Skip to main content

Food As A National Security Issue

In an open letter to the next president, author Michael Pollan writes about the waning health of America's food systems — and warns that "the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close."




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on October 20, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 20, 2008: Interview with Michael Pollan; Review of the film, "Boogieman: The Lee Atwater story."


Fresh Air
3:00-4:00 PM
Food As A National Security Issue


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Michael Pollan, has written an open letter to the next president, urging him to remake the way we grow and eat our food. Pollan warns, you can't make significant progress on energy independence, climate change, or the health-care crisis without a new food policy.

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy. That’s thanks to chemical fertilizers made from natural gas, pesticides made from petroleum, farm machinery, modern food processing, packaging, and transportation. Put in another way, Pollan says, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil, and spewing greenhouse gases.

The soy and corn fields that the government subsidizes are what make sweetened and fried fast food so cheap. And cheap fast food is one of the reasons we have epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Michael Pollan is the author of several best-selling books, including "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."

He's a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkley. Pollan's letter to the next President was published last week in The New York Times Magazine. Michael Pollan, welcome back to Fresh Air. You would like to see the United States change its agricultural policy and its food policy.

I think a lot of us don't really understand what the agriculture policy is. So would you lay out for us what you think we need to know, in order to understand what's creating the problems that you've just outlined?

Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Author, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto"): Yeah, you now, it took me a long time to figure this out, too. Agricultural policy's one of the most obscure and possibly most-boring corners of a federal policy, but it's vitally important.
And every five years, you know, we have this thing called the Farm Bill. And nobody much pays attention, because it seems like a piece of special-interest legislation for farmers. But in fact, it really codifies the rules that govern the entire food economy in this country. It decides what kind of calories our Government supports the production of, and which kind it discourages.

Just to give you an example, farmers receiving subsidies in the Middle West are forbidden under the Farm Bill from growing actual food, things like broccoli and carrots. They can only grow these few subsidies crop, like corn, and soy, and wheat. You know, so there you are, retarding the growth of any kind of local food economy, and encouraging farmers to grow these crops that are not exactly food. I mean, all that corn and soy are raw materials for industrial food and for livestock feed.

So, basically, if you could summarize federal food policy, it has been to drive down the cost of food, and make food as cheap as possible. Now that seems like an eminently popular thing to do, and it really took this turn dramatically during the Nixon administration where food prices, like today, had spiked. There was great food inflation, and there were women taking to the streets protesting the price of butter, and horse meat showed up in the butcher shops because grain prices had gotten so expensive. And Nixon got really nervous about this. With all his other political problems, he recognized as all governments always have, that high food prices are politically perilous.

So what did he do? He brought in as agriculture secretary Earl Butz, very brilliant Perdue agricultural economist, and gave him the marching orders, redesign American farm policy to drive down the cost of food.

GROSS: So when Nixon appointed Earl Butz secretary of agriculture, what did Butz do?

Professor POLLAN: Butz said about encouraging farmers to move toward large, highly-efficient money cultures, mostly of corn and soy. Before that, you had a diversity of crops in a place like Iowa. But after Butz, you know, the head rows came down, the animals left the farm, and you had wall-to-wall or fence row to fence row corn and soy.

He also encouraged farmers to produce more, by essentially instead of supporting the price of grain crops, he cut them checks, so that rather than heap grain off the market when the price was low, they would flood the market, and he would simply make up the difference with a subsidy check.

He got rid of the strategic grain reserve. He did a whole lot of different things to basically encourage them to overproduce. And it worked. The corn crop, just to give you an example, went from four billion bushels in the late 1970s to about 12 or 14 billion bushels today.

GROSS: So in writing about how American food policy has encouraged the industrialization of agriculture, you write about how now animals are separated from farms, and that's created problems on both ends. What problems has that created?

Professor POLLAN: Well, one of the interesting effects of subsidizing corn and soy, and driving down the price of these crops, and allowing farmers to sell them for less than it cost to grow them, is that it sort of sucked all the animals off the farms in America, and put them on to feedlots.

Because owners of feedlots could buy corn and soy cheaper than farmers could grow it, because they were subsidized.

So, suddenly, you have this, what Wendell Berry called once the elegant solution of animals on farms with crops, such that the animals replenished the nutrients in the soil that the crops deplete, and they close that nutrient cycle. And you've neatly divided that solution into two new problems.

One is, fertility deficit on the farm, because there's no longer that source of nitrogen in the manure. And the other is a pollution problem on the feedlot, because you can't use that manure when it's so concentrated on the feedlots.

