Okay, well, I'll admit... I heard Michael Pollan speak. Which is only like hearing god speak (and Jerry Falwell's not around to argue that point anymore. To think I haven't shed a single tear!) since his latest bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma has become a veritable bible in the one year it's had in print. No doubt it's had wider circulation in its first year than than either the old or the new testaments did in theirs.
Many of the others in the room with me may dispute me for naming Pollan as god - it was a nutrition and medicine conference and I am sure many a conference-goer had a god complex. The attendees included many doctors, and the god complex kind of goes with the territory, particularly in some specialties (::cough:: cardiology ::cough::).
Read on, and I'll tell ya what god had to say (hint: it didn't involve invading any oil-rich countries that start with the letters "Ira").
The event was titled "Eating Well in an Era of Industrialized Food" and it lasted two hours - the first focused on what to eat, the second focused on political change to bring us into the post-industrial food system we'd all like to see... you know, one where food production respects the earth and our food actually nourishes us instead of leaving us fat and sick.
In addition to Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at Berkeley, best selling author, and one of my biggest heroes (right behind Al Gore), the evening also featured:
- Andrew Weil, MD ("integrative medicine pioneer")
- David Wallinga, MD (nutrition guru)
- Daniel Imhoff (author of the next book I will read, Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill)
- Scotty Johnson (representing Defenders of Wildlife)
Dr. Weil spoke first, briefly giving some perspective to the conference and to the discussion that would follow. As a physician, he often found that dietary changes helped patients without resorting to drugs and procedures; however, he also found that most medical schools significantly lack nutrition curricula. (As proof of the problem, Weil pointed to the universally bad and often unhealthy food served at hospitals - and the number of hospitals that had fast food restaurants on site!)
His philosophy was not a rejection of Western medicine, but rather an acknowledgement that diet contributes to human health and may provide less harsh solutions than drugs. As an example, he mentioned his success from telling sinus sufferers to entirely remove cows' milk from their diets for a trial period of 2 mos. The conference, which has been held annually for the past few years, was created to educate healthcare professionals on integrative medicine and nutrition, to fill in the knowledge gap in the medical community.
During his part of the talk, Pollan explained a bit of latest book for those who hadn't read it. The Omnivore's Dilemma traces four meals from farm to fork (love the alliteration?). He starts with a McDonald's meal to represent food of the industrial eater, then moves on to two different kinds of organic meals (one "industrial organic" and one local), and finishes by growing, hunting, and gathering his own food.
As was stated numerous times during the panel discussion, all to often, if you look at a modern processed food, you have no idea where it came from. I don't mean that you haven't a clue whether your apples came from Washington or New Zealand (although the importance of Country of Origin Labeling was touched on... hint hint call your representative), but you often have no idea what plant or animal, if any, the ingredients of your food were derived from. (In the case of meat, Pollan pointed out the importance of what your food eats, so that means we've got a significant lack of information beyond knowing that our Big Macs came from cows.)
The answers to the question "Where does a McDonald's meal come from?" (or any other processed food, for that matter) converged on a cornfield in Iowa. In the book, Pollan visits George Naylor, a corn and soy farmer with over 3 decades of farming experience. The book doesn't get overly political, but I found myself cheering for Naylor when he told Pollan that he was growing corn and soy for "the military-industrial complex." About a month later, I met Naylor and my suspicion was confirmed... he's on the
right correct side of the political spectrum, smart as hell, and politically active. More on politics later.
Dr. Weil inserted, regarding the use of corn and soy as building blocks of nearly all processed foods, that soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup are markers of cheap foods to avoid. Soybean oil, which he said was not in our diets before the 1920's, has the wrong omega 6 to omega 3 fat ratio. He put it in the category of "avoid at all costs" - even if it's not hydrogenated. That was definitely new information for me. FYI, what you buy at the store in the bottle labeled "vegetable oil" is soybean oil. Yum.
When asked whether he'd prefer local or organic, Pollan answered "both" but went on to favor local over organic for a number of reasons he explained. First, often local farmers you find at a market or a roadside stand are organic but aren't USDA certified. The question to ask them isn't "Are you organic?" but "Do you use any sprays?"
When you support a local farmer, you're helping preserve some of the farmland nearby that makes your own local ecosystem nicer. You also help preserve the security of our food system. "Food sovereignty" - the ability of each region to feed itself - plays a big role in food safety, as food system centralization allows an E. coli problem in one farm field to go nationwide. Last, when you buy local, you reduce the amount of oil required to bring your food to your plate.
