Steven Waldman Explores Founding Faith
Author Steven Waldman writes that the religious basis for the United States is "religious liberty"-- the practice of promoting faith by leaving it alone. Waldman seeks to debunk popular myths about the founding father's beliefs in his book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
Other segments from the episode on February 16, 2009
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Author STEPHEN WALDMAN
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross. On this President's Day, we're going to dig into presidential history and debunk some myths about the Founding Fathers' own religious beliefs and their ideas for religion's role in the new nation they were creating.
In his book, "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America," our guest Steven Waldman writes that the founding faith wasn't Christianity or secularism. It was religious liberty, a revolutionary formula for promoting faith by leaving it alone. Waldman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, a Web site about religion and spirituality. It's not affiliated with any religion or movement.
Terry spoke with Waldman last year. He said he hoped his research into the United States' early history with faith would help clear up some of the arguments in the culture wars.
Mr. STEVEN WALDMAN (Author, "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America"): One of the conclusions that I had in going through this process is that the culture wars, the fights between activists on both sides of this, have really distorted what really happened, how we ended up with religious freedom and the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Everyone cherry-picks quotes from Founding Fathers to prove their point of view. After a while, you read these things, and you feel like there's almost like a custody battle over the Founding Fathers, they're just being used by different camps to prove whatever they want, and the reality of what actually happened gets distorted.
TERRY GROSS: In your book, "Founding Faith," among other things, you debunk myths about religion and the early development of America. So let's start with one of those myths that you debunk. You say America was settled as a bastion for religious freedom. It wasn't?
Mr. WALDMAN: It was not settled as a bastion for religious freedom. Most of the people who came here came because they wanted to establish a particular denomination, a particular approach to religion often at the expense of other denominations. And one point that is often lost in this is that it was usually Protestant denominations, not Christian, but Protestant, specifically, often as a way of fighting the spread of Catholicism.
GROSS: So most of the colonies were interested in religious freedom for their religion - for the religion that settled(ph) the state, but not for anybody else's religion.
Mr. WALDMAN: Right. And in fact, one of the things that Americans don't realize is that in the first 150 years, we had really horrible persecution as each colony experimented with having a particular religion in charge. And so in Massachusetts, there was terrible persecution of Quakers, to the point of hanging four different Quakers simply for the crime of being a Quaker. In Virginia, there was horrible persecution against Baptists. You go colony by colony, and in each case, there was sort of an experiment in having a majority or dominant faith running the state, and in each case the experiment failed.
GROSS: Now let me quote something that you quote in the book, and this is from a 1703 book called "New England Judged by the Spirit of the Lord." It was written by an English Quaker named George Bishop, and he is talking about some of the persecution of Quakers. This is about Alice Ambross(ph), Mary Thompkins(ph), and Anne Coleman(ph) who had taken to preaching their gospel at the river. They were arrested, and quote, "stripped naked from the middle upward and tied to a cart. After a while, cruelly whipped whilst the priest stood, looked on and laughed at it."
Does that sound like a pretty typical way that religious minorities were treated in the colonies?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, it's probably an extreme version, but the persecution of the Quakers was pervasive in Massachusetts, and you can sense the - the almost the sadism involved in some of the punishments. I think that really every American who's interested in religious freedom ought to know the stories of these Quakers and women like Mary Dyer, who was a Boston woman who had a similar punishment made to her, again, for the crime of being a Quaker. She was banished. She came back because she believed in the right to express her religious beliefs.
She was brought up to the scaffold with two other Quakers to be executed. She watched as her friends' necks snapped, and then they gave her a reprieve. The goal all along was to force her to watch her friends being executed. They gave her a second chance. She came back again because of her conviction that she ought to have the right to practice her faith, and this time she was executed on the Boston Commons from an oak tree there.
GROSS: So, most of the colonies were created by people who wanted to create a safe haven for their particular form of Protestantism, although Maryland was created as a haven for Catholics, and Pennsylvania is a haven for Quakers and other minorities. But one thing that held most of the colonies together is that they all didn't want Jews.
