Smart Growth
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Michael Pollan Fixes Dinner (Extended Interview)

America's favorite food intellectual talks about ethanol, the carrot lobby, and secularizing food. With podcast.

| March/April 2009

MJ: So what do you think of the appointment of Tom Vilsack, the governor of Iowa, an agribusiness state known for its love of corn and all things ethanol?

MP: Well, you know, if you look at it historically, there's reason to be very concerned. He oversaw a tremendous expansion of feedlot agriculture, ruining the Iowa countryside, ruining the lives of many farmers. This move toward a confinement hog production. He helped to get local control over the zoning decisions. He also has been very friendly toward Monsanto and genetically modified products and was named governor of the year by BIO, the big biotech trade organization. There's not a lot there to get hopeful about.

But people who I respect say that he is someone who will listen. He is someone who has an open door to organic activists and local food activists. He was interested, in Iowa, in developing local food systems, helping Iowa to feed itself to a greater extent than it does. It feeds the world but it doesn't feed itself. It's a food desert, weirdly enough. All the raw material leaves the state and comes back in processed form, even though you can grow anything you want there. It's some of the best soil in the world, and it's just a shame that people aren't eating from that. I also think, and this is putting the most positive spin I can on it, that as governor of Iowa there are some positions that you simply must have. One is support for corn-based ethanol. Another is a tacit support for feedlot agriculture and biotech. But he's no longer governor of Iowa and he is a politician; his positions are circumstantial, as will be President Obama's. And I'm hoping that as a politician, when he senses where the wind is moving, he will move with it. It could have been a whole lot worse; there were people on the short list who were truly alarming in their commitment to the most retrograde and unsustainable forms of agriculture. I think he's a blank slate on a lot of issues, like commodity subsidies and stuff like that. We don't know who will be designing the agenda; it may not be him. It may be people in the White House.

MJ: Although it seems that, as a former governor, he has a vested interest in insuring that we always have an Iowa caucus. How much of our current agricultural policy can we lay at the feet of the Iowa caucus?

MP: Look, you get rid of the Iowa caucus and you could have a much more realistic debate about food and agricultural policy. You can't be elected president of this country without passing though Iowa and bowing down before corn-based ethanol, before agricultural subsidies. You can't get out alive. And that's too bad. I mean, even McCain was a critic of ethanol, but when he got to Iowa he was singing a different tune. On the other hand, this time around the candidates talked to other people and they learned there is a progressive farm lobby. Iowa came close to electing as agriculture secretary of the state a woman organic farmer. Almost won until the farm bureau realized what a threat she was and came after her.

And I think Obama saw, in fact he said he saw, the importance of local control. He said a lot of progressive things in Iowa, too. That idea that there is a monolithic farm bloc—I wouldn't say it's starting to crumble—but there are interesting cracks. The challenge for the food reform movement is to make those cracks bigger.

MJ: What do we know of Obama's history? Obviously he's from Illinois and he must have had to curry favor with his own farm lobby. He's spoken well of corn-based ethanol.

MP: He has. I think we'll see him back off of that pretty soon because he's no longer a senator from Illinois, and he has to look at not only the national but the global implications of this folly.

MJ: You were saying over lunch that you actually have a lot of hope that this corn-based ethanol will be phased out pretty quickly in the US.

MP: I don't think we're going to be talking about it that much longer. It's an experiment that's been tried and it's been disastrous, specifically what it did to food prices both here and around the world. It’s estimated that about 30 percent of the increase in grain prices could be attributed to the decision to embrace biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol. It has done nothing for climate change and the business is in real trouble now with the collapse of oil prices. It's completely dependent on a dollar subsidy and tariff from the government. I don't think it's proven itself of any value except, you know, to ADM and the people who built these refineries. And there's the fact that Obama appointed Steven Chu as secretary of energy, a fierce critic of corn-based ethanol, a physicist and a Nobel Prize winner. I think it will be his job to argue the president and Vilsack out of corn-based ethanol. What better way to change your position on that than to have a Nobel Prize laureate explain to you exactly why it's a bad idea.

MJ: Are there any biofuels that are still showing promise, or are they all slowly revealing themselves to be problematic?

MP: Well, we don't yet know about cellulosic ethanol, basically taking cellulose—wood, other plant wastes, parts of plants you can't eat—and using them to produce ethanol. You can't yet do it economically because the cellulose is very hard to break down and it takes a lot of energy to break it down. But there's a lot of work; this is supposedly the next generation. There are people who will tell you, No, that's impossible too. It's impossible to get a significant amount of liquid fuel out of it. And that remains to be seen. And the fact is that the kind of refineries that we've been building for corn will not work for cellulose. This whole infrastructure we're building is going to have to be tossed out. I don't know enough about it to say that it's not going to work.

