The New York Times Magazine recently continued its war on conventional agriculture by giving considerable space to contributing editor Michael Pollan, the UC-Berkeley journalism professor who has made it his goal to replace modern agriculture with something producing only food his “great-grandmother would recognize.”
Pollan’s latest* offering recounts how his letter in 2008 warned incoming President Obama that he needed to fix a “broken food system,” organized around “subsidized monocultures like corn and soy, (that) guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel” and emitted as “much as a third of all emissions.” Pollan charged that the resulting food, “feedlot meat and processed foods of all kinds — bear a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health-care costs” treating “chronic diseases linked to diet.”
Pollan is wrong. Little or no direct subsidies exist for U.S. corn and wheat today. The exceptions are rice, cotton and sugar. And while Pollan attributes disease to “feedlot meat” and corn products, the latest scientific research confirms the meat industry’s claims of the past 50 years that it is not animal products bearing responsibility for obesity and heart disease. Carbohydrate emphasis (including fruits and vegetables) apparently is a more likely contributor. His greenhouse gas emission claims are also vastly exaggerated.
Pollan invokes the David and Goliath metaphor — with the usual modern activist twist that Goliath is a big, faceless corporate giant involved in the food-producing system that produces food that is unhealthy for consumers and the environment. Even though Pollan admits conjuring up the image of “Big Food” is “something of a simplification,” he plows ahead, because his narrative loses most of its power if he characterizes America’s food production system accurately. He obviously feels it is easier to demonize the food system if he goes “Big,” as in a few big packers and grain companies, a few seed and chemical companies, a handful of fast-food companies and Wal-Mart.
Fighting “Big Food” rallies people more than accurately characterizing a food chain made up of some big firms and thousands of hard-working families: farmers, ranchers; owners of diners and cafés; fast-food franchises, slaughter and processing plant workers, meat purveyors and sausage makers, fruit stands and farmers’ markets; transport drivers and brokers moving perishable foods quickly to where they are needed in supermarkets, convenience stores and country stores.
This entire system is driven by market forces created by consumers voting with their dollars to purchase food. In its place Pollan wants the power of government to control and centrally plan what food folks can buy, how it’s produced and who produces it.
The left must sell its ideas based on short, emotional stories that can fit on a bumper sticker. So “Big Food” works for him. Neither Pollan nor the public understands how the system really works. His belief is that Big Food in meat, for example, is “controlled” by the Big Four packers. The fact that the big packers have to compete with each other to keep a huge investment in plant, equipment and labour busy and sell to dozens of retail chains and a list of food-service suppliers or that hundreds of further processors depend on the big plants for raw material or that hundreds of small plants do the other 20 per cent of the slaughter is overlooked.
Pollan claims there is little food system regulation, although he does credit Obama for repeating his earlier article that claimed, “though confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) pollute the air and water like factories, they are regulated like farms, which is to say very lightly, when at all.” Prompted by Pollan, Obama also charged that “oligopolies” “dictate the prices and terms by which farmers (are) forced to sell their crops and livestock.”
So all the very specific food safety or content regulations that packers have to comply with; the list of sanitation, handling and labelling requirements for retailers; restaurant inspection; the flood of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that rule farm, ranch and feed yard operations; the USDA and Interior Department rules affecting farming and ranching; the Packers and Stockyard regulations governing livestock marketing — it’s as if they didn’t exist.
Pollan also favours the proposed rule change for the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) that would, among other things, forbid packers from paying higher prices for better cattle or carcasses. With the majority of cattle now sold on the basis of quality grade and yield, Pollan assumes the quality will be maintained without incentive. Or, he just prefers that we return to commodity cattle, selling on the average, hoping that would somehow provide the kinds of carcasses consumers want in the quantities required, presumably under the oversight of some government appointee. He sees this as a solution to the “abuses” suffered by farmers and ranchers in being “forced to sell, often on unfavourable terms” to big packers that “were able to dictate prices, impose unfair contracts and simply refuse to buy from ranchers who spoke out.”
Pollan’s chief lament seems to be that in the eight years of the Obama administration the government has not exercised enough control of Big Food, or sparked anti-trust cases to break up Big Food into smaller pieces that would have eliminated the current scale of the food system along with the efficiency, technology and safety that it provides — no matter what it costs consumers or ranchers.