Michael Pollan: Local economies
Michael Pollan was the keynote speaker at the Georgia Organics Conference March 21, 2009. The event was held at Agnes Scott College. He addressed the audience after they enjoyed a farmers feast (made from local food) about his thoughts on the "state of the movement." The address is available for viewing in its entirety or in separate parts.
Michael: I think one of the products of this financial collapse will be a revitalization of local economies, of all different kinds. People want the security of knowing that their fate is not tied to Wall Street. They want the security of knowing that they can still get food in their neighborhood, that they can still get money from a neighborhood bank. So, I think that you will see a lot more support for local agriculture. But, there’s much the government can do to push this process. We should be building Four Seasons Farmer’s Markets in our cities, especially in the food deserts.
We should -- we should be rebuilding regional distribution networks, a very unglamorous part of the whole food puzzle that’s vitally important, dealing with these mid-size farms. And helping large institutions connect to small farms, very, very important. We need to look at our regulation of food and food processors. Right now, we have a system designed for really big players that makes growing a few head of cattle or, you know, chickens, or smoking a ham, very difficult, ‘cause you have to meet the same standards as a Smithfield, and that we are -- there is a new food safety regime probably coming down the pike and we need to make sure that this does not smother local agriculture by being ineptly designed.
So, we need to make it easier for farmers to conduct their business. That’s another thing they can do and the USDA can do. We also need more resources. We need inspectors for small meat plants. We need more small meat plants. And we need financing for that.
This isn't too exciting, but we need anti-trust enforcement. This is something we have not had. You know, this food system, we have a couple million farmers, and then we have 300 million eaters, and then there’s this cinched waist, it’s this hourglass, and it’s controlled by a very small number of companies. The rule for an overly concentrated industry, economists will tell you, is when there are four or fewer companies controlling 40 percent or more of a market. Do we have that in food? Yes. Four companies control 84 percent of beef packing. The 4/40 rule is exceeded not just in beef packing, but in animal feed, in feeding animals, in pork, in chickens, in grain milling, in dairy, in fertilizer, in retailing, in seed. Throughout. All we’re asking for is a level of anti-trust enforcement pursued by Dwight Eisenhower. If we could get to that level -- [applause] -- if we could have a Justice Department that aggressive, it would remake the face of the food system and farmers would not have to be price takers. It would -- it would just increase their power, their market power dramatically.
And I also think we have to look at the whole food assistance area. We have to figure out ways that recipients of food aid have more access to healthy, fresh food. And we know how to do it. We’ve seen farmer’s markets vouchers draw farmer’s markets into the inner city. There are wonderful experiments going on and we need to expand that. And that’s something we have to look at. And then the other thing we need to do, at the market level to stimulate this burgeoning local food economy, is use our federal procurement dollars, take 1 percent, 2 percent and dedicate it to local or regional food purchases. I’m talking about the military, I’m talking about the schools, I’m talking about the prisons, I’m talking about the federal offices, the CDC.
Now, this is not such a radical idea. We use federal procurement to advance social goals all the time. There are rules on what percentage of federal contracts need to go to minorities. There is a rule that a percentage of federal buildings has to go to sculpture in the plaza. I mean, this is not so radical and we have to demand it for local food systems. And we also need to, because more than half of us live in cities, we often hear that, “Well, this local food thing can't work anymore. We’re too urbanized. New Jersey can't feed New York anymore. It’s no longer the Garden State.” So, we have to work on agriculture in our cities. And we need to support that. And any of you who were at Will Allen’s presentation today knows that in fact cities can produce a great deal of food and in the process achieve a whole lot of aims including economic redevelopment, job creation, and a healthier population.
So, we’ve barely begun to test the potential of urban agriculture and it’s been very encouraging to hear Vilsack talk about it. The guiding principal here on resolarizing the food system at the market level is regions and nations should have some control over their food destiny. They should preserve the ability to feed themselves first and trade second. I’m not talking about ending trade in food, I’m not talking about a completely local food system. Doing this will reduce fossil fuel use, encourage diversification, and restore resilience to what has become a very brittle global food system. I also think we should be preaching localism on a global level and seeking the same thing for people in Africa, the same thing for people in South America. Because we will find that countries that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves in the same boat, African countries have found themselves in this boat, they will find themselves in the same boat we did when we could no longer produce our own energy. Which is to say, deeply compromised in our international dealings. Forced to do things we really didn’t need to do.