If I were a philosopher-king, the first thing I’d do is make Michael Pollan Secretary of Agriculture. Sometimes, he makes so much sense it actually hurts. In a Times op-ed yesterday, he assailed the latest version of the Farm Bill making their way through Congress. Although the bill contains essential money for food stamp programs, wetland restoration and local farms, Pollan rightly notes that these programs “are mere fleas on the elephant in the room”:
The name of that elephant is the commodity title, the all-important subsidy section of the bill. It dictates the rules of the entire food system. As long as the commodity title remains untouched, the way we eat will remain unchanged.
The explanation for this is straightforward. We would not need all these nutrition programs if the commodity title didn’t do such a good job making junk food and fast food so ubiquitous and cheap. Food stamps are crucial, surely, but they will be spent on processed rather than real food as long as the commodity title makes calories of fat and sugar the best deal in the supermarket. We would not need all these conservation programs if the commodity title, by paying farmers by the bushel, didn’t encourage them to maximize production with agrochemicals and plant their farms with just one crop fence row to fence row.
What can ordinary citizens do? Write to your congressperson and tell them to support the Lugar-Lautenberg bill, which would scrap the current subsidy system and replace it with a form of “revenue insurance”. This would not only save the U.S. government nearly $20 billion a year but would help slow the growth of factory farms. As Pollan notes:
If the eaters and all the other “people on the outside” make themselves heard, we just might end up with something that looks less like a farm bill and more like the food bill a poorly fed America so badly needs.