Michael Pollan predicts positive change to come in the American food system

In an article in The Nation Michael Pollan looks at the question of how and when the unhealthy and environmentally disastrous American agriculture and food system is going to change. Recognizing the present political obstacles in the way of reform is discouraging.  Congress is stacked with hard-core supporters of the present system industrial agriculture system.

 In the forty years since the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, a movement dedicated to the reform of the food system has taken root in America. …To date, however, the food movement can claim more success in changing popular consciousness than in shifting, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping the food system or, for that matter, in changing the “standard American diet”—which has only gotten worse since the 1970s.

A prime obstacle to change is the relatively low cost of the food mass-produced by the system.

 Whatever its cost to public health and the environment, cheap food has become a pillar of the modern economy that few in government dare to question. And many of the reforms we need—such as improving conditions in the meat industry and cleaning up feedlot agriculture—stand to make meat more expensive. That might be a good thing for public health, but it will never be popular.

Pollan points to the fact that grassroots activism, though essential, is maddeningly slow in bringing about changes at the governmental and congressional level. A comparison to the anti-smoking campaign by public health interest groups is encouraging.

 The most promising food activism is taking place at the grassroots: local policy initiatives are popping up in municipalities across the country, alongside urban agriculture ventures in underserved areas and farm-to-school programs. Changing the way America feeds itself has become the galvanizing issue for a generation now coming of age. …It’s worth remembering that it took decades before the campaign against the tobacco industry could point to any concrete accomplishments. By the 1930s, the scientific case against smoking had been made, yet it wasn’t until 1964 that the surgeon general was willing to declare smoking a threat to health, and another two decades after that before the industry’s seemingly unshakable hold on Congress finally crumbled. By this standard, the food movement is making swift progress.

And he points to another factor, which may turn out to be an unexpected political trump card in favor of the food reform movement – the staggering public health consequences and costs of the present food system. This is likely to bring the healthcare industry to the table in favor of changing the way we eat.

 When change depends on overcoming the influence of an entrenched power, it helps to have another powerful interest in your corner—an interest that stands to gain from reform. In the case of the tobacco industry, that turned out to be the states, which found themselves on the hook (largely because of Medicaid) for the soaring costs of smoking-related illnesses. … Indeed, as soon as the healthcare industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places.—like the agriculture committees of Congress.

Pollan’s conclusions are hopeful.

 For the past forty years, food reform activists like Frances Moore Lappé have been saying that the American way of growing and eating food is “unsustainable.”… Continuing to eat in a way that undermines health, soil, energy resources and social justice cannot be sustained without eventually leading to a breakdown. …We simply can’t afford the healthcare costs incurred by the current system of cheap food—which is why, sooner or later, we will find the political will to change it.

Read the Article

Monday 19 September 2011

by: Michael Pollan, The Nation | Op-Ed

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