So, the first problem we remedy with fossil-fuel fertilizers, again, putting oil on to our land, in a fact. And the second problem is feedlot pollution, we don't remedy at all. We just collect it all in giant lagoons, which release methane and nitrous oxide into the air, and contribute mightily to global warming.

GROSS: Now, also in criticizing American food policy the way it is now. You say that it's contributed to the growth of big agribusiness tracks of land, as opposed to a more regional food economy with smaller farmers, and farm food being shipped to markets that are close to the area where the food has been farmed. What's the connection between the agricultural policy and the somewhat collapse of, you know, the regional food system?

Professor POLLAN: Well, there's a couple of ties. One is simply the existence of all this cheap, subsidized grain leads to bigger and bigger farms. I mean, if the price of grain keeps going down, and you're getting a subsidy, it kind of make sense to farm more and more land.

So, you tend to buy out your neighbors over time. The margins are so small in agriculture, that you - it's a volume business. So, that encourages concentration. And also we don't have a cap, we don't have a serious cap on subsidies.

So, until you have that, you're going to have farmers getting bigger and bigger. The other problem, though, and this is not directly agriculture policy, but federal policy, is we have not enforced anti-trust laws when it comes to agriculture. With the result that we have incredible concentration at every level, very few companies selling seed, very few companies selling fertilizers, very few companies selling pesticides.

Four meat packers are responsible for 84 percent of the beef in America. The same is true for chicken, the same is true for pork. We've permitted an incredible consolidation of the food system, and over time, the consolidation of farmers has kind of emptied out the Farm Bill, there are very few people left in the Farm Bill. So, it's very hard to have a local food system, when there's nobody left to eat it.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the ways you'd like to see farm and food policy change. First, you talk about resolarizing the American farm. What do you mean by that?

Professor POLLAN: Well, you know, food is the original solar technology. Every calorie you've ever eaten, Terry, was ultimately produced by a chloroplast in a green plant or in algae. It's at the root of everything we eat, but over time, and with the industrialization of agriculture, and because we didn't think that way of growing food was quite speedy enough, we have introduced a lot of fossil fuel into the food system.

To grow more efficiently, to grow more quickly, to grow without rotating crops, all this kind of thing, and move food around and process it a lot. So, what has to happen in the biggest sense is that we need to stop eating fossil fuel and spewing greenhouse gas, and start eating sun-based or solar-based food again. We need to wring the fossil fuel out of the food system, because we don't have the cheap energy anymore. We won't have it anymore. We really have little choice, but to wring the fossil fuel out of most of our lives.

The thing about food is, it's rather easier to do there, than it is when it comes to how we transport ourselves and how we heat ourselves, because we are beginning with this fundamentally solar technology. So, the big move I'm advocating is from a food system based on fossil fuel, to one that is based on contemporary sunlight. Using the sun in the most sophisticated way, we can to grow lots of food without fossil fuel.

GROSS: Would that basically require breaking up the huge industrial farms into smaller farms, or do you think the huge industrial farms could resolarize?

Professor POLLAN: Well, that's a good question. I think that many large farms could resolarize, and that there are models around the world we could look at. One that I've looked at a little bit is Argentina. Now, there you've got farms up to 15 thousand acres in size, big even by U.S. standards, and they managed to grow the world's best beef and lots of grain on these farms, without a lot of fossil fuel. And here's how they do it. They have a very sophisticated eight-year rotation. So they'll do five years of growing beef on grass, on pastures. And then, after five years, they'll till those pastures and plant grain crops, whether it's soy, or - which is not actually a grain, it's an oil seed, or corn or wheat. And they'll do that for three years, and then they'll go back to beef.

Now, the genius of this rotation is that after five years of cattle on the grass, there is so much nitrogen that has been built up in the soil by their manure, and by grasses regenerating the soil, and legumes, that they need no fossil-fuel fertilizers to grow those three years of grain.

They also need very little pesticide, because the kind of weeds that would bother a perennial pasture cannot survive once you start tilling the land. And the kind of weeds in row crops can't survive in pasture.

So, you see they've solved two problems, merely, by going to that rotation. And they grow terrific beef, and by the way, beef grown on grass is a much healthier product. And they're doing this in a geography that is roughly comparable to the American Middle West. There is an example of how you might resolarize a large-scale farm, and grow lots of beef and a fair amount of grain.

GROSS: So right now, the American Government rewards monocrops. It rewards you for growing lots of corn or lots of soy. And there are disincentives for growing anything else. How would you want to change that, so that farmers have an incentive to diversify?

Professor POLLAN: Yeah, well, you know, I'm not a policy maker, it's important to state. So, the actual mechanism of doing this, I leave to smarter people than myself. But I can imagine a few ideas. I mean, one is, reward farmers by the number of different crops they grow.

