Michael Pollan Speaks in Madison Wisconsin

“What is all the fuss about?  Why are farmers protesting?”  I thought as I sat and listened to Michael Pollan speak at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.   After reviewing my notes I started to understand why he upsets some farmers.

Michael Pollan is an excellent writer and speaker who can convincingly make a case for probably anything he feels strongly about.  I thank him for caring about food and for pointing out a flawed system.  I won’t be signing a petition to appoint him Ag Secretary though.  Because, as even he admitted, policy is not his area of expertise, and I fear the wheels would come off if he were allowed to drive.

I feel strongly about this because I see parallels between the American farm and food system and my own.  My farm is transitioning from commodity-based livestock production to direct-market livestock production with minimal purchased inputs.  We are not relying on an off-farm salary while we make this transition, so changes are made cautiously and evaluated every step of the way.  Whatever the flaws of the American farmer and food system, we do feed a lot of people.  And that is worth something.

I’m intrigued by organic production, but fear I don’t have the time or patience to learn.  I would love to help a young couple start an organic CSA on part of my farm.  Then my curiosity would be filled as I reported on what they did.  And they would have access to land to realize their dream to farm and feed people. 


But enough about me, let me tell you what Michael Pollan had to say.

There is a movement rising to change the American food system.  Nearly 8,000 people turned out for his speech on the UW campus.  And there was evidence of pushback as protesters also were in attendance.

Mr. Pollan said the goal of the American food system should be: “To provide fresh, high-quality food to everyone in USA and a decent return to American farmers and contribute to the solution of environmental problems.”

Hard to argue with that.  But then he connects the dots between the environmental crisis on one side and the health crisis on the other.  Guess what he place in the middle as causative:  Agriculture.

Mr. Pollan said modern industrial agriculture drinks oil and spews greenhouse gas.  He said agriculture used to use one calorie of fossil fuel to produce two calories of food.  Modern agriculture uses ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food.  He said it takes 28 ounces of oil to produce one double quarter pounder at McDonald’s.  I don’t know if that was with cheese.

I have seen figures like this before and I question them.  I will be writing a post this winter detailing how much oil my farm uses and how much food we produce because I’ve been curious about this.

Mr. Pollan then says that energy comes from the sun and Photosynthesis is the only free lunch.  He would like to wean the food system off of fossil fuels and put it back on sunshine.  Food can be resolarized.

The health care crisis is code for ‘cost of industrial food production.’  Since 1960, spending on health care has risen from 5% of GDP to 18% of GDP as the amount spent on food has decreased from 18% to 9.5% of discretionary income.  I don’t buy into this simplified argument.

Mr. Pollan says we still need to support farmers.  We just need to change the subsidies to reward quality and diversity and environmental solutions instead of rewarding for quantity. 

I agree that government programs become ‘monsters’ that seek to sustain themselves rather than accomplish whatever it was designed to accomplish in the first place.  I think we need results-based government programs.

Mr. Pollan spoke about our food culture.  “We need to reregionalize food.  People need to learn to eat from a shorter food chain.  He says the USDA is starting to get this and used the example of the new, ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ program.

“We need to teach our children how to eat lunch.  This is a controversial statement until you consider that we are teaching them how to eat lunch by giving them chicken nuggets and tater tots and ten minutes.”

Michelle Obama was applauded for her organic garden and for speaking out about the importance of growing and cooking real food.  Claire Strader introduced Mr. Pollan, which was fitting because she is a Wisconsin grower that has become the White House gardener.

Mr. Pollan doesn’t feel there is a lack of farmland.  But there is a lack of farmers.  We have been demeaning farmers for the last 100 years and that has resulted in a brain drain on the farm.  That is something we both agree on.  It is going to take major brainpower to continue to feed people in a sustainable way.

5 Responses to Michael Pollan Speaks in Madison Wisconsin

  1. Interesting and very well written. I am interested in hearing the oil consumption numbers from your farm.

  2. David says:

    I am also interested in the oil use on your farm. But I think Mr. Pollan’s numbers are based on total oil consumption by the industries involved, including transportation, fertilizer and pesticide/herbicide production.
    When you say,”Whatever the flaws of the American farmer and food system, we do feed a lot of people. And that is worth something,” I wonder how you feel about the nutritional value of that food. It appears that most of the subsidies go to food that requires processing to make it edible and that processing strips it of it’s nutritional value, if it had any to start with. Any idea why the subsidies don’t to got to fruit and vegetable production?

  3. curiousfarmer says:

    Thanks for your comment, David.
    Yes, I’ve thought about the support industries use of oil and I will need to factor that in to my farm’s use of oil.
    I hope farmers will someday be paid for the nutritional value of the food they produce. We are in a rudimentary way, now. (Protein content of milk, etc.).
    My guess is the fruit and vegetable lobbies are not powerful enough. What are your thoughts?

    • dlaciv12 says:

      If farmers were paid that way the vast majority of farmers would never get paid. Grains and soy beans have almost no nutritional value so there would have to be a major change in the crops grown.
      The “flaws with the American farmer and food system” is the fact that you do feed a lot of people. You feed a lot of people a LOT of empty calories with no nutritional value. The food system is the problem with American health care, not insurance profits.
      I am glad to see farmers like you transitioning to consumer direct sales of nutritious, real food. But until you can get more of your neighbors on board the food system in America will continue to kill millions of people every year.
      And I don’t mean to be so heavy but I don’t think a lot of people are willing to say it so bluntly.

  4. dlaciv12 says:

    After posting the above I thought a little bit more about how I wrote it and it sounds like I am putting the blame on the farmers and I don’t mean to. The lobbies and the gov’t are at fault, the farmers are victims here too. Americans think they have choice in the food and they don’t. Until we all wake up and realize the gov’t is subsidizing out toxic diet and putting farmers out of business at the same time then we are doomed to shorter, unhealthy lives.

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