Michael Pollan: Food reform framework
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, food reform, we all talk about reforming the food system and we all mean very different things. Some of us are thinking about the schools. Some of us are thinking about the food desert. Some of us are thinking about organic food in the marketplace. And there is very little in the way of organizing ideas, an umbrella under which these ideas can go. Ideas or stories that will help the public understand the big picture, connect the dots, and help policymakers assess specific proposals.
The virtue of having a big guiding idea is that it helps you judge all the smaller ideas. Are they moving you in the direction you wanna go? We have policies, whether in our lives or in our foreign relations or in our social life. We have policies so we don't have to think, rethink every decision, every question, every time it comes up. So they’re very valuable. So, I wanna talk a little bit about an organizing rubric for this movement. And now that we have this foot in the door and seat at the table, something we might say. And these are ideas that, you know, are not original to me. I’m not an original thinker. I collect ideas from people like you. I talk to farmers. I talk to policymakers. I talk to chefs. I talk to eaters. And my talent, if I have one, is to be synthetic. To tell stories, to link things, to connect dots.
And as I’ve looked at this whole question about where we’re going, I have-- I think-- developed with all your help a framework for reform, something I spelled out in my letter to the next President, an article many of your read I’m sure, and I call it the “Sun Food Agenda.” One of the -- and I addressed this to, you know, whoever was going to be President, before we knew who the “Farmer in Chief” was going to be; and now we do know and we stand a much better chance than had it worked out differently.
And a key feature of this framework though, and one that I think is particularly important as a matter of persuading people of its value, is that it is not zero sum. It is not a way of proceeding that pits rural farmers against urban eaters or the interest of health against farmers or the interests of the environment against farmers. It really is an attempt to recognize, to take the wisdom of really good solar farming, which is that there is a free lunch, and bring it to policy. Here’s the core idea, very simply: we need to wean the American food system off of its heavy 20thcentury diet of fossil fuels and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.
And water, of course. To the extent we’re doing this, to the extent that what we’re working on either as an eater, as a farmer, as a food distributor, as a marketer, is advancing that, is squeezing fossil fuel from the food system, from the diet, and replacing it with sunshine, I think we’re moving in the right direction. So, I’m trying to give us a metric we can use to see where we are. And when we get to that point where that figure of 20 percent of fossil fuel in America is going to the food system and we’ve got that down to 5 or 10 percent, we will have come a very long way.
Can we do it? Well, it is easier said than done. It will require change at every link in the food chain, in the field, in the marketplace, and in our heads, in the culture. But here’s what we know. The sun still shines. Photosynthesis still works. And that if any part of this economy of ours, this civilization, can be successfully resolarized. I mean, we worry about the electric grid. We worry about transportation. Well, surely it is food which has the edge of being based on photosynthesis. To move the transportation system back to photosynthesis, we’d have to be riding horses again. That is much less likely to happen than enjoying grass-fed beef.
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