Food politics gets a prestigious platform, with Michael Pollan’s manifesto in this Sunday’s NYT Magazine

Michael Pollan — the closest thing the sustainable food movement has to a leader, even if he insists on pretending he remains just a journalist — wants the next president of the United States to pull weeds from the organically managed South Lawn Victory Garden; donate its surplus tons of food to Washington, DC, food banks; and observe a meat-free day once a week in the White House. What an amazing, goosebump-inducing change that would be: from a president who “clears brush” for photo opps and was once rural America’s first choice for a barbecue buddy, to a “Farmer in Chief.”

That’s the title of Pollan’s manifesto, which will appear in the  New York Times Magazine’s special Oct. 12 food issue. But wait. Before you and the Ethicurean’s Elanor get all worked up again about the symbolism vs. sustenance of a White House victory garden, Pollan has a hell of a lot more to say about “what the next president can and should do to remake the way we grow and eat our food.”  Eight thousand words more, as a matter of fact.

“Farmer in Chief” is a breathtakingly comprehensive piece. It starts with the warning that while neither John McCain nor Barrack Obama has made food a campaign issue, it is about to enter their radar with all the stealth of an iceberg. If either presidential candidate wants to address the health care crisis, energy independence, or climate change, they will “quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them. Let me explain.” And with those last three little words Pollan launches into yet another of his masterpieces of synthesis. This one ties together both the broken and hopeful elements inherent to our current food system (which he described in 2006′s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) with directives toward personal and societal nutrition and well-being (which he laid out in last year’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”).

Attempting to summarize this essay is like trying to provide enough tastes to approximate a nine-course meal. Thankfully, Pollan has provided a boon to bloggers everywhere with this nut graf:

First, your administration’s food policy must strive to provide a healthful diet for all our people; this means focusing on the quality and diversity (and not merely the quantity) of the calories that American agriculture produces and American eaters consume. Second, your policies should aim to improve the resilience, safety and security of our food supply. Among other things, this means promoting regional food economies both in America and around the world. And lastly, your policies need to reconceive agriculture as part of the solution to environmental problems like climate change.

The path to addressing that last element is also the key starting point for many of Pollan’s specific platform recommendations: America must swap its fossil-fuel-based food system for one powered by the sun. “Re-solarizing” the farm will require re-conceiving government agricultural subsidy programs, encouraging polycultures that put animals back on pasture, mandating municipal composting, luring young people back into farming, rebuilding local infrastructure, etc.

He goes on to provide a cornucopia of additional specific, and most hearteningly doable policies that, if enacted at the federal, or even state and local, levels would have immediate impact on environmental and public health, as well as revitalize struggling rural economies. (Not that they are the only ones struggling right now.) Take just this one example: he recommends establishing “Agricultural Enterprise Zones” that would recognize that food-safety regulations should take into account scale and marketplace, so that a small producer selling at a farmers’ market not be regulated as onerously as a multinational company washing millions of pounds of spinach in one sink. I wanted to cheer when I read this sentence “Farmers should be able to smoke a ham and sell it to their neighbors without making a huge investment in federally approved facilities.”

There’s so much more to chew over, including some blue-skyish proposals like requiring that packaged foods include a second calorie count, one showing how many calories of fossil fuel went into production, or (my personal favorite) creating a federal definition of “food.”

You can hear the echo of many, many revolutionary voices in Pollan’s piece. He would be the first to acknowledge that the ideas he puts forth did not spring fully grown from his own mind, but are the result of seeds planted by people like Wendell Berry, Eric Schlosser, Vandana Shiva, Alice Waters, and more recently by a new brigade of passionate activists.

The Times has captured some of those activists’ faces in a slide show titled “Food Fighters.” Among those honored are Severine von Scharner Fleming (right), whose mission is to encourage more young farmers (and who I’ve known and admired for a long time), Tom Philpott (pictured with his girlfriend Alice Brooke and the rest of the Maverick Farms crew with his farming, not his writing, hat on), and eco-chef Bryant Terry and food-politics writer Anna Lappé. (There are audio features with Severine and Tom too!) Elsewhere in the magazine, I was excited to see Jay Porter, San Diego SOLE food restauranteur and Friend o’ Ethicurean blogger, featured in an article about the Linkery’s no-tipping policy. There are many more articles I haven’t had time to read yet.

