Another year, another New York Times Magazine annual food issue. The 2008 cover shows an apocalyptic ear of exploding corn, with pulp-fiction title fonts and an inside about the business and politics of local eating and how anyone who hasn’t made it their business and politics yet, should.
Michael Pollan’s fourteen-page tour de force entreating our future president-elect to make food a central part of his reform, makes a dynamic centerfold. Although food may not have been a big part of campaign conversations thus far, Pollan trumpets, “[it’s] about to demand your attention.”
The core of the article, however, is a “new food agenda” he urges the future president to “wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.” The first part of the proposal involves “resolarizing” farming, or nudging (through large changes in the subsidy structure) commodity farmers towards polyculture, reducing the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Among his suggestions are increased, even mandatory, composting, low-till grains, and an exodus of CAFO animals from the feedlot back onto the land. The “three struts” that support the modern feedlot are artificial and failing, Pollan shows: grain is no longer cheap, overuse of antibiotics increasingly looks like a bad idea, and CAFOs will need to start treating animal waste like the pollution it is. America needs to train a new generation of highly skilled, small farm farmers, “not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security.” Pollan sees a future of subdivisions built not around golf courses but diversified farms.
Part two of his plan involves “reregionalizing the food system,” through four-season farmers’ markets, reregulation of food economies that help the small producers, local meat-inspection corps and the revival of small local slaughterhouses, a strategic grain reserve that helps balance commodity grain prices, federal food procurement that relies more heavily on local supplies, and a federal definition of food that stops “flattering nutritionally worthless foodlike substances by calling them “junk food”—and instead make clear that such products are not in fact food of any kind.”
Finally, he implicates the consumers: us. Pollan proposes that every primary school plant a garden and install an actual kitchen where real school lunches are cooked, and that the White House lawn should have its own garden, too. He believes the FDA should require packaged foods to count how many calories of fossil fuel went into their production, so we can compare that to the food calories they’ve resulted in, and also for a cell-phone-scannable bar code that’ll tell the product’s story: the agrochemicals used (or not used) in its production, a description of animals’ diet and drug regimen, and live video feeds of “yes, the slaughterhouse where they die,” to shock us out of the culture of ignorance that prevails in modern-day eaters.
The three most imperative changes we need to make during the 21st century, according to Pollan, are to decrease our dependence on oil, improve our health, and mitigate climate change. “Cheap food is dishonestly priced,” he writes. “It is in fact unconscionably expensive.”
We’re a month away from a new president, and Pollan has written a measured, strong, commonsense clarion call for change. Let’s hope whoever’s elected listens to it.
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