Michael Pollan: Decentralizing food
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: Now, you often hear and you will hear, you know, “But can we do it? Can we feed the world organically? Can we feed the world sustainably?” Well, the honest answer is we have -- we don't know because we haven't tried. We have reason to believe we can do it. But, we need to keep in mind we’re not feeding the world the way we’re growing food now. There are a billion hungry people in the world, even with this system that is spewing grain. Half the food we’re eating is being fed to animals or to our cars. Twenty-five percent of food grown in this country is wasted. So there’s plenty of slack. And if we reorganized our diet, there’s no question that we could feed the world sustainably. As I said, if we can get enough people on the land.
Now, by the same token, people never ask about climate change, but can you really run an industrial civilization without cheap fossil fuel? They don't ask Al Gore that question. So, why do they always ask us that question? It’s the same deal. We can't do it the other way much longer. Whether it’s easy or even possible, we have no choice but to try. And it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition either. You start by committing ourselves. You shift the research agenda. We have models. We need people. We just have to start heading down that path and stop that silly debate of, “Can we do this?”
Level two, we have to bring change at the marketplace. If the farms diversify, they need markets. When I say this to a farmer friend in Iowa, he says, “Well, wait a minute, the elevator will only buy corn and soybeans from me. And there’s nobody left to eat here.” And that is a real challenge. So, we have to figure out ways to re- -- to distribute food in a different way and to re-regionalize the food economy, to shorten the food chain. Because the closer you're eating to the farm, the more diversified the farms have to be. Those of you who are in farmer’s markets know if all you have are Brussels sprouts, it’s gonna be a really short season and you don't have a limit. So, shortening the food chain and diversifying go together.
Decentralizing the food system, you know, achieves many goals beyond shrinking the amount of fossil fuel in our system. A decentralized food system is a more resilient food system. We have talked far too long in this country about efficiency. But there is another term that is equally important, and that is resilience. And very often efficient systems like industrial agriculture are very brittle. We have seen, as we saw last summer, they cannot withstand shocks, price shocks, oil shocks, weather shocks, because they’re not resilient. Decentralized systems are moreso. The food safety problem is a problem of, in large part, of efficiency trumping resilience. If you have a highly decentralized food system, people will still get sick. There will still be, you know, Aunt Mabel’s potato salad will continue to kill a few people every year, at the church supper. But it won’t make it onto national news.
So, we, you know, we looked at this question, we looked at this question right after 9/11 and there was all this talk about the threat of bioterrorism and the vulnerability of the American food system, and Tommy Thompson when he was leaving Health and Human Services as Secretary, he said, you know, “The biggest surprise in all my years in government since 9/11 is that they haven't attacked our food system because it would be so easy to do.” And, in fact, the GAO studied this question and they said, “Yes, a highly centralized food system is exquisitely vulnerable to both deliberate and accidental contamination.” Did we move toward decentralizing, however? No. We didn’t take a single step in that direction and the subject was quietly dropped, because it was an enormous threat to very powerful interests in this country. So, there are many, many reasons to decentralize the food system.
And the market is making this happen on its own.