Mr. WALDMAN: Yes. At least they could agree on that. And most of them didn't want Catholics because even in the case of Maryland, which did start off as a haven for Catholics, quickly got overthrown and became hostile to Catholics also. But yeah, when they talked about toleration, as the word went back then, it really usually refered to toleration of different Protestant sects, and Jews and Catholics and certainly atheists were simply not part of the equation. What that meant was they could not hold office, they could not vote, and other rights were denied.
GROSS: The British Anglican church was seen as too close to the Catholic church, even though Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic church. And during the colonial period, the pope was sometimes called the anti-Christ, the Catholic church was called the whore. It's interesting because you see that same language in some contemporary evangelical literature, like the Born Again series. Isn't the pope the anti-Christ in that series?
Mr. WALDMAN: Yes. And it's really hard to kind of get your head around this, but it's back then - we think, obviously, of Catholics as a major Christian denomination, a quarter of our population are Catholic - but back then, Catholics were not just seen as a different Christian denomination. In a lot of cases, they were seen as the enemy and in many cases the reason that people left Europe. This obviously was changing, and by the 1770's, it was a very different mix. Catholic roles started to really change. But for a long time, Catholics were viewed as enemies of freedom.
GROSS: Now, another myth you tried to debunk in your book, "Founding Faith," is that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, of course, you hear a lot from religious conservatives now that America was founded as a Christian nation, and it's just not true. It is true that America was settled in the very early days by Christians wanting to establish it as a Christian land, but by the time you got to the founding of the United States of America, the new nation, the founders had looked at what had happened in the previous 150 years and turned away, and turned towards a different model. So they very explicitly and intentionally created a Constitution that was not Christian. And as recently as, you know, five, 10 years before that, there was still very overtly Christian language in documents, for instance, that the Continental Congress had produced. So, the lack of Christian rhetoric in the Constitution was very notable and was criticized by some people at the time.
GROSS: So what is some of the religious language that shows up in a lot of documents of the time that is not - intentionally not in the Constitution?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, if you look at the Articles of Confederation, it said that the document hath pleased the great governor of the world. There were numerous proclamations from the Continental Congress that used language referring to the supreme judge, the ruler of the universe. The state Constitutions often referred to Christianity as the true religion. Even the Declaration of Independence, of course, says that our rights are endowed by our Creator. Even that wasn't in the Constitution. It was stripped bare, and has literally no religious rhetoric in it at all.
GROSS: So, what does that say to you?
Mr. WALDMAN: It says it was a very - it was a conscious, radical, not accidental step that the framers of the Constitution took in order to take a different path than what they have had before. Specifically, that the national government should not be thought of as a Christian government. Now, one of the things I do talk about in the book is that the Constitution was also a pact that said while the national government shouldn't be a Christian government, the state governments could be. So it was a bit of more of a mix on this question of whether we were a Christian nation than you might think.
GROSS: So the Establishment Clause, which established a separation between church and state, didn't apply to the states. It only apply to the federal government. So what are some of the institutions that were left out of the Establishment Clause?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, of course, you know, pretty much everything. You know, schools, local city halls. Most of what happened in America at that time was regulated by the colonies and the states, not by the federal government. And this was a big disappointment to James Madison, actually. When he was promoting what became the First Amendment, he wanted it to apply to the states, but he lost. This is something that is often forgotten, that Madison did not get his way on that and that the compromise he had to pull together in order to rustle up the votes to pass the First Amendment was that this would ban there being a national religion in the national government but very much allow the states to do what they wanted.
And so at the point of the Constitution, when it passed, there were states that still banned Catholics from office, banned Jewish from office, made blasphemy a crime - all sorts of religious penalties. All of that the Constitution let stand.
GROSS: So the Establishment Clause, separating church and state, didn't apply to the states until after the Civil War when the 14th Amendment was written, which said...
Mr. WALDMAN: The 14 Amendment applied the basic rights of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to the states. So, those who are angry that the Constitution has not allowed for enough religion in the public square, in a way should shake their fists not only at the ACLU or Thomas Jefferson, but also at Lincoln and General Grant because it was really the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment that reorganized the basic pact on religious freedom and said that the same spirit of freedom that was applied just in a limited sense to the federal government by the founders, should now be applied to the states, as well.
