Michael Pollan is my hero

I came across Michael Pollan’s visit to Fresh Air on NPR’s website, where he and the show’s host, Terry Gross, discuss Pollan’s Farmer in Chief article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

If you have the time, I would advise listening to the show online, Food As A National Security Issue, because the way our food is grown is an American issue that touches upon many other issues which are getting lots of press as we lead up to Election Day: oil and energy costs, jobs, subsidies, education, the economy, the environment.  At forty minutes, it’s a lengthy show, but it’s incredibly informative, and if you’re already familiar with Michael Pollan’s other books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, it should be something you’ll find interesting.

In the show, Pollan is arguing for “wringing the oil out of our food,” meaning taking out the fossil fuels we use to grow much of our food here in America and moving to a more sustainable, “solar-based” farming style, in which we use the sun as the primary source of energy for our farming needs, and utilise farming practices to reduce, or possibly eliminate, the fossil fuels we use for fertiliser and pesticides which pollute our land and cost farmers money.  He cites a practice in Argentina where farmers are on an 8-year cycle for growing beef and crops: farmers have beef cattle graze on pastureland for five years, then grow crops such as wheat or soy on the land for three years, because the soil is so rich after having the cows on the land due to their manure.  A similar practice was done at Polyface Farms, which Pollan talks about in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan said on Fresh Air, “[T]he era of cheap food is over.  It’s over because of high energy prices, and it probably won’t come back, so we are going to have to rethink the whole food system.”

In The New York Times Magazine article, An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief, Pollan touches in depth on how we need to rethink the food system Americans have become trapped in, and how the system touches upon health care, climate change and the energy crisis.  On the topic of health care, Pollan writes, “While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.”

There are several other good points he makes in the article, and I encourage you to read it, or at least listen to the interview he has with Terry Gross.  We do need to make a serious paradigm shift in American attitudes towards food, and hopefully the next president will take these concerns to heart and create a system that is beneficial for farmers, consumers and the environment.

But he won’t unless the American people begin to take our food seriously, transcending the colour lines between red and blue issues.  On this, Pollan sounds optimistic in his article: 

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. The American people are paying more attention to food today than they have in decades, worrying not only about its price but about its safety, its provenance and its healthfulness. There is a gathering sense among the public that the industrial-food system is broken. Markets for alternative kinds of food — organic, local, pasture-based, humane — are thriving as never before. All this suggests that a political constituency for change is building and not only on the left: lately, conservative voices have also been raised in support of reform. Writing of the movement back to local food economies, traditional foods (and family meals) and more sustainable farming, The American Conservative magazine editorialized last summer that “this is a conservative cause if ever there was one.

Truly, this is an American cause, whether you consider yourself a conservative, liberal, apolitical or a member of the Boston Tea Party (seriously, it’s a real party).  If we want to decrease or eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, the answer isn’t as simple as “drill here, drill now.”  We need to restructure the way we farm food, the way we ship food, way we buy food, the way we make food, and the way we think about food.

And you, yes you, are capable of starting this change.  There are small, simple ways to ameliorate this crisis that you can do, no matter your income.  Buy local when you can to decrease the cost of shipping food, and to get the freshest product possible.  If you eat meat, buy grass-fed beef when you can (read about why grass-fed beef is better for you and for the cows on The Food Revolution, where the article even quotes Michael Pollan, go fig).

Here’s a big one: Learn how to cook.  By cooking, you can control what is put into your body, and you can make leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.  If you live alone, and buying ingredients for some meals seems beyond your price range, especially when it “serves 4-6,” get together with friends and have them bring along some  of the ingredients.  If you don’t know how to boil an egg, get one of your friends or your parents to teach you how to cook, or just wing it.  Check out cookbooks from your local library, or borrow them from your foodie friends.  Websites abound with recipes, so if you got some arugula in your recent Orlando Organics order and don’t know what to do with it, here are some sites to get you started:

  • MarthaStewart.com – I recommend the Everyday Food recipes, as they tend to  be simpler.
  • Allrecipes.com – Marie’s favourite source for recipes.
  • VegWeb.com – Vegan recipes, with reviews.
  • OpenSourceFood.com – See photos of food made by professional and amateur cooks, and share your own recipes and creations once you get going.
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