An article entitled Farmer in Chief, published by the New York Times last month, captured the attention of media, environmentalists and bloggers around the world. Written by journalist and professor Michael Pollan as an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama, the article urges Obama to make food security a key issue.
In the letter, Pollan — author of the book In Defense of Food and other revelatory investigations on the issue of the planet’s food situation — explains why and how the American diet and current agricultural system need to shift from a dependence on cheap oil to natural sunshine.
After some initial media reports that Obama’s office had found the 14-page letter too long, it is now said that Pollan’s letter did make it into the President-elect’s reading pile. Obama recently noted in an interview published by Time Magazine that weaning the American diet from its unhealthy dependency on cheap oil is directly linked to his new energy policy.
Unfortunately, the official Obama website does not include food security in its issues’ agenda. But the fact that Obama has repeatedly campaigned on a “new energy for America plan” that aims to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050” leads one to believe that the new US leader will take Pollan’s recommendations seriously.
Pollan’s letter is long and varied. It starts by explaining how things became the way they are. He describes the historical decisions made by previous administrations based on a seemingly never-ending supply of cheap fossil fuels that resulted in the industrial agricultural system that we know today.
He affirms that the current state of affairs demands a serious commitment on the part of President-elect Obama’s team towards creating programs, policies and incentives that will transform the food system from one that is oil-based to one that is based on sunshine and renewable sources of energy.
Pollan’s recommendations are so comprehensive that they affect all levels of the food system: from growing to processing to consuming food. The key issues raised can best be summarized as follows:
- For a new food production system to come about, farming must “reverse its course” back to the days when farmers didn’t rely on fertilizers and pesticides.
- The new president of the United States must “take control of this vast federal machinery and use it to drive a transition to a new solar-food economy.”
- The new leader must create policies to encourage farmers to grow as many different crops—including animals—as possible “because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.”
- He must implement policies that will encourage farmers to plant a cover crop during winter rather than just depend on fertilizers, which are oil-based. This measure would also help the environment by cutting down on soil erosion.
- The new farmer in chief should encourage composting by making a program of mandatory municipal composting and creating mechanisms for this natural fertilizer to reach farms, thus also reducing the garbage heap.
- When it comes to consumption, the new leader should make the case that Americans should eat less meat not only because it’s good for their health but because it’s good for the environment, due to the large amounts of water needed for raising farm animals.
- Pollan warns the president elect that farming without fertilizers is much more labor intensive than just “driving and spraying” which is what farmers do nowadays. Thus growing sufficient amounts of food for the nation in this manner will require millions more people working on farms.
- To assure that there will be enough manpower, the new administration must design a sun-food agenda that will include programs to train a new generation of farmers. “For nations that lose their ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do.”
- National security also requires that we work towards preserving every acre of farmland we can preserve and making it available to farmers. It is also important to preserve farmland near cities to lower the costs of transportation and increase the freshness of the produce that reaches our dinner tables.
- Another possibility would be for the new president to require real-estate developers to do food system impact statements before developing begins. This could be followed up by creating tax and zoning incentives so that developers will include farmlands the same way they now include golf courses and recreational areas in their designs.
Changing food culture
Pollan calls for the revival of farming in America. He says it will help create a robust economy and help generate millions of green jobs, which will be vital in the 21st century’s post-fossil fuel economy.
According to Pollan, President-elect Barack Obama should also support “reregionalizing” the food system, meaning the creation of an infrastructure for a regional food economy that can support diversified farming. This will also help shorten the food chain and reduce the amount of fossil fuel used in supporting the American diet.
Pollan even goes as far as to say that the new administration should consider creating a “federal definition of food” which should exclude junk food and sodas. “In the end, shifting the American diet from a foundation of imported fossil fuel to local sunshine will require changes in our daily lives.”
Changing the food culture must begin with our children, says Pollan. The new administration should promote programs to educate children about the importance of eating well, “using whatever tools we have to promote the values of growing food, preparing a meal” and sharing it together at the table.
Some more specific ideas include: planting gardens in every school, improving public health campaigns about the dangers of obesity and type-2 diabetes and pushing for greater transparency in the food system, providing more information to consumers about where and how their food is processed.
Pollan’s suggestions to the new Commander in Chief of one of the richest countries in the world are all with the purpose of not only reducing Americans’ calorie intake of fossil fuels but also of improving the health and welfare of the people.