Expert Commentary

Covering food policy and the Farm Bill: Insights from author Michael Pollan

Author Michael Pollan discussed the Farm Bill’s far-reaching impact on the U.S. food system and the environment, how journalists can better cover food policy, and more during a visit to Harvard's Shorenstein Center.

Food author Michael Pollan
(Photo by Jessica Colarossi)

Author Michael Pollan discussed the Farm Bill’s far-reaching impact on the U.S. food system and the environment, how journalists can better cover food policy, and more during a visit to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy. Below are the highlights:

The overlooked, but essential, Farm Bill

“I think [food policy] is really an underappreciated topic among journalists … the Farm Bill is coming up for consideration next year. I actually don’t think the Farm Bill is boring, but most people do, and that’s one of the reasons it doesn’t get covered very well.”

“There are few pieces of legislation, more influential, more important — not whether you’re interested in agriculture — but whether you’re interested in climate change, health, public health, the obesity epidemic. The rules of the food game, in which we all live and eat, really get determined by this piece of legislation that very few of us pay any attention to.”

“[The Farm Bill] could be regarded as a food bill … but it gets treated as a parochial piece of legislation that is thrashed out between the farm state legislators, without any input from eaters. So how do you change that? Well, you’ve got to get the Farm Bill discussion off of the business pages, where it gets covered, and it has to be covered on the op-ed pages, it has to be covered all over the newspaper.”

The high cost of cheap calories

“How does it happen that a Twinkie, which is an incredibly elaborate piece of manufacturing — it’s got 39 ingredients … why is that cheaper than a bunch of roots, a bunch of carrots? What accounts for that? It’s not simply the free market … We have a system of incentives, and this is where the Farm Bill gets very intricate. Some involve direct subsidy payments, some involve crop insurance schemes … we create incentives for our farmers to grow huge quantities of corn and soy, mostly in the Midwest. Corn and soy is really where the calories in most of the junk food come from … we have inadvertently created a system where the cheapest calories in the supermarket are the least healthy. No wonder that somebody on SNAP [the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps] or somebody who’s otherwise impoverished would end up eating a really lousy diet.”

“How did we get here? There’s a long story — a lot of it is unintended consequences. The public health problem related to food 100 years ago was simply adequacy of calories. The school lunch program was designed at a time when the Army and all the armed forces were complaining in World War I that they couldn’t find enough people who met their minimum weight requirements — people were undernourished. Then at the beginning of the Depression, we did a lot to support farmers. And then we did a lot to focus, especially at the beginning of the Nixon administration, on quantity over quality of calories, changing the whole system from a system of farm support to keep prices in a steady range, to subsidizing farmers so they could dump their grain into a soft market and drive down food prices. That was deliberate policy to make food cheap. But we’re learning that cheap food is incredibly expensive. It’s costly to our health, it’s costly to the environment, and it has lots of international implications. Because when we started selling corn beneath the cost of production to Mexico, say under NAFTA, we bankrupted 2 million Mexican corn farmers, who ended up coming over the border, many of them, and contributed to the political moment we’re having now.”

A call for a cohesive, national food policy

“The last administration did very little to change the system. You had the spectacle of Michelle Obama, who did a lot of very productive things to raise consciousness about food, trying to get people off soda and high fructose corn syrup … at the same time, her husband was signing bills that made high fructose corn syrup dirt cheap. This is absurd — we’re fighting both sides of the war on Type 2 diabetes.”

“The challenge is, and I’m not a policy wonk by any means … how do you align your agricultural policies — which now proceed as a piece of special interest legislation — how do you align them with your public health goals, and how do you align them with your environmental goals? I think you do that by exerting some top-down influence, by having an articulated national food policy. What is the goal of our food system? It should be to keep us healthy and well fed, and to keep the land … productive long term, and we’re not doing any of these things right now. The fact that we don’t have a national food policy is kind of remarkable, given how important it is, and how much money we’re spending by not having one.”

“I see the health insurers as possible allies in this fight … [Kaiser has] taken a very strong interest in food. They do a lot of advertising around it, they teach cooking classes, they have farmers’ markets in their parking lots, because they know if they can prevent chronic disease, it’s all going to go to their bottom line. So creating those incentives in the health insurance industry is one way to go.”

“Right now, nobody wants to be on the ag committees except people from big ag states. It was different in the ‘60s. The Congressional Black Caucus was represented on those committees because the nutrition programs were there. So you need some urban legislators on those committees again.”

“I also think people fighting climate change need to recognize how important the food system is, and that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of greenhouse gasses come from the food system, most of it from meat, but not just meat — it’s a very carbon-intensive system, and we have failed to regulate it.”

Bringing food policy to life through storytelling

“Food is a wonderful beat, speaking as a journalist. It does that thing your editors are always asking you to do: connect this to the individual. So when I write about the cattle industry, I can really bring it home to people, because they either eat beef or they don’t eat beef — it is much less abstract than so many things we write about.”

“Yet you can start on someone’s plate and take them to very unexpected places, having to do with policy, having to do with climate change, having to do with public health … and we haven’t even talked about antitrust, there’s a tremendous issue with the concentration in the food industry that needs to be addressed. You have tens of thousands of ranchers in this country and only four buyers of beef. Guess who’s got the power in that relationship? You can tell stories by connecting the dots, whether it’s the ecological dots, or the financial dots, and bring people places as a writer that they may not realize they want to go.”

Voting with forks — and ballots

“In the end, you have to go beyond a consumer focus. Voting with your fork is very important, and it’s brought a lot of change in this country, but finally we have to vote with our votes, too — it’s an issue of democracy. There are many people who can’t afford to vote with their forks for better food because it’s often more expensive. My own interest has gotten more and more political as time went on. I started writing pieces that were very apolitical, really just about the system, trying to understand how food gets to my plate, and over time, I’ve realized that, yeah, I can hopefully encourage consumers or readers to change their habits and that is very important, but in the end, we do have to address these policy issues, or we’re gonna have two food systems, one for the rich and one for the poor … there’s enormous potential because people are very engaged by food, and they care about it — and it’s a great way to teach.”

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