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: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. You know, it’s kind of cliché to say you're honored to be here, but I really do feel honored. I mean, this is a very special community. And I feel just even being a temporary member of it, very meaningful to me. I feel a lot of wonderful energy in this room. And what an impressive organization. And what a delicious meal!
Michael: Okay, all right. I wanna be a member. Will, I want to thank you for your kind words. I only met you the other night and it’s been a great honor. I wanna also thank you for the sirloin tartare, the beef cheeks, and the delicious brisket tonight. Or, thank your cattle. But, anyway, thank you. And thank you to Georgia Organics, especially to Barbara, Alice, and Michael for their hospitality in putting this whole thing together. It’s an incredible undertaking. You know, they’ve been inviting me every year for over and over and over again. And I finally had to say yes just so they would stop calling.
Anyway, it’s been a great pleasure to get acquainted. And I also want to congratulate Georgia Organics on gathering together this community - 1,100 people under this big top. It’s an incredible accomplishment.
I want to also thank Slow Food Atlanta, Slow Food USA, because they’re part of the reason I’m here. For their encouragement and hospitality. And this may seem odd to some of you, but the CDC, who is also one of the reasons I am here. You know, I spent the day with them yesterday and was very surprised and delighted to learn that, you may not all know this, but some of you do, that we have a very, powerful, eloquent ally in the CDC as we go forward -- [applause] -- so I applaud their involvement with this work.
Now, it’s particularly beautiful to be here on the first full day of spring and on a day of great promise for the food movement nationally, this movement of which we are all a part, the talented farmers here as well as the chefs, the health policy professionals, the activists, the organizers, and the highly-conscious eaters in this room. And how great is it that yesterday in Washington D.C., Michelle Obama broke ground--[applause] -- on not just a vegetable garden, but an organic vegetable garden. On the White House lawn, how great is that? This movement clearly has a powerful new friend in Washington. What I'd like to do tonight is offer a kind of "State of the Movement Address," talk about where we are as a movement, at this moment, I think, of very opportunity and challenges, and where we need to go because we are at a turning point. Those of us who have been working for many years, and many people here far longer than I have, to reform the food system and the whole American way of eating, suddenly find ourselves in this strange new place. No longer holding a sign outside on the steps, a protest sign, but suddenly invited in, into the building, with a seat at the table. And the question now becomes, what do we say? What do we do? What do we want?
Now, let me start with a little quiz. Listen to the following quote and tell me who you think said this. “Our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agricultural sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gasses than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats and are now vulnerable to sky high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion of our healthcare costs, because they’re contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.” What radical said that?
President -- Actually, it was Candidate Obama back in October. We have a President who understands these issues, who I think, as that quote shows, can connect the dots between the way we’re growing our food in this country and the healthcare crisis and the energy crisis and the climate change crisis. That’s huge. He has appointed as his Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa who, since moving to Washington, has been sounding some very surprising notes, talking about making nutrition and health the watchword of what the USDA does, talking about committing the USDA to combating climate change through agriculture, and using crop subsidies to create new incentives on the farm, who has also been talking about the value of local and urban agriculture. These are sounds the likes of which we have never heard from that particular building.
And you know, it isn't just talk, too. His first appointment, Kathleen Merrigan, his number two, who we hope will be confirmed very soon, is as you know a pioneer of the organic movement. She helped write the organic law, the organic rules, and is an agent of change. She will be running the Department of Agriculture. Who would have guessed? But the question remains, is there a mandate for real change? Is Obama prepared to use his political capital on these issues? And that’s a different question than the question of his understanding of these issues. Obama did not run on a platform of reforming food and agriculture. He did not talk about it that much during the campaign. Yet, I would argue, as I’ve done, that he will have to confront these issues sooner or later, if, as he did say he -- as he did campaign on, if he hopes to tackle issues like climate change, the health care crisis, the energy crisis. Because he does understand the links, he will find himself, I think, needing, wanting, perhaps, to wade into these issues; or he won’t make progress on much of what he ran on.
Why? Well, as his -- that quotes suggests, the way we’re feeding ourselves is at the root of all three of these problems. And I want to very -- this will be familiar to some of you, but I want to kind of basically run through that logic a little bit. I think it’s worth doing.
