Author Michael Pollan says cheap food has a cost

Food expert Michael Pollan spoke Monday in Hanover. VTDigger Photo by Mike Polhamus.
Food expert Michael Pollan spoke Monday in Hanover. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger
HANOVER — The United States needs a new food policy, much like it already has an energy policy and an agriculture policy, journalist and author Michael Pollan told a crowd of more than 700 on Monday.

The country’s existing so-called food policy, as it has remained over the last 50 years, is to ensure Americans’ food is “plenty and cheap,” Pollan said.

On that metric, we’ve succeeded, he said — Americans spend about 9.5 percent of their disposable income on food, while Europeans spend 14 to 15 percent. United States citizens, Pollan said, enjoy cheaper food than do the citizens of any other country, now or ever.

“In the history of humankind, that is a blessing,” he said.

But cheap food incurs costs elsewhere, Pollan said.

Americans need a more thoughtful food policy, Pollan said, because left unchecked this $1.5 trillion industry produces environmental, social and medical harms, of which the public remains largely unaware.

For instance, one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas pollution today results from the agriculture industry, Pollan said. Nitrogen pollution from farms — used to fertilize fields depleted by monocultural agriculture — has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts, he said. Oligopolies in the meat industry (only four meat packers slaughter 85 percent of the beef in the country, he said) mean that farmers are forced to accept unfairly low prices for their livestock — prices that prevent them from adopting sustainable practices, Pollan said. Overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry has led to evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, he said. Americans suffer more chronic diseases from dietary choices than from any other cause, he added.

These and other consequences of Americans’ food consumption and food production ought to be addressed intentionally and holistically, Pollan said, through a national food policy.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a memo leaked to the press that the Obama administration needs to coordinate such a food policy. Vilsack was on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice presidential candidates, and Pollan said he’s likely to have her ear should Clinton win the election.

It’s worth watching for steps in this direction, should Clinton prevail, he said, but advocates for better food policy have been disappointed before. Clinton has also said she’d pursue antitrust litigation against the few meat-packing corporations that currently control the industry — “I’ll believe that when I see it,” Pollan said.

A professor at Vermont Law School is currently working with her peers at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to draft a blueprint for what a national food policy might look like.

Today, numerous agencies oversee food-related issues, and no overarching policy guides their actions with respect to food, so the agencies and the other policies they try to put in place “are not coordinated, and sometimes they’re at cross-purposes, and sometimes they undermine each other,” said Laurie Ristino, who teaches at Vermont Law School and heads the institution’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

“We’d really benefit from a coordinated approach” to food, Ristino said.

As president, Clinton might invest the time and political capital that a national food policy would require, but it’s hard to say for certain, since candidates this year have articulated relatively few specific policy positions, Ristino said. No president is likely to undertake a food policy without clear support from voters, she said.

“I don’t think it’s impossible or out of the question that Clinton would focus on it … but really it has to coalesce and be part of [her] agenda, which is partly our responsibility — to say, ‘This is important,’” Ristino said.

One thing standing in the way of food-policy reform in the U.S., Pollan said, is the food movement itself.

It’s a very diverse coalition, Pollan said, “and not all interests in it care about each other.”

For instance, many activists working toward improved food-production practices care primarily about animal welfare, Pollan said. These activists don’t care nearly as much about the working conditions laborers experience while picking produce in fields or while preparing meals in fast-food restaurants, he said. Those who feel most strongly about workers’ conditions aren’t animated by concern for the environment, and those who care most about the environment aren’t typically worried about processed foods’ deleterious effects on public health, he said.

Pollan likened the situation to that experienced by members of the gay rights movement a decade ago — fractured and heterogeneous, until “some part of it decided to work on marriage equality” — and said a similar focus on a single issue could lead to real improvements in the industry.

Another obstacle to food policy reform, Pollan said, can be seen even in the congressional committees devoted to agriculture, which are composed almost entirely of representatives for agricultural interests. There are no committee members chosen to represent “eaters,” or ordinary American citizens, Pollan said.