And that you get a better subsidy if you're growing five crops or three crops, instead of one or two. Imagine this, we could reward our farmers for the number of days their fields are green. Right now, in a place like Iowa, the fields are black from the moment the corn or soy bean has harvested in October till the moment it - they come up again in May. They're not using all that solar energy to regenerate, to put in cover crops that might replenish the fertility of the soil, as well as guard against erosion.

So, what if we offered incentives to farmers for planting covered crops, for leaving their fields green, for diversifying, for bringing animals back to the farm, as a source of fertility, and as a way, by the way, to sequester carbon. Well, you know, well-managed grass lands sequester huge amounts of carbon.

So, I think we can change the incentives. We also have to eliminate this rule that says if you're receiving subsidies from the government, you're not allowed to grow what are called, specialty crops. That's Farm Bill speak for food you can actually eat, you know, vegetables and fruits, some things like that, so that farmers could, again, put in a little block of fruit trees. Have some chickens, have a diversity of crops, which would diminish their dependence on fossil fuel. Because as soon as you diversify, you find you have sources of fertility on the farm.

You find you don't need as many pesticides, because pesticides only survive in large monocultures. As soon as you start mixing up the crops, the pest of one crop can't survive the presence of the next crop. So you need to diversity both in time and in space. You need rotations over time, and you need lot of different crops. And there's no question that with different set of farm policies, we could create a different set of incentives.

GROSS: I have a feeling a lot of farmers would think that you're making things sound a little too simple, that even if you diversify, there's going to be problems with insects if you don't have insecticides.

Professor POLLAN: There will be some. There's no question. And I'm not saying we should have no insecticide. There's a place for insecticide in agriculture. What kinds of insecticides are questions, but I have been on a great many very kind of sophisticated polyculture farms. And one of the things that always surprise me - I also assume that these organic farmers, they were using organic pesticides. But it turned out very often, they were using no pesticides at all, because they had worked out these rotations. I remember a potato farmer I went to see. I asked him how does he deal with the Colorado potato beetle, which is the bane of the potato crop all over Idaho.

I said, do you use BT, this organic pesticide? He says, no, you know, one year in maybe ten I have to use it, I have a big outbreak. But basically, I found if I have - if I plant wheat for a year before potatoes, the Colorado potato beetles get really confused. And they're not there when the potatoes come in. So part of it is, we haven't done the research to figure out.

I mean, there's a farmer who figured that out on his own. But all our agricultural research, our land-grant universities, are directed toward maximizing production using fossil fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide, and pharmaceuticals. And my conviction is that if we bring the same kind of resources to a solar-food agenda that we have brought to a fossil-fuel agenda, we can do it. Because I've seen farmers do it with great success.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Pollan. He wrote an article in the October 12th edition of The New York Times Magazine, called "Farmer in Chief: What the next president can and should do to remake the way we grow and eat our food."

He's also the author of several best sellers, including his latest, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Michael, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is Fresh Air. If you just tuned in, my guest is Michael Pollan, and we're talking about the subject of his article in the October 12th edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, it's called "Farmer-In-Chief: What the next president can and should do to remake the way we grow and eat food." Pollan is also the author of several best-sellers about food, including his latest, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." How much of the corn that is grown in the United States is actually going toward ethanol?

Professor POLLAN: Over 20 percent, between 20 and 30 percent of the corn we're growing is going to our cars. So we're using a lot of perfectly good food to feed our cars right now.

GROSS: Have you had a change in reaction to using land for biofuels and how environmentally correct that is?

Professor POLLAN: Using good agricultural land to feed our cars is a tremendous mistake. It is behind a lot of - between 30 and 40 percent of the rise in food prices this year, is the fact that we have put such demand on the corn crop and the soy crop for biofuels.

GROSS: But you know, for a while, those biofuels, they seemed so environmentally good. I mean, because it's not fossil fuel?

Professor POLLAN: Yeah, it seems really green. You're taking a green plant, and you're making a fuel out of it. But what it did take to get that green plant to that point? Well, it takes a half a gallon of oil to grow a bushel of corn. So you see that corn plant is already implicated in the fossil-fuel economy.

And it takes about a gallon of fossil fuel to produce a gallon, or a gallon point two of ethanol. You end up getting very little additional energy, because it's such a fossil-fuel intensive system. If you were using sustainably grown corn, it might be a little bit different, but we're not. And so actually, ethanol makes little or no contribution to either saving energy or combating greenhouse gases.