Let’s talk about energy and climate change. The food system, by which I mean not just the way we grow food, but the way we process it and transport it, uses more fossil fuel, about 20 percent of the total, and contributes more greenhouse gas, not just C02, but methane and nitrous oxide, to the atmosphere than any other industry, somewhere between, depending on the scientists you listen to, 17 and 34 percent. The 20th century industrialization of agriculture has transformed the way we grow food from a process that in 1940 could take one calorie of fossil fuel energy and produce two calories to food, to one that takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of supermarket food. And it gets worse when you look at meat production. Feedlot beef takes 55 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of meat. So, that leaves us where we are. That when we eat from the industrial food chain today, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gas. Not a very pretty image. But it’s also an absurdity when you consider, when you remember that every calorie of food you have ever eaten is the result of photosynthesis. Right? It all begins, whether you're eating meat or vegetables, with that miracle. A plant taking sunlight, water, simple minerals, and creating edible energy. And there is great hope, I think, in that simple fact. Food is the original solar technology, and the challenge we face, of course, is to get back to that simple fact.
Healthcare crisis. Well, since 1960 when I was a boy, spending on healthcare as a percentage of GDP has gone from 5 percent to nearly 18 percent today. We will not be able to insure everybody in this country unless we get a handle on healthcare costs. And when you look at those healthcare costs, as the CDC has done, you discover a rather alarming fact: that of the two trillion dollars we’re spending on healthcare in this country now, that’s 17 percent of our GDP, fully 1.5 trillion, they estimate, is going to treat preventable chronic disease, the great majority of which is linked of course to diet and the way we’re eating. Four of the top ten killers are linked to chronic disease. 70 percent of us will die from diet-related chronic disease.
It is no coincidence that in this period when our healthcare costs were going from 5 percent of our income to 18 percent, our spending on food was plummeting from 16 percent to now under 9 percent. Is there a connection as those two lines crossed? Of course there is. Could we reduce our healthcare spending by spending a little bit more on healthy, quality food? Without a doubt.
So, that’s the bad news. The food system is broken and our agricultural policies are in large part responsible. Now, these problems that we face from food, they obviously were never the goal of those policies. Those policies, which were to produce food as abundant and cheap as we possibly could, made sense once upon a time. Because the public health problem in America for many years was simply adequacy of calories. There were people who were hungry. And so we had an agricultural policy whose goal was designed to serve that public good, solve that public problem. The problem is, it did it all too well. We learned that quantity is not the only issue, that quality at a certain point becomes even more important. So, keep that in mind: if the goal of food and farm policy is to advance the public good and the public health, our sense of what that is has changed, that now we need food that is abundant, yes, but higher in quality and produced in a way that doesn’t compromise either our long-term health or the long-term health of the environment. We are coming to the recognition, I think, as a society, that you cannot have a healthy population without a healthy diet. But the next step that the people in this room know but we need to convince the rest of the world, is that you cannot have a healthy diet without a healthy agriculture. And that’s really what we’re working on here.
Here’s the good news, though. American people are beginning to sense that the system is broken. A movement for reform is building. We see it in this room. The markets for alternatives is thriving. And here’s the even better news. The same policies that will reduce agriculture’s contribution to climate change and the energy crisis will also, if they’re followed, if we commit to them, will also vastly improve public health. We can make progress on all these fronts at once, make the system safer, more secure, and more sustainable, not only here in America, but in the developing world as well. What we probably won’t be able to do again is ever make food so cheap or something that we can take for granted. That probably won’t happen ever again.
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 20th century 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.
Without going into great detail, I just wanna briefly summarize, how did we get to this point? How did we ever get to a system where we took photosynthesis, this amazing miracle of nature, this free lunch, and replaced it with so much fossil fuel? Why did that make sense? Well, as I said earlier, our policy as a country was to produce as much food as fast as we could. Oil was cheap. We learned techniques that allowed us to take cheap fossil fuel and use it as a source of fertility. Nitrous -- ammonium nitrate, which is a product of fossil fuel. We learned also right after World War II how to take these nerve gasses made from petroleum byproducts and turn those into pesticides. And that regime of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, fossil fuel-based pesticides, gave us this opportunity of farming in a new way. Giant monoculture. You didn’t have to rotate your crops because you always had fertility in a bag. And you didn’t have to worry about the monoculture problem of insects, because you had this opportunity of killing them with fossil fuel pesticides. It’s really a legacy of World War II. And that is why Vandana Shiva has famously said, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II in the form of this industrial agriculture.”
