Admittedly, these ways of getting out information can be more marketing than straight-up info., but they are attempts to deal with how hard it is for people in large urban areas to meet, much less know, the people producing their food. Even if you go to a farmer’s market, in urban areas it can be so busy that there is no time to ask basic questions about how the food is produced. At other times, language can be a barrier. I loved to look at the wonderfully various peppers sold by Hmong immigrants at farmer’s markets in Minnesota, but it was often difficult to get questions about farm practices answered.

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on October 17, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    Kelly–

    The Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op in my hometown also has pictures and bios of the local farms that supply their produce. I love going in there and reading about the farms and what they grow.

    I like the idea of “local” stickers except that the produce stickers generally drive me a little crazy. Still, they are a way to distinguish local produce, for consumers and for cashiers.

    I have seen the shrink-wrapped European hothouse cucumbers in Jones’ with “locally grown” stickers on them, but with no indication of where that locale is. I think a “locally grown” sticker needs to indicate the region for it to be trustworthy.

  3. Posted by Kelsey Wood on October 21, 2008 at 10:41 am

    I, too, thought that the idea of putting a second barcode on local products was a bit much. I appreciate that transparency and accountability are what he’s going for, but I’d much rather have the certainty that comes with knowing someone face-to-face. I live in Vancouver, BC and a lot of the natural grocerers around here identify locally-grown or -made products in their stores with a placard on the shelf indicating that it originated from within a 100 mile radius of the city. This really only works for produce, though. Having worked in one of the local bakeries whose products were retailed and labelled in one of these stores as “local,” I know that the ingredients that went into those breads actually came from places as far-flung as Thailand, China, India, and Austria. It concerns me that this one particular retailer is essentially lying to their customers about the bakery’s products being local–yes, they are made locally, but the importation of almost all the ingredients negates the customer’s effort to reduce their food miles. The pessimistic side of me thinks the store is marketing smartly to capitalize on the growing demand for local products. My optimistic side wants to think that every step along the production path that takes place locally is a step in the right direction and the store’s labelling of this product as local at least gives customers an idea where to start finding local foods–those who are hardcore about it can opt to call the bakery and ask about particular ingredients if they’re so inclined. But, maybe this is one of those cases where a second barcode would come in handy…

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on October 21, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Kelsey–

    Of course, the funny thing is that in a place that grows wheat, it may be incredibly hard to find locally grown and milled flour–we have lost much of the infrastructure that has made local processing possible, and the “raw materials,” as Pollan called them in his “Fresh Air” interview yesterday, are shipped far from their point of origin, processed, then shipped back to “food deserts” like the one I live in (though I’m certainly attempting to change that, as are others).

    I sincerely hope that the price of fossil fuel will re-invigorate not only our local food economy, but our local food processing economy as well. I know that my small town at one point had a cannery, and I’d like to see one open its doors again.

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