Michael Pollan on the Rising Food Movement in the NY Review of Books

“The First Lady has effectively shifted the conversation about diet from the industry’s preferred ground of “personal responsibility” and exercise to a frank discussion of the way food is produced and marketed. “We need you not just to tweak around the edges,” she told the assembled food makers, “but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.”

In his latest essay, The Food Movement, Rising, Michael Pollan chronicles the rise of the Food Movement. It’s a 5,400 word piece in the New York Review of Books that moves from the roots of the movements, to challenging today’s leaders, and, as always, encouraging us to join in.

A striking point comes when he calls out Al Gore for missing the critical role that agriculture plays in global warming. Citing his book/movie/presentation, An Inconvenient Truth,  for making “scant mention of food or agriculture”. Even though our food system makes up one-fifth of American fossil fuel use. Further, it emits an incredible amount of greenhouse gas even thought “(it) is the one human system that should be able to substantially rely on photosynthesis” (i.e. solar energy).

The health industry is also in the center of his piece, citing that 3/4 of all health care spending treats diet related diseases (heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and at least a third of all cancers).

“The health care crisis probably cannot be addressed without addressing the catastrophe of the American diet, and that diet is the direct (even if unintended) result of the way that our agriculture and food industries have been organized.”

Oddly, the good news portion of his essay comes from the government. The FDA is “cracking down on deceptive marketing”, the DOJ is “avowing” to “pursue antitrust” issues, and even the conservative USDA is getting involved. Most importantly, though, is Michelle Obama’s work. As the cited above her direct statements and in-the-field work seem to be having the greatest impact.

“Mrs. Obama explicitly rejected the conventional argument that the food industry is merely giving people the sugary, fatty, and salty foods they want, contending that the industry “doesn’t just respond to people’s natural inclinations—it also actually helps to shape them,” through the ways it creates products and markets them.”

My favorite part about Michael Pollan’s writing are always his euphoric references to our food future. Yes, there are problems and people are suffering, but the light at the end of the tunnel is awe inspiring.

“The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure…”

I love how he interweaves politics and beliefs into the piece (conservative libertarianism, comunitarian?). Then moves to explore the backlash against consumerism, “an attempt to redefine, or escape, the traditional role of consumer has become an important aspiration of the food movement”.

Finally, a solid reference to our beloved Farmers Markets:

…an activity that a great many people enjoy…(someone) is playing music. Children are everywhere, sampling fresh produce, talking to farmers. Friends and acquaintances stop to chat. One sociologist calculated that people have ten times as many conversations at the farmers’ market than they do in the supermarket.

The piece is well worth reading: The Food Movement, Rising by Michael Pollan

More is better?

You might find this strange but the most friction I encounter in my work with A Clean Life is through food. Folks are okay with trash and recycling. Many even entertain composting. But when it comes to food we are in scary territory.

Imagine that…more people are okay with sorting their trash than with learning about food.

I am lost on this one, but I do have a little clue. That is to question one of our basic assumptions, more is better.

I mean if you go to the market and their is a sale, that is good. You can get more food for less money. At first glance this is very simple and logical. Food is expensive, we work very hard for money, obviously we don’t want to overpay for food.

At second glance, this is not so good. And this second glance is where I zing most people. Nearly everyone can challenge organic, green, expensive food, etc, but no one and I mean no one can answer our obesity problem.

We are an overweight society. The basic assumption ‘more is better‘ is starting to haunt me. I hate seeing children, active children, that are overweight. I cannot imagine what their psyche is like (I’m very active, I’m following the rule more is better, yet I’m fat).

If childhood obesity doesn’t bother you, then maybe healthcare does. You just might live a shorter life because of obesity. You just might have to help pay the healthcare of others (through taxes) who have health problems due to obesity.

Finally, if you care at all about the environment then you should know that ‘more is better‘ is definitely bad for the environment. Honestly, if all of this extra food solved world hunger I wouldn’t make this argument. But, it does not and it will not. Solving world hunger is not about chesseburgers for 99 cents. It is about something entirely different.

You should also know that to produce so much food means we go to great lengths to exploit nature. This includes growing pigs in factories (pic), chickens in 6 inch coops (pic), and cows in manure pens. Our food is washed over with fertilizer (that is oil based) and pesticide.

The waste from fertilizer and pesticide goes into our rivers, streams, and waterways. It ruins beaches, bays, and entire ecosystems. Our factory animals are ridden with disease (so we shoot them up with antibiotics), or better yet we just fatten them up earlier in life and then turn them into food before their bodies fail (about 18 months for cows).

As with most things in life more is not always better. We are ruining our own land, fattening ourselves up, and burdening our society (taxes, healthcare, children).

So, I challenge everyone to re-think ‘more is better’. Come up with a better rule for yourself. May it be ‘less is more’ or ‘better not more’, whatever works. Perhaps, person by person we can start to transform ourselves into a fit people and through that improve our food system and our environment.

P.S. – For those of you interested in learning more from an expert. Here is a talk from Michael Pollan titled “Where does your food come from?”