THE VINE OCTOBER 13, 2008
In the Times this week, not only did Michael Pollan write an invaluable overview of the problems with the U.S. food-production system, he even went ahead and offered a slew of solutions for the next president to adopt. The broad outlines of Pollan's argument are fairly well-known by now: U.S. farm policies have distorted our agricultural system away from organic farming and toward industrial feedlots; away from healthy food and toward corn syrup in everything; away from sustainable land management and toward overproduction. But I wanted to pull out two slightly less-picked over bits from his piece. First, here's a passage on how we should look to Argentina for lessons on proper land management:
[I]n a geography roughly comparable to that of the American farm belt, farmers have traditionally employed an ingenious eight-year rotation of perennial pasture and annual crops: after five years grazing cattle on pasture (and producing the world's best beef), farmers can then grow three years of grain without applying any fossil-fuel fertilizer. Or, for that matter, many pesticides: the weeds that afflict pasture can't survive the years of tillage, and the weeds of row crops don't survive the years of grazing, making herbicides all but unnecessary. There is no reason—save current policy and custom—that American farmers couldn’t grow both high-quality grain and grass-fed beef under such a regime through much of the Midwest.
A system along those lines might help hurdle some of the problems that are going to be facing the agricultural sector in the coming years—particularly soil depletion and rising energy prices, which will make fertilizer more costly. Ironically, though, even in South America this approach has been falling out of favor, as rising grain prices are convincing Argentine farmers to ditch the rotation approach in favor of planting grain and soybeans year after year. (Well, that and the Argentine government seems to stick its hands in the agricultural market every few years.)
One policy response might be to link farm subsidies to the number of crops a farmer grows or the number of days that his fields green (currently farmers have few incentives to plant cover crops after fall harvests, even though this would cut down on the need for fertilizer and prevent soil erosion). A number of commenters on this blog, literatehobo especially, have argued very cogently for eliminating all farm subsidies—and replacing them with a basic form of crop insurance—but I still think there's a decent argument for keeping and diverting some subsidies to promote sustainable land use. Along similar lines, Pollan suggests a new program to promote composting, which would, again, cut the need for fertilizer.
Another noteworthy point Pollan makes is that smaller and local farms shouldn't be hobbled by the same regulations that are meant to rein in abuses by behemoth food producers. Now, a lot of food-safety rules over the years have actually been backed by Big Ag precisely because they make life tougher for small producers. (Gabriel Kolko gave the classic example of this in his Triumph of Conservatism, noting that after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, the big meatpackers saw their chance to push for new safety regulations that would secure their market position by making life difficult for smaller businesses.) Still, there aren't many good reasons why smaller farmers should need to jump through onerous hoops to, say, sell smoked ham to the neighbors.
Anyway, read the whole piece—it's fantastic. Pollan's takeaway point is that U.S. agricultural policy should be oriented toward improving the quality of the food we produce, rather than the quantity, as is the case now. That might raise the price of food somewhat—meat, especially, would become a bit pricier if we start cleaning up those filthy, overcrowded livestock feedlots that are becoming breeding grounds for disease—but the benefits for the climate, environment, and public health will likely make up for it. It's a trade-off, yes, but Pollan does a very nice job of explaining why it's the right one to make.