I think using waste oils as fuel makes sense. We do waste a huge amount of vegetable oil in this country and using that as a fuel source strikes me as fine. I don't know if it's significant, but there it is. I think one of the things we got in touch with was that using your farm for fuel, you're going to have to replace that acre of farmland. So people deforest Indonesia, Brazil. It's very shortsighted. It's all based on the fact that we have this infrastructure and these oil companies and they need a replacement liquid. And that's why we do so much work on it; we've got to find the next liquid.

MJ: Explain that. Oil companies need a liquid because they're interested in refining, burning a liquid?

MP: It's what they're good at. And they have gas stations. There's this whole huge structure that is about finding a new liquid for the tank. And the idea that maybe there shouldn't be a liquid, that maybe the best is an electrical grid, a sustainably powered electrical grid that we all plug into, that doesn't sit well with oil companies; they don't have a seat at the table if we have that discussion. So they're invested in going down a certain road. That's why BP has given half a billion dollars to this campus [Berkeley] to help develop it. I think that Obama will put a lot of money into cellulosic ethanol to help develop it. I just hope it's not wasted.

MJ: I understand that some European countries, before they give out any kind of subsidy for biofuels, they're saying you have to prove that there's a net climate benefit, and, if not, kiss your subsidy goodbye. Is there a chance that something like that could happen in this country?

MP: Well, Obama just announced that he's going to have this performance manager who's going to evaluate the performance of all of these investments. I think that's a terrific idea. It's the same way foundations, before they give out money, ask you to have some benchmarks for success and that your future funding depends on you hitting these benchmarks. If indeed the reason we're getting into ethanol is to mitigate climate change, show us it works. I think it makes great sense.

MJ: And, in fact, ethanol producers are asking that some kind of the economic stimulus, green jobs, trillion dollars go to them.

MP: Can you believe it? We're already being asked to bail them out. They're only like two years old and they were started with subsidies and would not exist except for the fact that in 2006 President Bush began these mandates. They now, on top of that, need a bailout. That may be just the fastest arc. It took the auto companies almost a century to get there, but ethanol companies are there in just two years.

MJ: If you had a magic wand, would you get rid of subsidizes or would you reform them?

MP: I think what I would do would be to give farmers the exact same amount of money we're giving them now but give them the money to do something else with it. It's a political dead end to try and eliminate subsidies because then you get all of America's farmers, who have political power out of all proportion of their number, and that has a lot to do with the way they get two senators for all of these virtually empty states. So I think that's a political loser. You unify the farmers against change. You don't want to do that; you want to divide the farmers. The way you do that is to offer, for a certain amount of time, to keep their income steady but change the set of incentives. Right now the incentives are to get them to produce as much as possible, whatever the cost in terms of the environment, water quality, the erosion of the soil, and our health.

But you can imagine another set of assumptions, another set of incentives so that they're getting incentives to sequester carbon, say. So that they're getting incentives to clean the water that leaves their farm, so that they're getting incentives for the quality, not the quantity, of the food they're growing. And then suddenly they're making a contribution to what we're trying to do with regard to the environment, public health, climate change. That's where I would go. I don't know how to devise that system, but it can be devised. The Europeans are working on that, and in the past we have had other incentives. It was not as hell-bent on maximizing production. That's where you get into trouble.

MJ: Why is having a secretary of agriculture from an urban community, where the majority of eaters live, not a possibility?

MP: Good question. Historically it's always been someone from a farm state because the Ag Department has been viewed as a bureaucracy whose goal is to advance the interest of the American farmers, not eaters. For many, many years though, advancing the interests of farmers and eaters was the same thing. When the great public heath problem in America was not enough calories for everybody, having a set of policies that encouraged farmers to produce as much as possible made sense; the quantity of calories mattered more than the quality. Look at the school lunch program or the food stamp program. The interests of agribusiness and the interest of the recipients of these programs were once identical just because it was about getting enough food on the table or in the cafeteria. Now our problem is different; it is the poor who suffer disproportionately from diet-related illnesses and chronic diseases. So merely giving them enough calories is not the answer.

One of the more encouraging things that Vilsack said in his press conference when he was nominated was that he was going to put nutrition at the center of his nutrition program in the Department of Agriculture, which must have struck a lot of listeners as, "Well, duh," but in fact nutrition has not been at the center of these programs; disposing of agricultural surplus has been at the center of these programs. So if that really comes to pass I think that would be wonderful. One of the things you might want to consider is getting these programs out of the Department of Agriculture. The interests of eaters need to be represented in a way that they have not been. One of the things that was discouraging was that neither Obama nor Vilsack used the word "food" or "eating." It was very much cast in terms of interest groups, but eaters are the biggest interest group of all, and their interests are not being taking into account at all.

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