GROSS: Do you think that their food system should be less about agribusiness, more about regional farmers, more farmers' markets, that would save a lot of money and energy when it comes to transporting foods a great distance? But in order to do anything like that, we'd really have to reverse the trend that a lot of farmers have left the farms for the suburbs and the cities? There's far fewer farms than there used to be.

Professor POLLAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So how do you reverse that trend so that more people go back to farming and it's - how much land is there left to farm now?

Professor POLLAN: We still have plenty of land. It tends to be a little further from cities than you'd like. But there still is plenty of land for farming, and we have - you know, we have wonderful land. I mean the quality of the land of the American Middle West is just some of the best in the world.

But I think the hardest part of this sun-food agenda that I'm laying out, is what you just pointed to. The fact is, we don't have enough farmers to farm this way right now. We have less than two million farmers left in this country in a population of three hundred million. You know, we used to have 40-50 million farmers.

One farmer in America is now feeding a hundred and forty of the rest of us, which is one of reason why we're so disconnected from our food. But we are going - make no mistake, if we're going to grow food in a post-oil era, which we will need to do, we will need a lot more hands on the land.

We will need millions more people, and we need to encourage them. We need to teach them in our land-grant colleges. We need to elevate the prestige of farming in this country, which I think is happening, thanks in large part to the chefs of America.

We need to put them on the land, and that is a very hard part because the land near the cities that you need to support a local - revival of local food economies, is being sprawled very quickly. We're losing 28 hundred acres of agricultural land every hour in this country. So I think that we need programs to preserve that land.

You know, in the same way, when we discover the supreme, ecological importance of wetlands, and we erected these very high bars to their development, I think we need a program where, if you're going to develop grade-A farm land, you'd better prove it's absolutely necessary.

You'd better file a food-system-impact statement before you develop that land, because we're going to need it someday. And once you put a house or a highway on it, it's going to be very hard to use it to feed people ever again. I also think we - you know, we should take all those failing condo developments with golf courses in the middle, and put diversified farms there. Lease it out to a young farmer.

There a lot of farmers who want to get back to the land, but can't afford to. So, in a way, I think that's harder than working out the technology, because the introduction of lots of fossil fuel into agriculture really just made it - made each individual - it was a labor-saving device, in effect.

And we're going to need more labor on the farms, but my definition of a farmer, I think, is a little different than what's in a lot of listener's heads. The kinds of really sophisticated sun-based-farming systems that I've seen, take a very thoughtful farmer, takes someone who really understands ecology, who understands entomology, who understands soil signs, and understands crops.

Also, he has to understand, or she has to understand something about animals, as well as plants. So, I see the farmer of the future as being one of these, you know, green jobs that everybody is talking about creating.

And that we need to accord it the same sort of respect, that we accord these other kinds of green jobs.

GROSS: Michael Pollan, we'll be back in the second half of the show. His open letter to the next President was published last week in The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is the best seller "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Pollan. The author of several best selling books about how we grow, process, sell, and eat our food, including "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto."

We're talking about his open letter to the next President, about why we need to remake the way we grow and eat our food. And why we can't have effective-energy health or security policies without a better food policy. The letter was published last week in The New York Times Magazine.

GROSS: You would like the government to regulate confined animal-feed operations, and those are those big industrial animal farms, those feedlots where - it's just, what, miles and miles of cattle or chickens being prepared.

Professor POLLAN: They're astonishing places. They are these vast cities of animals, and they have all the problems of cities, one of which is waste.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Professor POLLAN: The interesting thing about feedlot is, you take a feedlot that produces as much waste as Philadelphia. Now, there are clean-water laws that require Philadelphia to treat all that waste, but that feedlot has no such laws. We do not regulate them as we would regulate a comparable municipality or a comparably-sized factory.

We regulate them as farms, and there is this funny little conceit that you're still allowed to call the feedlot a farm, and farms are relatively lightly regulated. So, all I'm asking is nothing special, but just treat these factories as the factories they are, or treat these cities as the cities they are. They just happen to have animal waste, instead of human waste.

GROSS: You want to regulate antibiotics that are used for the animals, too. What's the problem with the antibiotics?

Professor POLLAN: Yeah. Well, the problem with the antibiotics is a public health problem. You cannot keep animals in such close confinement without daily doses of antibiotics to keep them healthy. I mean, they would get sick. Diseases would just, you know, wipe out these giant animal cities.

So, they use antibiotics, and very often, they are using antibiotics that are very important to us, that treat human diseases, and when you put so much antibiotics into an environment, an ecosystem, you are in effect selecting for resistance strains of salmonella, of E. coli, of listeria, and that's what we'd been doing.

