Michael Pollan’s advice to the next President

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) writes a lengthy letter to the next President of the United States on the topic of food policy. In the piece, Pollan identifies food policy as being centrally important not only to the health of Americans, but also to the health of the environment and to American national security. After outlining the history of our current national food policy and tracing its disastrous effects, Pollan then offers quite a number of concrete and highly specific policy suggestions, ranging from requiring factory farms to take responsibility for the wastes they produce to increasing funding for humane and environmentally efficient mobile slaughterhouses.

Pollan points out that our current food system—which relies heavily on imports and massive centralized production facilities—is extremely vulnerable to safety risks involving the contamination of food supplies (either accidentally, or intentionally as an act of terrorism). He calls for a return to regionalism, and to valuing the critically important role of the American small farmer:

As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the 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. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.

Pollan also suggests that the problem runs far deeper than policy, and that the American culture of food will need to be transformed in order for real changes in our health, environment, economy, and national security to take place. He offers a number of concrete policy options to this end, but also suggests that the next President ought to make a highly visible display of eating in a healthy and environmentally sustainable fashion. He suggests that the First Family should tear up the White House lawn and replace it with a garden for growing food—much as Eleanor Roosevelt did (over the objections of the USDA, which feared harm to the bottom line of big business agriculture) during World War II, thereby sparking the tremendously successful Victory Gardens movement. Pollan also notes the power of leading by example in other ways:

And you should also let it be known that the White House observes one meatless day a week — a step that, if all Americans followed suit, would be the equivalent, in carbon saved, of taking 20 million midsize sedans off the road for a year.

I gave up meat entirely a while back for environmental reasons. Sometimes the magnitude of our environmental problems—global warming, polluted waterways, declining fisheries, disappearing habitats, a garbage patch the size of a small nation floating in the ocean—is so overwhelming that it seems that no individual action could possibly have any substantial impact. But, as Pollan points out, a simple personal action like eating less meat can play a real and measurable role in slowing the pace of environmental destruction. I understand that not everyone is willing or able to maintain a completely vegetarian diet. But surely everyone could easily make the very small sacrifice of forgoing meat for just three meals a week, knowing that results of doing so would be so dramatically positive in terms of their environmental consequences.

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