You see this as soon as you go to Iowa. And if you're there in the winter, and the candidates saw this when they were there campaigning, that from October till May, this long stretch of the year, the fields are black. What does that mean? It means they’re not using sunlight. And because they no longer need it to have cover crops or grow pastures for animals, because they are down to their corn and soy and chemical.
This system worked really well, as long as fossil fuel was cheap. It did; we must step back and acknowledge its accomplishment, because it’s an accomplishment many Americans still prize and that is the fact that anyone in this country can walk into a fast food restaurant today and for less than an hour at the minimum wage, get a really big, hearty, high-calorie, and superficially satisfying meal. And we’re kind up against that and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
The problem is, as we’ve learned, that monocultures in the field lead to monocultures in the diet. A diet that today is -- one-third of the calories in the average American’s diet comes from processed corn or processed soy, mostly hydrogenated soy oil, in which all of the fast food is fried, and high fructose corn syrup, which sweetens all the drinks and a great many other things in this food system. And so it’s no surprise that -- and then of course, the rest of it is fed to animals and turned into other forms of corn and soy on four legs or two legs.
So, this policy, though, of more, it worked in a sense. We all have, most of us have, I mean, there still are food insecure people, but you can get enough calories to get by, indeed to get quite fat. This cheap fossil fuel allowed also, not just for monoculture, but a far-flung food system. I mean, these supply chains are really, the more you look at them, are absolutely mind boggling. You know, the fact that they’re catching sustainable salmon in Alaska, one of the last sustainable fisheries, and then flying it to China to fillet it and then flying it back to the United States to eat it. I don't know if you can still call it sustainable. The fact that California is feeding Iowa, you know, the place with the greatest soil in the world is not growing its own food. The fact that we are exporting sugar cookies to Denmark while we import sugar cookies from Denmark: a mind boggling trade that one economist said, when he was told of it, “Wouldn't it be more efficient to swap recipes?”
But, you know, I think we realized last summer that these supply chains are not long for this world and that even though oil prices have declined lately because of the economic collapse, that in the long-term we won’t be doing this much longer. And, in fact, last summer, many people in the food industry figured this out. One of the more interesting developments last summer when we had such high fuel prices was that the price of shipping a box of broccoli from Salinas Valley to the Hunts Point market in New York when from $3.00 a box to $10.00 a box. And when that happened, the big growers in the Salinas Valley, [indistinct] and another one, they began buying cropland in New England. They realized that they’re going to need to grow food closer to where it is being eaten. But, of course, they shouldn’t be growing that food. We should be growing it. So, before they get here -- [applause] -- but they’re the first to recognize that we’re gonna have to squeeze the oil out of the system and that’s gonna mean re-regionalizing the food chain.
So, how do you do it? How do you get this food system off of fossil fuel? I’m gonna run through just a very rough sketch. I've spelled it out in more detail if you wanna look at that article and things I’m working on now. But, how do you move -- the big move, though, is to move from monocultures to polycultures. It’s really that simple and that complicated.
The big move is doing what the pioneers of organic always understood, which how do you -- how does nature do this? How does nature produce so much biomass year after year without fossil fuel fertilizers and without fossil fuel pesticides? That’s a real head-scratcher. Well, we know how nature does it. Nature does it by having a great many species in combination, plants, and animals, such that one fertilizes another. And by not having monocultures, insect problems are not a serious problem. Nature, you know, can produce lots of food from little more than sunshine, soil, and water.
Sustainable agriculture, contrary to what a lot of people think outside of this room, is not, however, just a matter of turning back the clock. This is not, as farmers in the Midwest tell you, “Oh that’s, yeah, my great-grandfather was an organic farmer, ‘cause he didn’t have pesticides.” In fact, it is a highly sophisticated and new -- it is a post-industrial, not a preindustrial agriculture, and we know we can do it. We have models. We have models at every scale. We have the model of Joel Salatin and his six species polyculture in Virginia. We have the model of Will Allen’s farm in inner-city Milwaukee. I don't know how many species he has, but it looks like about 20. And then, you know, you might say, if you are Saxby Chambliss or somebody like that, “Well, those are all tiny.” Well, in fact, there are big models. There are models in Argentina, farms that dwarf any American farm, 10,000, 20,000-acre farms on eight-year rotations. Five years of cattle on pasture rotated, building up so much fertility in the soil, so much carbon, that they can then grow three years of grain without any fertilizer, without any herbicide. So, we can do this, we can figure it out. We’re just not working on it as a, you know, on the national level. And to do it, of course, one of the things we’re gonna need to do is shift the entire research agenda to away from creating sophisticated inputs for farmers to buy, toward systems, processes. We have to understand, the Department of Agriculture has to understand, the departments -- the land grant colleges have to understand, that a really clever rotation is as ingenious a technology as a new genetically-modified drought-resistant corn seed.