GROSS: So, as you point out, the ratification of the Constitution was a very political process. There was a lot of disagreement every step of the way. And for example, the Establishment Clause is constantly being debated, you know, how does that apply to prayer in the schools and creches in public squares. What guides your interpretation of the Establishment Clause?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well first, that it was very political process, and we tend to almost imagine that it went straight from James Madison's quill pen right over to the national archives, and of course, that's not what happened. There was a proposal, and then there was a Senate committee and a House committee and a Conference committee, and you know, much of the horse trading that you see now on a piece of legislation happened then. That's how the First Amendment was born.
And by design, some of it was kicked down the road to be dealt with by the rest of us. You almost want to kind of reach back, and you know, slap Madison in the face - gently because he was a very frail, little man - but you want to say, there's so much ambiguity here. Why couldn't you have made this clearer to help us out so we wouldn't have to have 200 years of lawsuits and court cases to battle this out? And I think the reality is that some of the ambiguity was intentional because that was the way they could get it through in the first place.
Madison was the one who came up with kind of the most holistic and integrated philosophy of religious freedom. It borrowed from the enlightenment thinkers who were worried about religion messing up government, but it also borrowed from the evangelical Christians of that day, the Baptists, who Madison was very close to, and their view is different. Their view was that separation of church and state was crucially important in order to promote religion. We have this notion right now that, you know, you have conservatives who say that we need to promote religion, and therefore, we should have less separation of church and state. And you have some people who are advocating for more separation as way of reducing the role of religion.
Madison's view and the view of the evangelicals at that moment was really different. They wanted to promote religion. They thought having religion flourish was very important to the birth of this republic. They just thought that best way for religion to flourish was for government to get out of the way. And that was a very - it's a very different perspective than you hear now.
DAVIES: Terry Gross, speaking with journalist Steven Waldman, author of the book "Founding Faith" and editor-in-chief of Believe.net, a Web site devoted to religion and spirituality. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of the Web site, Beliefnet. In his book, "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America," Waldman debunks a lot of myths about the role of religion in the founding of America.
GROSS: Another myth you try to debunk, the Founding Fathers wanted religious freedom because they were devout Christians. They weren't?
Mr. WALDMAN: Well, first of all, there's almost no such thing as the Founding Fathers when it comes to religious freedom or at least thinking of them as a unitary block. The Founding Fathers often disagreed with each other over how to deal with this. Some of them were Orthodox Christians, some of them weren't, but that ones that we tend to focus on as the most important for religious freedom - meaning George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin - none of them were Orthodox Christians in the sense that we mean it now.
For instance, most of those five had very serious problems and criticisms of church hierarchy and priests. Jefferson and Franklin had turned away from the Bible as a literal document. They believed that Jesus was a great teacher but they didn't think that Jesus was divine, and had really angry, almost vicious things to say about the church hierarchy. And in Jefferson's case, he went after everyone - from Apostle Paul to Calvin to the doctrine of the Trinity, which he called the Abracadabra of mountebanks, and he thought the whole Bible was an exercise in covering up the diamonds, which were Jesus' moral teachings, with what he called the dung that was everything else.
GROSS: Jefferson tried to write a Bible as he thought Jesus would have wanted it. What are some of the differences between the Bible that Jefferson was rewriting and the Bible as we know it?
Mr. WALDMAN: This is really an amazing scene to picture Thomas Jefferson - he actually started on this while he was president - he's sitting there in the presidential mansion after the work is done for the day, and he has his Bible in front of him, and he's cutting out the parts of the Bible that he likes and pasting it into a new volume. And then he repeated the process later on in 1899 when he was in retirement. And basically, he cut out the miracles. He cut out any sign that Jesus was divine. He essentially cut out the Christmas story and the Easter story. In Jefferson's Bible, the rock is moved in front of Jesus' tomb and never moves again. That's where his Bible ends. And it's really remarkable. I mean, you look at this and think, wow, this guy could never get elected now. Jefferson just wouldn't have been able to pass political scrutiny given the things he said about religion and Christianity.