To my knowledge, never before has a publication with the clout and reach of the New York Times done a “food issue” that was entirely devoted to food politics, not food porn taste. Sure, the presidential candidates, and the rest of the country — even Ethicurean readers — may be far more preooccupied with the imploding economy, and with the war in Iraq, but I think we can safely celebrate that a tipping point has been reached. SOLE food is now on the menu for national discussion. Next year, it may even be the main course.

Let’s eat!

Severine photo credit: Lars Tunbjork for The New York Times

6 Responsesto “Food politics gets a prestigious platform, with Michael Pollan’s manifesto in this Sunday’s NYT Magazine”

  1. Fred says:

    This is good news to cheer. Michael Pollan has good ideas, and understands the interconnections between farm policy, public health, and the environment. He’s the closest thing to a national spokesman for sane food policy, and a transformation of our industrial farming system because too many other organizations (sadly) are more about themselves than their cause. For there to be a true transformation, real food will have to become a right, not just a priviledge for those in the elite. We have to come to terms with the role of bigger government, more like our European counterparts. As Pollan says, if the government becomes financially responsible for our healthcare, there would be great incentive to better regulate the food industry and through farm policy (farm bill), subsidize more the production of healthy foods. 

  2. > “Re-solarizing” the farm will require re-conceiving government agricultural subsidy programs
    I would suggest we need to go a lot farther than reconceiving subsidies. We need to eliminate them entirely. Not just in agriculture but across the board. Subsidies distort the market and the realities. Subsidies are only collected by about 4% of the farmers and the other 96% of us must compete against those 4% at an unfair advantage on a playing field that has been tilted by government money.

    > encouraging polycultures
    Yes. Definitely. The mono-culturing is something that was encouraged by the whole subsidy system. Eliminate the subsidies and more farmers will go back to poly-cultures which are healthier for the farm, the land and the communities.

    > put animals back on pasture,
    Definitely, and not just cows & sheep. Pigs, chickens, ducks and other monogastrics all benefit greatly from being out on pasture.

    > mandating municipal composting
    I don’t like the word mandate. I’m wholeheartedly in favor of composting but whenever the government starts mandating things beware of unintended consequences that come back to bite you in the arse.

  3. You make a great point that this is the first time that a “food issue” in something like The Times has focused on politics, not taste.  Coming on the heels of Slow Food Nation, it feels like the sustainable food movement has some real momentum…
    My beef, though, is with the Food Issue’s cover:

  4. Jo says:

    I was so excited to see this article from Pollan.  I’ve been frustrated (but not surprised) that neither Obama nor McCain has talked about food politics on the campaign trail.  I’d love to see them respond to this article in some way – do either of them understand the desperate state of our food system?  I’ve read that Obama does, and that’s encouraging.
    I especially agree about how broad and impressive the scope of this article is.  It’s easy to feel that Big Food has too much lobbying strength for the president to make any real change in the way things work, but many of Pollan’s suggestions strike me as both simple and uncontroversial.  If even a few of these were implemented in the next couple years, it could make a big difference.

  5. Blane Friest says:

    Hello Everyone!
    I have created a petition to have Mr. Pollan appointed Secretary of Agriculture.  Please everyone, take a look at the petition, sign via the link below (or on the blog) and join me on the blog for some good discussion.

    Thanks all!  We have an opportunity to really change lives!
    The Petition

    To: President-Elect Barack Obama
    We citizens of The United States of America request the appointment of Michael Pollan to the Office of Secretary of Agriculture of the United States of America.

    Through his academic lectures and papers, published books and articles Mr. Pollan has proven capable of gathering wide-ranging research, organizing it into a coherent whole and reaching non-biased conclusions. This research has provided him a unique understanding of the history, development, and contemporary practices of U.S. Agriculture and its relationship to the health of the citizens of The United States. He is singularly qualified to identify inefficiencies and present improvements in production, nutrition, and our problematic reliance on petroleum and petro-chemical based fertilizers, for the benefit of food producers and consumers both. As an academic and journalist, Mr. Pollan is free of the type of conflicts of interest rampant in the current administration which have led to abysmal performance and deficient oversight of industry at the expense of the people.

    It is our belief that this scholarly approach coupled with his unique ability to synergize and coherently communicate to a wide audience makes Mr. Pollan the best choice for Secretary of Agriculture in an administration whose stated goals include affordable health and healthcare for the citizens of this nation and wholesale change from the practices of the Bush administration.

    Please refer to for Mr. Pollan’s full biography and Curriculum Vitae.

    The Undersigned