And a lot of the outbreaks of food-born disease we see, are the results of the way we're raising our animals. We are breeding bugs that are not susceptible to our antibiotics. That's enormously dangerous, and we're doing it merely so we can make meat a little cheaper. We're squandering this extraordinary public good, which is an antibiotic that works.

GROSS: In describing how you'd like to rebuild America's food culture, you say you'd like to create a federal definition of food. I mean, that's something I never would have thought about. What would you like to do?

Professor POLLAN: Well, this is - I admit one of my wankier ideas. But consider this, here we have what, 40, 50, 60 billion dollars in food-assistance money that the Government pays to at-risk Americans. At-risk Americans can and do use these funds to buy food that is very deleterious to their health.

You know, you can use your food stamps to buy lots of candy. You can use it to buy soda. Now, it's very patronizing for me or anyone else to say, let's just, you know, use your food stamps for healthy food. We'll give you a better deal if you buy produce with it. But interestingly enough, we already kind of moralized the use of this money. We tell you, you can't buy alcohol with your food-stamp money. Now, arguably, soda is less nutritious than red wine. So what's the basis of that? I think we do this because those foods I'm describing, sodas, candies, chips, and things, we call junk food. But we still call it food, and I think that's a mistake.

I think we need to define food in such a way that it excludes completely empty calories, such as soda. So how would you define it? Well, it's kind of tricky. You remember when President Reagan tried to define ketchup as a food. He got in all sorts of hot water, so I don't doubt the political risk in this, however.

But I think, you know, defining food upward, rather than downward, might be a little bit easier. So let's say, you had a certain ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy, and that that made something a food. Now, I'm sure, there'll be all sorts of fooling around here, and they would suddenly start adding lots of vitamins to sodas pass your definition. So we need a good policy maker to figure this out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor POLLAN: But I think that we need to kind of think outside the box about food assistance. I also think we need the federal government with all the money it spends buying food, to dedicate a tiny percentage of that procurement to buying food within a hundred miles, to rebuild these local-food systems, military bases, school lunch, the national parks. Imagine if they were all spending some of their vast sums on food locally.

GROSS: Part of your vision for how we should overhaul food policy. You have an idea for changes in the schools - in the public schools. What would you like to see in the public schools?

Professor POLLAN: Hmm. Well, I think, one of the most important things we can do to change the food culture, as well as to build local food economies, is to really work on the school lunch program. If we could spend a dollar more per student per day, that's what experts say it would take to move from this fast food we're giving our children, and teaching them to eat and savor, to real local fresh food, actually cooked and not just microwaved.

So one of - there are a couple of ways to do that. One is to spend more on school lunch, and require that a certain amount of local food be purchased for it. We need to put gardens in the schools, and teach kids where food actually comes from. We need to educate legions of school-lunch ladies and school-lunch gentlemen. And I suggest that we have a program where we will forgive - if you're a culinary school student - we will - and there are thousands of them these days - we will forgive your federal loans, if you agree to spend two years cooking and teaching in the school lunch program.

GROSS: Here's an idea I love, because it seems so preposterous, but it's really kind of interesting. You would like the next president - and we're talking about your open letter to the next president about how to change food policy - you would like the next president to instead of having a White House lawn to basically have a White House garden, in which the president would set an example for the rest of us by having this, you know, garden of locally grown foods.

Professor POLLAN: Now, why is that preposterous, Terry? I mean, I think, that that actually is one of the more practical things I propose, because the President can do it without the permission of the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee.

GROSS: You've got me there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor POLLAN: So, it's actually easier to do, and we've done it before. Back in World War II Eleanor Roosevelt, over the objections of the Department of Agriculture, by the way, planted a "Victory Garden" and helped spearhead this movement toward "Victory Gardens" all over the country. People were ripping up their lawns and planting vegetables, and they ended up making a tremendous contribution to the war effort. We were growing 40 percent of our produce on home gardens.

So for the President to set that example - I mean, look, the White House lawn is beautiful. I've seen it up close, but imagine the pesticides that go into it. Imagine the amount of fertilizer that goes into it. I mean, the carbon footprint of the White House lawn is tremendous. In fact, I tried to get all that data from the White House, and they were incredibly secretive about it.

But if the president did this, and if the president and their family got out there and pulled weeds every now and then, it would really set the tone. And you know, one of the most important things we can do to combat the high price of food, the global-warming impact of food, the health problems of food, is to grow just a little bit of it ourselves.