GROSS: I guess you could say he certainly didn't have a fundamentalist point of view where the New Testament is the literal word of God. He was, you know, rearranging it, cutting and pasting it.
Mr. WALDMAN: He was cutting and pasting it, and his goal, he said, was to rescue the character of Jesus. This is something that is often lost and sometimes people look at Jefferson and think he was anti-religion and anti-God and he was a secular guy. That's not true either. He had real problems with the Bible and with church. But in a way, he was actually a very religious and spiritual person. He was doing this whole exercise of editing the Bible because he felt that Christianity and Jesus' teaching were the most sublime and true in history and that they had been corrupted.
GROSS: You write that when George Washington was a general during the Revolutionary War that he purged the anti-Catholic bias from the military and that that was kind of a military necessity. Why was it a military necessity, and how did he end the anti-Catholic bias within the troops?
Mr. WALDMAN: George Washington is really quite an important figure in terms of the history of religious tolerance in America - not so much for what he did as president but for what he did as the leader of the Continental Army. And what was happening was the - it was kind of a regular tradition once a year to burn effigies of the pope on Guy Fox Day, and this was happening in 1774 and 1775 as it usually did.
And Washington was just appalled by this. He said this is monstrous. He didn't like it as a personal matter, but there was something else, which is that he was trying to neutralize and win over the French-Canadians to the north, who were Catholic, and they were in a very important effort to try to win France as an ally to the American cause, which was also - Grant(ph) was Catholic at that time. He said, this is not only wrong, it's stupid. We're going to - I don't think he used the word stupid but he probably said it's ill-advised and monstrous - but he thought it was very unproductive, and he banned the practice. And he also got the Continental Congress to switch on this as well.
Up until that point, Congress had been passing sort of anti-Catholic resolutions, and then they sort of got with the program and came to realize that if they were going to court France as an ally, they needed to start reaching out to Catholics and start talking about religious tolerance as a virtue and as a great asset in American life.
GROSS: Well, Steven Waldman, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us. Thank you.
Mr. WALDMAN: Thank you very much for having me.
DAVIES: Steven Waldman is the author of the book, "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America." He's also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the faith and spirituality Web site, Beliefnet. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.
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Journalist MICHAEL POLLAN
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Last year, a month before the election, our guest Michael Pollan wrote an open letter to the next president urging him to radically transform the way we grow and eat our food. Published in the New York Times Magazine, the letter warned that unless food policy was made a priority, whoever was in the White House would not be able to make significant progress on the health-care crisis, energy independence or climate change. After cars, Pollan wrote, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy.
After Pollan's open letter was published, Barack Obama talked about it in a campaign interview with Time magazine, and there was even an online petition to draft Pollan as secretary of agriculture. Michael Pollan is the author of several bestselling 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, Berkeley. Terry spoke with him last year.
TERRY GROSS: 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?
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Knight Professor of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley; Author, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals"): Yeah. You know, it took me along time to figure this out, too. Agricultural policy is one of the most obscure and possibly most boring corners of 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 subsidized crops, like corn and soy and wheat.
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, Purdue agricultural economist - and gave him the marching orders: redesign American farm policy to drive down the price of food.
GROSS: So when Nixon appointed Earl Butz secretary of agriculture, what did Butz do?
Mr. POLLAN: Butz set about encouraging farmers to move toward large, highly efficient monocultures(ph), mostly of corn and soy. Before that, you had a diversity of crops in a place like Iowa. But after Butz, you know, the hedge 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 corps, he cut them checks, so that rather than keep 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 one example, went from 4 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?
Mr. 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 of farms in America and put them onto 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 Barry called once the elegant solution - of animals on farms with crops such that the animals replenish 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 feedlot. So the first problem, we remedy with fossil fuel fertilizers - again, putting oil onto our land, in effect. And the second problem, this 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: 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?
Mr. 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 antitrust 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 meatpackers are responsible for 84 percent of the beef in America, the same is true for chickens, 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?
Mr. 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 an algae. It's at the root of all - everything we eat. But over time and with the industrialization of agriculture and because we didn't think 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 ring 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 ring 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?