Why don't we think that? Well, it doesn’t come in a box. And it can't be patented. And that is a problem. The private sector will not invest in inventing new processes. And that’s why it’s gonna have to be a public deal.
There’s a lot else we can do. I’ll just throw out a few ideas. At the level of the farm, ‘cause as I said, we gotta deal with the farm, we have to deal with the marketplace, and we have to deal with us, the consumer, the eater, if we’re gonna really move this, resolarize this food system. First, we have to reward farmers for diversifying. We’ve gotta pay our farmers more the more crops they grow, the more days of the year that their fields are green. We need to -- and we need to stop penalizing people taking subsidies from growing specialty crops. Now they’re forbidden. If you take -- if you have corn land or soy land or cotton land, you're not allowed to grow vegetables. That’s certainly standing in the way of change. We need to diversify farms, and one of the ways to do that is essentially to change the whole incentive structure of the subsidy system, which right now has been designed to maximize production of five crops and nothing else. But, you know, again, we set those subsidies up because there was a public good we wanted our farmers to satisfy. That public good has changed.
So how do we change the incentives to give us what we now want, which is healthy food? Well, there’s a lot of things we can do. We can pay farmers for ecosystem services. We can pay them for the quality of their farming rather than the quantity and we can measure those things. We can pay them for putting in bee habitats. We can pay them for sequestering carbon. And I think one of the most important struggles of the next couple years will be, “How is agriculture incorporated into the new carbon trading regime that we will probably have?”
There are three options here. You could leave agriculture out, which big ag will lobby to do, because they don't wanna pay taxes on their carbon and they know how much carbon they’re responsible for. You could, plan B, do what the environmentalists, many of the more conventional ones would like to see, which is, “Let’s penalize farmers for putting carbon into the atmosphere, for the, you know, the dairy industry in Tulare County, California, or the feedlots in North Carolina, the hog confinements. So, let’s charge them for that carbon.”
But I think the third and best alternative is to have a regime that includes both sticks and carrots. Because we know now that agriculture not only -- we can not only mitigate its climate change impact, we can actually turn agriculture into one of the most important solutions to the climate change problem. We have a 700 million acre potential carbon sink, the agricultural lands in America. And if we reward farmers for sequestering carbon and performing these other, you know, valuable services, for making biochar, for generating energy, we can enlist them in the solution; and nothing would drive change faster than if farmers were directly rewarded for contributing to solving the climate change problem. So, I think that that is something as we start talking about this new regime of carbon trading, we need to have a seat at that table and have a clear agenda that we don't -- we wanna be at that table and we want both carrots and sticks for agriculture. I think that that’s very, very important.
We need also to solarize our farming and to get animals back on farms -- [applause] -- and out of confinement. Why? Well, we need to close the nutrient cycles. We need to, you know, we need to turn their waste back into the blessing of fertility. Right now, it is a pollutant. You know, the great Wendell Barry quote, you know, he said, “When we put animals on feedlots, we took a solution, which was animals fertilizing the soil and dealing with crop waste, we took that brilliant solution and neatly divided it into two problems: a fertility shortage on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot.” Well, we have to go back to the solution that predated those problems. And how do you do that? Well, you have to remove the government’s artificial support of feedlot agriculture. Feedlot agriculture -- [applause] -- feedlot agriculture is not efficient. Feedlot agriculture only survives because it stands on a tripod, three legs that are essentially provided by our government. One, of course, is subsidized grain, which gives them such a competitive advantage over farmers that it’s cheaper for a feedlot to feed, to finish cattle, than it is for a farmer to grow feed if he’s feeding grains. The other -- the second leg is antibiotics. We allow these feedlots to squander important human antibiotics and they could not go on if those antibiotics were forbidden. So, that is an enormous public cost that’s formed by feedlots. And the third is, we don't regulate them. You know, we have these clean water and clean air acts, but we do not enforce them on feedlots. The laws are on the books. We need only to persuade our government to start enforcing them, to basically regulate these factories as the factories they are and stop pretending that they are farms.