The result is agriculture policies written to serve the agriculture industry, and to a lesser extent, farmers, he said. Ordinary Americans ought to have a seat at the table that makes these decisions, Pollan said, because, for instance, current agricultural policies drive national public health problems that ramp up health care costs.

Although corporations exercise significant influence over what Americans eat and what Americans wish to eat, Pollan said, consumers also play a role in shaping the country’s approach to food.

Among the most influential decisions Americans make in their food habits, Pollan said, is the choice to eat meat.

Americans on average consume half a pound of meat per person every day, he said.

“In the history of humankind, this is a new thing,” he said. “Meat was a luxury for most of humankind for most of human history.”

Meat requires enormous resources to produce, he said, to the point that eliminating meat from their diet is among the single most effective methods individuals have to combat anthropogenic climate change.

At some point, he said, Americans’ current meat-eating habits “will seem irresponsible.”

“I’m old enough to remember when, if you had any litter in your car, you threw it out the window,” Pollan said, and when “smoking in public places was something routine.

“I think meat eating’s going to suffer the same thing,” he said.

Although Pollan professed to enjoy eating the flesh of other animals, he said that at some point the environmental community will need to reckon with the practice.

Once that happens, he said, meat’s likely to become “something very special you have on Sunday night.”

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  • Here’s an interesting Mother Jones article about Tom Vilsak’s positions on various agricultural practices and policies. Laurie Ristino, the Vermont Law School professor cited in this article, worked as senior counsel at the USDA. The USDA is often perceived by leading-edge regenerative farming communities as a tool for “agribusiness-as-usual.” There are worlds of evolution beyond simply ‘organic’ practices (which can be just as destructive to soil and water resources) such as permaculture, agroforestry, and bio-intensive methods. We certainly need a new food policy that places taxpayer dollars in heath-producing products and practices that build ecosystems. http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/07/hillary-clinton-vilsack-veep-food-agriculture-companies%20

  • Hilton Dier

    The reality is that there is no such thing as cheap food. There is food with a relatively low sticker price on the shelf, but we are paying more for it elsewhere: Cash subsidies, tax breaks, below market cost grazing land and water, health costs of pollution, nad, of course, the health costs of making the least healthy food cheap. We are also borrowing from the future: soil loss, antibiotic loss, and climate change.

  • Kathleen Ryan

    Thanks — great article

  • It is simply incomprehensible that Vermont’s government officials ignore the delicious, wholesome organic food that is being grown using regenerative methods all over this state. Most of the farmers engaged in this activity are young, a fact which flies in the face of all the negativity about how the “best and brightest” among us are leaving Vermont in search of lucrative careers. Instead, Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets Chuck Ross writes eloquent articles about how non-organic dairy is an economic driver, ignoring the fact that conventional milk prices are at an historic low and require subsidies just to keep the farms operating for another month, week or day. I was a vendor at four different farmers’ markets this past summer. Attendance was pathetically low. And yet when I drive home I pass supermarkets like Shaw’s where the parking lot is entirely full. Why? Because of the false perception that corporate food is a “bargain.” There is no such thing as “cheap food.”

  • I just made sauerkraut from a Michael Pollan recipe with cabbage that I grew for the third year in a row.

  • While it would be hard to argue against Mr. Pollan’s general positions on “cheap” food, I always get concerned when a national policy is called for. In my experience, most of the recent national policies have resulted in higher costs for every issue the policies have attempted to address. Of course, that’s probably irrelevant to a successful journalist, author, and lecturer like Mr. Pollan, but it sure resonates with me.

  • I hope that Harvard and VT Law School are actually working with working class small regenerative ag. FARMERS to craft policy. The academia based approach is often as worrisome as Tom Vilsack’s in terms of its dislocation from the realities of establishing, managing, and keeping economically viable small regenerative farms and agroecological systems in the exploitative food system we have. We need a food systems approach and economic model which integrates the realities (socially, economically, and ecologically) of each bioregion – and which empowers those communities to make their own decisions on policy apart from other bioregions. We need the real stakeholders in this conversation brought to the table to craft policy in numbers which actually represent their presence and experience.