You get exercise in the process. You reduce your carbon footprint. You're not driving to the market. You're sequestering carbon in your soil. Many, many problems are solved by that one simple act, so I resent your suggestion as preposterous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor POLLAN: I also suggest we need a farmer-in-chief. You know, we have a White House chef, but it would be great to have a White House farmer, who would take care…

GROSS: Who would do what?

Professor POLLAN: Well, who would take care of this garden, which I picture as about 5 acres. They've got 17 acres to play with there.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Professor POLLAN: So you can still have - CNN can still do their stand up somewhere else, but with a better backdrop, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor POLLAN: And so, the farmer takes care of it, and he is a solo farmer who gets tons of produce off this, that end up going to local food banks. So you have this powerful image of the White House feeding Americans, you know, what could be better than that?

GROSS: If you just tuned in, my guest is Michael Pollan, and we're talking about the subject of his article on the October 12 edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It's called "Farmer in Chief: What the next president can and should do to remake the way we grow and eat food."

Pollan is also the author of several best sellers about food, including his latest "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Michael, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Pollan. He has written extensively about food, including several best sellers. His latest is "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." We're talking about an article he wrote in the October 12th edition of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, called "Farmer in Chief: What the next president can and should do to remake the way we grow and eat our food." You know, a lot of people think of the sustainable-food movement as something for hippies, or for - you know, elitists with a lot of money. What's your reaction to that?

Professor POLLAN: Well, they've had a point. I mean, look, you know, in this country eating well, eating healthy, freshly-grown local food cost more than eating fast food. And like many movements, this movement has started with people who are well healed enough to eat in a different way.

We have to make this kind of food more accessible to more people. We have to fight that reality and that perception, but the reason that the cheapest calories in the supermarket are the least healthy calories, and I'm talking about high?fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, is because those are the kinds of calories we subsidize. I mean, it is a shame and an absurdity that broccoli cost more than a hamburger, a fast-food hamburger. But there are reasons that have to do with agricultural policy that can explain that. So we need to change the playing field.

We need to make the healthy calories in the produce section more competitive with the junk-food calories in the middle of the store, and that is a question of policy.

GROSS: Just curious, you know, when Obama was mocked for ordering arugula instead of iceberg lettuce. What's your reaction?

Professor POLLAN: Yeah. Well, I would have advised him, if he took my advice in these matters, not to talk about arugula. I mean…


Professor POLLAN: You know, Dukakis did the same thing. He talked about endive in Iowa, and these - you know, some of these candidates get to Iowa, and - you know, the farmers are complaining about their low crop prices, and then they know about specialty crops that get really good prices.

But you know, it is not realistic to think that Iowa's going to be growing endive or arugula. I think it's a bum wrap. Arugula is a perfectly good green. It actually has another name that many Midwesterners, even Midwestern Republicans would recognize, and that is "rocket." It's been grown on American farms for many, many years, but it got this kind of high tone, fancy-chef marketing treatment about 20 years ago that completely ruined its image. Look, there is a real issue of perception of elitism, and it’s one of the ironies of our society that junk food being sold by multinational corporations like McDonalds, and Kraft, and whoever else, appears to be populist, and food grown by struggling, scrupulous farmers is regarded as elitist, and I think that there's something wrong with this picture, that those agribusiness companies have seized the populist high ground.

When you look at how that supposedly cheap, populous food is produced, it's depending on government handouts. It is dependent on brutalizing of workers, and brutalizing of animals, and it suddenly appears in a very, very different light. I think though that this movement to reform the food system is - it's mistaken to think, it's a left or liberal movement. There is a ground swell on the right also. There are many, many people who are trying to take back control of their family dinner from the fast-food companies. There are evangelicals who are very interested in this food movement. And that you can understand it, I mean, restore - you know, what is a more traditional value than sitting down to a dinner with your family, and not going to McDonald's? I mean, this is the culinary equivalent of home schooling.

And so, I think that those of us, who are part of this movement, need to make common cause with people on the right. And that's why this agenda was not directed just to Barack Obama. It's directed equally to John McCain. I don't think that this is necessarily a left issue.

GROSS: So, you're writing about redoing our food policy, emphasizing the sustainable-food movement. At a time when people are really struggling financially, and the regionally-grown produce is sometimes more expensive than health-food stores, the whole foods kind of places are often more expensive than the regular supermarkets. So do you feel like this is a bad time to be emphasizing an idea like this? Do you feel like most people will either be unreceptive or unable to follow through, because of their personal finances?

Professor POLLAN: Well, I think it is a challenging time to be talking about these kind of issues. But these issues are not driven by my desires. These issues are driven by the fact that the era of cheap food is over. It's over, because of high energy prices, and it probably won't come back.