So, those are the three legs you need to remove. And then the economics of putting animals back on farms, closing that nutrient cycle, taking better advantage of the sun feeding the grass, and the grass feeding the animals, and the animals feeding the grass and feeding us, all becomes possible again.
You also need, to make this work, to move agriculture closer to this polyculture ideal, I think the really hard part is not that we don't know how to do it or we can't get the yields that we need, because we can get the yields that we need. No, the hard part is we don't have enough farmers. We -- the problem -- [applause]
This is what fossil fuel also did to American agriculture: it replaced farmers. It was a way to make one farmer produce so much food and that is how we depopulated the farm belt. And that is why one farmer today in America can feed 140 other American. It’s an amazing achievement, but it is also -- comes with such a high price.
So, I think the hard part is getting more Americans back on the land. And that will take a concerted cultural change in our regard for farming as an occupation and the prestige of farming; and I think that’s beginning to happen, in the same way that the prestige of being a chef has been revolutionized in just a couple decades in America. We are seeing the same thing happening with farmers. And you’ll know we’ve gotten there when there’s a show on the Bravo Network called “Top Farmer.” [applause]
But, you know, the last agricultural census, we saw for the first time an uptick in small farms, significant, and we saw the average age of farmers go down, just a little bit.
So, that’s all very encouraging, but a lot of work needs to be done on that front. And it involves the land grant colleges, and it involves figuring out ways to put farmers on the land by leasing unused land. I mean, there’s so much that can be done in that area. And incorporating farming into our regional planning, to insist that farmland is preserved, and that when -- if you want to have a new development, you have to leave not just a golf course or a wilderness or a park, but you have to leave farmland -- [applause] -- And you've gotta lease it to farmers. And I do look forward to a day where all those bankrupt housing developments that were organized around golf courses, where people paid so much to overlook the 9th hole, now have diversified farms at their core.
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. 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.
Last level I wanna talk about. The food culture. You know, I recently came across a couple of statistics that made me realize that as much as we need to change what happens on the farm, the farm in a way is the least of it. You know, we spend $818 billion retail on food. Of that amount, farmers clear $69 billion. Out of eight hundred -- I’m sorry, $881 billion. Okay? It’s a tiny portion. This is after their expense, I mean, their input costs. Just to give you some idea. The people who make the packages in which our food comes to us, the cellophane makers, the box makers, they make $10 billion more than the farmers in that economy. They’re making $79 billion. So, we have to work on all that, that whole part, which largely consists of processing, marketing, distribution. So, we can't expect farmers who have become very small players and not -- not powerful decision-makers in this food economy, to drive all the change. It’s remarkable how much they have managed to drive. It will have to come from us, from the eaters, from changing the way we eat.
And that’s why we need to enlist eaters in this movement in much greater numbers, to join the farmers, to join all the rest of us. So, how do we do this? Just, I’ll run off a few ideas. Obviously, we need to begin with our children, we need to begin with the school lunch program. This is -- [applause] -- this is probably the big fight for this year, the school lunch reauthorization happens. And we need to get involved in that fight. You know, Alice Waters really has it right on this score. She looked at the model of President Kennedy, who looked and saw that the health of American children in the early 60’s was poor and he started a program of mandatory physical education. And all of us grew up with that. Well, we need mandatory edible education.
We need to teach all primary school students the basics of growing food, cooking food, and eating food. Now, that sounds funny to teach kids how to eat, doesn’t it? But, we are teaching them how to eat. We’re teaching them how to eat fast food. We serve them tater tots and chicken nuggets at school and we give them ten minutes to eat. We’re creating another generation of fast food eaters. So, we have to work on that. But we need to teach adults too. We need to teach people about the carbon footprint of their food. I wanna see a second calorie count on every food package that lists the fossil fuel calories, not just the fat calories.