Mr. 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 15,000 acres in size, big even by U.S. standards. And they manage 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 - 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 a 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.
DAVIES: Michael Pollan, speaking with Terry Gross. His article, "Farmer in Chief" about how to remake the way we grow and eat our food, was published in the New York Times Magazine last year. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with food journalist Michael Pollan. She spoke with him last year after his open letter to the next president about how to transform the way we grow and eat our food was published in the New York Times Magazine.
GROSS: You think that the 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. So, how do you reverse that trend so that more people go back to farming, and how much land is there left to farm now?
Mr. 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 2 million farmers left in this country in a population of 300 million. You know, we used to have 40, 50 million farmers. One farmer in America is now feeding a 140 of the rest of us, which is one reason 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 2,800 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 discovered 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 farmland, 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 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 are a lot of farmers who want to get back to the land but can't afford to. So I see the farmer of the future as being one of these, you know, green jobs that everybody's 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: 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 for...
Mr. POLLAN: They're astonishing places. There are these vast cities of animals, and they have all have the problems of cities, one of which is waste. The interesting thing about feedlots 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?
Mr. 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're 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 resistant strains of salmonella, of E. coli, of listeria, and that's what we've been doing.
And a lot of the outbreaks of food-borne disease we see are the result 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?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, this is, I would admit, one of my wankier(ph) ideas, but consider this. Here we have, what - $40, $50, $60 billion 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 food.
But interestingly enough, we already kind of moralize the use of this money. We tell 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 riskiness of it, but I think, you know, defining food upward rather 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 would be all sorts of fooling around here, and they would suddenly start adding lots of vitamins to sodas to pass your definition, so we need a good policymaker to figure this out.
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But I think that we need to kind of think outside of 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(ph), the national parks. Imagine if they were also spending some of their vast sums on food locally.
GROSS: Here is an idea I love because it seems so preposterous but it's really kind of interesting. You would like the next president - and we are 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, which the president set an example for the rest of us by having this, you know, garden of locally grown foods.
Mr. POLLAN: Now, why is that preposterous, Terry? I mean, I think that actually is one of the more practical things I proposed because the president can do it without the permission of the chairman of the House agricultural committee.
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GROSS: You got me there.
Mr. POLLAN: So, it's actually easier to do.
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Mr. POLLAN: 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 help 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. And 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 it's preposterous.
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Mr. 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.
GROSS: Who would do what?
Mr. POLLAN: Who would take care of this garden, which I picture is about five acres. They've got 17 acres to play with there. So you can still have - CNN can still do their stand-up somewhere else but with a better backdrop, I think.
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Mr. POLLAN: And so the farmer takes care of it, and he is a solar 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?
DAVIES: Michael Pollan, speaking with Terry Gross last year after the publication of his article, "Farmer in Chief," about how to remake the way we grow and eat our food was published in the New York Times Magazine. More after break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Michael Pollan. He has written extensively about food, including in his latest book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Terry spoke with Pollan last year after his open letter to the next president about how to transform the way we grow and eat our food was published in the New York Times Magazine.
GROSS: You know, a lot 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?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, they've had a point. I mean, look, you know, in this country, eating well, eating healthy, freshly grown local food costs more than eating fast food. And like many movements, this movement has started with people who are well heeled(ph) 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 costs 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: 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, the health food stores, the whole foods kinds 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?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think it's 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 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 we're saving on food on. So, I do think that we're going to have to dig down in 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 farmers markets 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. So, the arts of the kitchen are one way that people have always dealt with hard times.
And then there is, of course, growing food, which I think can make an important contribution for anybody who has a little sunlight on their land, a little bit of lawn or access to a community garden.
DAVIES: Michael Pollan, speaking with Terry Gross last year after the publication of his open letter to the next president was published in the New York Times Magazine.
We checked in with Pollan, and he said that before the inauguration he was approached by the Obama transition team and participated in a couple of phone calls about agricultural policy. Pollan says the new secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is talking about representing eaters, not just farmers. But he added, we'll see if the policies and appointments reflect the rhetoric.
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