So we are going to have to rethink the whole food system. You know, Americans spend less on food than any people on the planet, less than 10 percent of their disposable income goes to food. To give you an example in a place with equal or higher standards of living, like Europe, people spend 15 to 18 percent of their income on food.

So, we are going to be spending more money, and for some people, it's really just about readjusting their priorities, and realizing, well, I'm going to put more money into better quality food, and less money into health care, into, you know, telephone bills, TV bills, all this kind of stuff that we do spend the money were saving on food on.

So, I do think that we're going to have to dig down on our pockets a little deeper. For people who can't do that though, and there are probably 20 to 30 million people in this country who can't afford to spend another nickel on food, we have to look at food assistance programs. We have to make good local food more accessible. We need programs that give you vouchers that you can spend in farmer's market specifically. We need to teach people how to cook, because if you cook - I mean, to have healthier food, you either have to invest more money or more time.

And some people who can't afford to invest more money could invest more time, and what I mean by that is cooking the food yourself, spending a Sunday making three or four meals for the week. You know, once again, learning the traditional talents of the kitchen, which in the old days got, you know, three or four meals out of one chicken, rather than just buying chicken breasts, you know, and getting one meal out of it.

GROSS: Although the price of oil has come down very recently, as - because everything is coming down in the markets. The price of oil on the whole has really gone up, and it makes the cost of transportation, including the transportation of food much more expensive, so that's what - part of what we pay for, when we pay for food. In your research, what are some of the most ridiculous transportation of food that you've seen, you know, something that makes no sense to you?

Professor POLLAN: Oh, there are so many absurd ones. You know, we're catching sustainable salmon in Alaska, and then shipping it to China to be filleted, and then shipping it back to the United States to be eaten. We're exporting tomatoes to Mexico, and we're importing tomatoes from Mexico.

We're trading sugar cookies with Denmark, exporting and importing. And one economist said about that famously, wouldn't it be more efficient to swap recipes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Professor POLLAN: So, there is a lot of wasted fossil fuel in the food system, and these kind of supply chains will not survive. We're sending chickens raised in California to China to be cut up, and then return to California.

GROSS: What's the logic behind it?

Professor POLLAN: Well, until recently, shipping by boat is very inexpensive, and labor in China is so much less than labor here, that the savings on labor makes up for the extra shipping, but this is absurd.

I mean, it is unconscionable that we should be using fossil fuel for those kind of purposes. You know, one of the most telling things that has happened in the last few years is that, in the last year, the price of moving a box of broccoli from the Salinas Valley in California, where much of it is grown, to the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx has gone from $3 a box, to $10 a box.

When that happened, some of the big growers in California started buying farmland in New England. They see the writing on the wall. They know that they are going to have to grow food closer to where it's eaten. Now, I'd rather see the New England farmers getting into that business, than the California growers, but it's the California growers who had - who saw it first. So, you know, we will be wringing the oil out of our food system, whether we like it or not.

GROSS: I'm guessing that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, has gotten back to you about your open letter to the next president about food.

Professor POLLAN: Well, I haven't heard from them personally. But one of the campaign's transition team did ask me through an intermediary, if, you know, the article was 8000 words, could I prepare a one- or two-page summary for them? And my response to that was, don't you have staffers who do that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, did you decline?

Professor POLLAN: Yeah, the reason I wrote 8000 words is because that's what I needed to tell the story. If I could have done it in one or two pages, I would have. But you know, I'm glad to hear that, you know, people in the campaigns are - had perhaps read the issue and - or will read it when they get their Reader's Digest condensed version.

GROSS: Well, you've just blown your chance of being the Secretary of Agriculture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Or farmer in chief.

Professor POLLAN: That may be.

GROSS: Michael Pollan, thanks so much.

Professor POLLAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Pollan's open letter to the next President was published last week in The New York Times Magazine. His latest book is the best seller, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Pollan is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
3:00-4:00 PM
A 'Boogie Man' With A Legacy Of Complicated Moves


Lee Atwater is widely acknowledged as the man who perfected modern attack-dog politics. His legacy is never more present than during a presidential campaign. Atwater died in 1991. Our critic at large, John Powers, has a review of a new documentary called "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."

JOHN POWERS: It wasn't so long ago that our presidential candidates were both saying that they wanted a clean, upbeat campaign. You don't need to be a political junkie to know that it hasn't exactly turned out that way. If you want to understand why this always seems to happen, you could do worse than see "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story."

Made by Stefan Forbes, this absorbing documentary chronicles the startling rise and meteoric fall of Atwater, the flamboyant Republican strategist who wrote the playbook on winning elections by using wedge issues. Well, Atwater's success made him a hero to the right. One of his acolytes is Karl Rove. The left has long seen him as, well, the boogie man. Atwater grew up modestly in a small South Carolina town.