And then of course, we have the model of the White House. Now, of all the items on this list of proposals in that article back in October, we can check one of them off. We now have this White House garden. I think that this is actually a very important development. I know it’s all -- it’s warmed our hearts. But I think that since it’s happened, since the story got out, the, you know, if you haven't bought your Burpee stock yet, it might be time to call your broker on Monday morning. Americans are going to be gardening in great numbers. I don't even know if it’s publicly traded. But, I had a call after the journalists started hearing about this the middle of last week, and I had a call from one of the big cable channels, Discovery Channel or something, saying, “We wanna do a big series on that food Michelle’s talking about.” So, she’s about to mainstream the kind of food we’re talking about. It is gonna be the stuff of Good Housekeeping, not Gourmet.
And you know when people start gardening, all sorts of things happen. It is not just about that, you know, incredibly smart investment of time and energy to get fresh fruit and vegetables at a time of economic hardship. The National Gardening Association just came out with a study saying a $70.00 investment in a vegetable garden could yield $600.00 in fresh produce. Pretty impressive. But, you know, those of you who work the land, I bet there are a lot of gardeners in here, you know the habits of mind that gardening teaches. You know that it does reconnect you with the fact that food comes from the sun and the soil and it doesn’t come from fossil fuel and it doesn’t come from the store. It teaches habits of independence and interdependence at the same time. ‘Cause what are you gonna do with all those zucchini?
It teaches you that there is a free lunch and that free lunch is solar energy and that there still is abundance and that our presence on the land is not always about just diminishing the world. That in fact we can get what we need from the earth and actually improve the earth. It is non-zero sum, an gardening will teach us that. And the other thing it always teaches me, those of you who think all these home gardeners are going to take, you know, take business away from you, is it makes me really appreciate farmers. It makes me appreciate the skill, the intelligence, the creativity that goes into growing really good quality food. So, I think it’s a real plus for all of us.
Now, this agenda that I’m talking about, your own agenda, is not gonna happen just because we have a President and a First Lady who are sympathetic. That’s not how change comes. Change is much, much harder than that. Presidents cannot flip the switch and make things happen and we’re learning that every day. Our work is really just beginning. You know, Obama was pressed on these issues, on this kind of agenda, shortly after the election. A friend of mine had occasion to have dinner with him and Michelle, and Obama made it clear that he got it, that he really did understand the issue, but he also said he didn’t think the time was right to push hard. He understood the forces arrayed on the other side and the great amount of political capital it would take to defeat them. He understood all about the Farm Bureau. He comes from a farm state. He knows how it works. And he understood about the farm lobby in congress and the constitution of the ag committees. And he did two things, he challenged my friend, he said, “Show me the movement. Make me do it. Make me do it.”
And he also said, he turned to his wife at that very dinner and said, “This is your issue, baby.” And she has evidently taken up the challenge. Now, that language, that language, “Make me do it,” is very interesting. Presidents have uttered that word - those words before. Roosevelt used them when he was being lobbied about certain issues. There’s a very interesting scene when Martin Luther King came to Lyndon Johnson and said, “We need this Voting Rights Act. You know, we need your help,” and Johnson turned to him and said, “I wanna do it. Make me do it.” He wasn’t just gonna do it. He needed to be made. He was telling Martin Luther King to get out in the street and make it happen.
Another example, President Clinton in 1993, he had a very difficult budget negotiation in Congress. He lost a lot. He moved way to the right and gave up a lot of his campaign promises to get this 1993, his first budget. And, at the signing of this budget, Bernie Sanders, the member of his caucus furthest to his left was there, and he came over to Bernie Sanders and he started pounding on his chest like this and he said, “Why weren’t you screaming at me? I needed you to be screaming at me, because then I could have brought you something.” So, as kindly as you feel towards Michelle and Barack, keep those lessons in mind.
Vilsack said something similar to a group of activists he met with just last month, “I need your help. Build a movement.” And he understands. Because the farm lobby is already organizing against him. So, we need to get organized. We need to flex our muscles. When that first regulatory or confirmation or legislative fight comes, we need to turn out. Do you remember the 240,000 comments we turned out on the first organic set of rules? That blew their mind in Washington. How did we do that? We’re gonna need to do that again and soon. We need to sign those online petitions, track the issues, but we also need to turn up at the hearing rooms. We need to be writing people just like your Senator, who is a major player in this fight, Saxby Chambliss. Don't give up on him. Write him.
We need to master the farm bill and we need to be in touch with our legislators. Now is not the time to savor the moment or rest. Now is the time to make Obama do it. Let’s show him the movement. Thank you very much.
Thank you, thank you, thank you very much, thank you.
Now, now, I’m gonna eat some pie. Thanks a lot.