On the other hand, if you go the organic route without giving thought to where your food came from, watch out. Pollan mentioned a student of his who is doing research in China. The student said that a lot of the farmer's there don't give a shit about organics - they buy the certification because they know it will help them make more money from Americans and then they keep doing whatever the hell they were doing before on their farms. (It kind of reminded me of something I read in a book about doing business in China, where it said that usually when an American businessperson tells a joke to a group of Chinese, the translator will just say in Chinese "The American just told a joke. Laugh like it was really funny!" and then they all laugh... they're pretty good at figuring out what they need to do to placate us and take our money.)
Pollan spent some time describing Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm for those who hadn't read his book. Salatin produces six animals on his farm - cows, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, hogs, and sheep. He's pioneered many techniques allowing him to rotate the animals in perfect symbiosis, giving them natural and happy lives and producing superior meats and eggs. Because he choreographs the animals to fertilize the land and clean up after one another's waste, he uses no pesticides and the soil on his farm improves from year to year instead of eroding.
One question Pollan took was "Is that scalable?" From what I've learned, the answer isn't that simple. In the last hundred years, farming has gone from being labor-intensive to capital-intensive. Salatin's farm (and other organic operations) require labor. A farm I visited here in California a week ago used to require one guy to go around the farm spraying pesticides for a few days, whereas now that it's organic, it requires much more labor to fertilize, weed, and deal with pests. So, is it scalable? My hunch is yes but you won't reap the same benefit from economies of scale as a conventional farm.
The other thought I had - which wasn't mentioned by any of the panelists - was the harm that NAIS, the National Animal ID System, would inflict on Salatin and other farmers like him. For a farmer who isn't using all of the wonderful Monsanto-provided shortcuts to cheapen the product and help the bottom line, the added costs and hassle from NAIS could really be the last straw. Furthermore - and this is a whole separate discussion - I don't believe NAIS is going to bring us any added food safety, particularly on small farms like Salatin's that are already much safer than your average factory farm.
Each panelist was asked to provide some quick dietary advice to the audience. Among the recommendations were "Don't eat anything that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," "Avoid soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup," "We aren't only what we eat, we are also what we eat eats," and Pollan's quote from his NY Times piece, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
When the Farm Bill came up, one of the panelists joked "Lock the doors!" as if the entire audience would run out. In my experience, it's far more likely that they'd all fall asleep. The Farm Bill seems to be a sleep-inducing topic, even here on DailyKos where we like to talk politics.
If I'm going to stick to describing the event last night, then I won't get into the 2007 Farm Bill too deeply because none of the panelists did either. They gave the basics, that it's an omnibus piece of legislation (i.e. a bunch of bills that get passed together) that gets passed every 5 years or so. Congress must pass a new one or extend the 2002 bill by September 30 this year, so NOW is the right time to start calling your representatives.
The parts of the Farm Bill we care about are the Nutrition title, the Commodity title, and the Conservation title. The Nutrition title deals with food stamps, the Commodity title deals with agricultural subsidies for commodities like corn and soy, and the Conservation title is where we've got a lot of potential to start funding the things that we want. From my limited understanding, here are the basic things we want to see:
- Food stamps revised to better allow people to dig themselves out of poverty and to choose nutritious foods instead of junk. (Currently, food stamps provides about $1/meal. If that's all that stands between you and starvation, are you going to spend it on high calorie junk or a salad?)
- Commodity title returned to pre-Nixon-era sanity, to no longer encourage infinite overproduction and low prices for corn and soy that are subsidized by our tax dollars. I'd much prefer that those like Tyson and ADM who buy corn and soy (and currently profit off our system) pay fair prices to farmers for commodities instead of giving them a discount created by my tax dollars.
- Conservation title used to inject more money where it will do the American people the most good. For example, grants for more research for organics.
Other than that, most of the time was spent stressing the importance of the farm bill and of our participation in the grassroots lobbying effort than explaining the specifics. Pollan repeated a comment made by a Congressman earlier this week: our legislators only listen to the lobbyists when they hear nothing from the voters. I'm not sure how true this is, but just in case it describes how my representative operates, I'll give her a call.
Another point made was that newspapers judge the public's interest in issues by how many letters to the editor they get on the subject. If you and twenty other Kossacks in your town flood the newspaper's office with mail about the farm bill, they might start covering it.
I think the Farm Bill is still called the Farm Bill (not the Food Bill, as some advocate) to make it sound irrelevant and boring. That trick is an oldie but a goodie. So is making the legislation really long and confusing so none of us will read it or attempt to understand it. This time around, for the first time, at least some of us non-farmers have woken up to the farm bill's significance. We've got a few months to mobilize and get our act together, unless we want to wait 5 years for the farm bill after this one.
That's about it for the panel discussion, so I'll leave you with a pic of me and Michael Pollan and a few links where you can get more information.