And from the beginning, he burned to hit it big. He became a Republican not out of conviction - ideas never interested him - but because he saw more room to maneuver there. The party was his ladder to the top. And up he went from running student elections, to perfecting the darker campaign arts, using racial code words and ads, planting false rumors about rival candidates, playing on voters' fears. By 30, he was in the Reagan White House, where he was viewed as a talented hustler.

By 40, he'd masterminded the first President Bush's election in a campaign remembered for the ads, spotlighting a black convict named Willie Horton. Atwater's drive made him ruthless, as we learned from Democrats and from fellow Republicans who wound up with his knife in their backs. He had a killer's eye, said Reagan adviser, Ed Rollins.

Yet, with his possum's face and great joie de vivre - he put hot sauce in everything, even ice cream - Atwater was a real character. He exuded the glee that in the Reagan era suddenly made being on the right seem much cooler than being on the left. Indeed, one liberal journalist calls him the most fun man he ever met, but one whose life wound up as a cautionary tale.

Not only did Atwater suffer the snob bereave of a Republican establishment that always treated him as a servant - they found him low class, but they liked his results - but he had a final act you wouldn't wish on anybody. At 39, he developed a fatal brain tumor. Yet before dying, he converted to Catholicism, and apologized to those he'd wronged, including Dukakis and Willie Horton.

In his heyday though, Atwater played political hardball with grinning brio. Here, he uses the pledge of allegiance to thump Dukakis, who, years later, still seems slightly shocked by it all.

(Soundbite of "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story")

Mr. LEE ATWATER (Former Political Consultant and Strategist to the Republican Party): The question I really want to hear him answer, is why in the world did he veto this bill calling for the pledge of allegiance to be said in our classrooms. Can you imagine that? Get down here, Dukakis, and answer that question.

Former Governor MICHAEL DUKAKIS (Democrat, Massachusetts): Kids salute the flag everyday. It's part of the law. I'm all for it. The question was, could you put teachers in jail who refuse to lead the pledge? The Supreme Court of the United States said, you can't do that. What I should've done was to make it very clear to Mr. Bush that I wasn't going to let him question my patriotism.

POWERS: Now, "Boogie Man" is not a great documentary. It doesn't interview the politicians that Atwater helped. And like a lousy, modern playwright, Forbes uses a childhood trauma to explain Lee's adult behavior. Yet despite this, the movie remains compelling.

For starters, Atwater's career was historic. When he became head of the Republican National Committee, his success marked the institutionalization of the attack-dog style that has come to dominate American politics, even as the public insists it doesn't like it. Such a style specializes in trying to destroy opponents, by insisting on their irredeemable, un-American wickedness.

As it happens, such an approach dovetails perfectly with the needs of today's sleepless news cycle, where our media always craves something fresh to get hysterical about. Atwater was brilliant at feeding this beast, because he could smell out the cultural issues that often drive American voters more than self interest, a populist gift that over the last quarter of a century has largely eluded the Democrats.

The one good exception to this rule was Bill Clinton, who shared its worth, noting Atwater's mix of Southern charm, Southern appetite, and Southern desire to conquer the big world up north. Like Clinton, Atwater was steeped in admiration for African-American culture.

He just loved playing guitar alongside B.B. King, which only made it all the more startling that he would be the one behind the Willie Horton ad, designed to stoke racial fears. Atwater was horrified when people suggested that he was a racist. After all, he had scads of black friends. And if he occasionally used race bidding to win an election, that was just politics, that wasn't the real him. But of course, it was. And in the end, what makes "Boogie Man" so enthralling is that in the abyss between what Atwater publicly did, and what he privately thought he believed in, he became a symbol of the dangerous, modern tendency to see politics as a game, somehow separate from the rest of life.

And his story provides a useful reminder that as Atwater himself came to learn, the world judges us not for who we think we are, but for what we actually do.

TERRY GROSS: John Powers is film critique for Vogue. He reviewed "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story." You can download podcasts of our show on our web site Fresh Air's executive producer is Jenny Miller.

I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a recording by Dave McKenna, the musician Whitney Balliett described as the hardest, swinging jazz pianist of all time. McKenna died of lung cancer Saturday at the age of 78.

We've played his recordings a lot on Fresh Air, and he performed a couple of times on our show. We plan to feature those performances, and pay tribute to him over the Thanksgiving holiday. Here's McKenna's 1985 recording of "By Myself."

(Soundbite of song "By Myself")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue