Author calls for 'Food Bill' to replace farm bill, says growers would respond

to incentives

By MATTHEW WEAVER

Capital Press

PULLMAN, Wash. -- Michael Pollan believes farmers may eventually solve three of the world's biggest problems -- the crises centered on energy, health care and climate change.

The author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" outlined his "sun food agenda," advocating a return to a diversified agricultural system, during his lecture at Washington State University on Wednesday, Jan. 13.

"It might be possible to once again harness the power of the sun to feed ourselves and wean ourselves off this diet of fossil fuel," he said, referring to the oil and natural gas required to make fertilizer, fuel and pesticides.

Today's food system more closely resembles a factory model, Pollan said.

"This food chain from which most of us now eat is deeply implicated in three of the most serious problems we face as a society: the energy crisis, the health-care crisis and the climate change crisis," he said.

Before World War II, the food system was ecologically efficient, he said. It generated two calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel energy that went into it. Now, he said, agriculture produces 1 calorie of food for every 10 calories of fossil fuel it uses.

Over time, food got cheaper. The percentage of American consumers' income that goes to food dropped from 24 percent in 1910 to 9.5 percent today, Pollan said. The cheap food economy depends on cheap fossil fuel at every step.

As food got cheaper and loaded with more calories, it was also processed into less healthful forms, he said.

As a result, two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight, one-third is obese, and a recent Emory University study predicts more than half of all Americans will be obese within 10 years, Pollan said. One dollar of every $5 will be spent dealing with the effects of obesity, he predicted.

Pollan also pointed to an epidemic of chronic diseases linked to diet, particularly Type 2 diabetes.

Corn and soy are the building blocks of the food system and processed food, turned into "those obscure ingredients on the side of processed foods" and high fructose corn syrup, he said.

"We're subsidizing high fructose corn syrup at the same time we're paying to battle obesity and Type 2 diabetes," Pollan said. "We're supporting both sides in the war on Type 2 diabetes."

Agriculture also contributes to global warming, he said.

Between 25 and 33 percent of greenhouse gases produced in the United States come from the food system, Pollan said.

Pollan was most critical of cattle feedlots, claiming federal clean air and water laws are not enforced, and that they have become "the single biggest source of pollution in America" and "one of the biggest contributors to climate change."

Pollan claimed feedlot waste is not treated in any way, lingering in a lagoon instead of going to waste treatment facilities. He claimed the biggest feedlot, in Grandview, Idaho, which handles 150,000 head of cattle, produces an amount of waste equivalent to the city of Chicago, which has a population of 3 million.

"Unlike the city of Chicago, federal clean air and water laws are not enforced in these places," he said. "Just imagine if the city of Chicago were not forced to treat its waste. We've got 'cities' like that all over the high plains."

To bring about change, Pollan suggested decentralizing the national food system in favor of regional "food sheds," creating a food system more resilient to shocks like disease outbreaks or high input costs. He did not specify how that would work or how to make that happen.

In his newest book, "Food Rules," Pollan proposes consumers eat "foods their great-grandmother would recognize," shop at farmers' markets and on the edges of supermarkets instead of the aisles in the center to avoid "edible food-like substances."

As a result, he said Americans would pay more and eat less. He also proposed "meatless Mondays," taking one day a week to reduce meat consumption.

"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," is Pollan's seven-word summary of the message in his new book.

Pollan also called for a new "Food Bill" from Congress, proposing legislation that would replace the federal farm bill that protects farmers when the cost of production is more than the price they receive for crops.

"The farm bill is the most important piece of legislation affecting the food system," Pollan said. "It sets the rules of the game. It is the reason everybody in the Midwest is growing corn and soy."

Pollan's food bill would give farmers incentives to diversify their crops, reduce their use of fossil fuels, protect soil and water and move animals back onto farms from feedlots.

If the incentives are right, farmers will respond, he said.

In speaking with farmers, Pollan said he developed a better appreciation for how little flexibility they have, noting they can't immediately change what they grow because of which crops grain elevators will accept and what subsidy programs will support.

"I don't believe we should be cutting subsidies," he said. "I do believe we should be getting something else than what we're getting right now."

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