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Food For Thought

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March 9, 2009

Every so often, conservative columnist (and baseball fan) George Will hits one out of the park.  He did so again in Sunday’s Washington Post.  While other conservative columnists busied themselves by blaming Barack Obama for our current recession (after all, he’s been in office for 48 whole days!) Mr. Will found something more important to discuss.  In an article called “Where the Obesity Grows“, Mr. Will addressed America’s diet problem.  The undercurrent of Will’s article focused on the fact that our new Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is the former Governor of Iowa (a state which obtains a large amount of revenue from corn production).  Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Vilsack will embark on some sort of “corn agenda”, especially since Iowa produces a number of other crops, including the increasingly-popular soybean.  Besides, Nebraska is widely accepted as America’s greatest corn-producing state.

Consider these points discussed in George Will’s article and be sure to remind yourself that these aren’t the rantings of some “lefty”:

A quarter of the 45,000 items in the average supermarket contain processed corn.  Fossil fuels are involved in planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting and processing the corn. America’s food industry uses about as much petroleum as America’s automobiles do.

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Corn, which covers 125,000 square miles of America — about the size of New Mexico — fattens 100 million beef cattle and at least that many bipeds.  Much of the river of cheap corn becomes an ocean of high-fructose corn syrup, which by 1984 was sweetening Coke and Pepsi.  Disposing of the corn also requires passing it through animals’ stomachs. Corn, together with pharmaceuticals and other chemicals  …   has made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots rather than grass, cutting by up to 75 percent the time from birth to slaughter.  Eating corn nourished by petroleum-based fertilizers, a beef cow consumes almost a barrel of oil in its lifetime.

Although Tom Vilsack received some attention in Will’s article, the star character was a man named Michael Pollan.  Pollan is a professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.  Last year, David Laskin of The Seattle Times reviewed Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto:

Pollan’s bugbear this time is the so-called science of nutrition. Back in the good old days, people ate plants and animals raised (or foraged) close to (or at) home and prepared accordingly to age-old traditions.  But once nutritionists started isolating the chemical components of what we ate and putting them back to together in “new, improved” and highly processed ways, Americans began growing steadily more obese, more prone to diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and more stressed about our dietary options.  These days our food is cheap, convenient and increasingly plastered with health claims–but it’s making us and everyone else who eats it fat and sick.

More importantly, Mr. Laskin’s review of Michael Pollan’s new book made a point that was (surprisingly) not included in George Will’s article:

As the Senate’s recent rubber-stamping of yet another pork-filled farm bill demonstrates, America still lacks the political will to reform the agricultural practices at the root of our dietary woes.  But to Pollan, that’s no reason why enlightened eaters can’t rise up and start changing the Western diet one meal, one garden, one family farm at time.

On December 17, the more left-leaning Irregular Times website pointed out that the Organic Consumers Association had specifically asked that Vilsack not be appointed as Agriculture Secretary and that within one week, 10,000 people signed a petition opposing that appointment.  The Irregular Times piece gave us this appraisal of the Vilsack appointment:

Significant food reform is not what we can expect from a Secretary Vilsack.  As the Governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack defended the interests of industrial agriculture, and did plenty of favors for giant agricultural corporations like Monsanto.  Iowa agriculture is no longer typified by small family farms, but by gigantic fields of genetically engineered corn and soybeans, interspersed with concentrated feeding lots in which cattle and pigs pumped full of antibiotics stand in their own filth all day long.

Agricultural pollution from Iowa is so bad that it significantly contributes to dead zones all the way down in the Gulf of Mexico.  It contributes to global warming too, with methane oozing out of manure lagoons near livestock factory farms adding significantly to the concentration of greenhouse gases in our planet’s atmosphere.

None of these problems got better when Tom Vilsack was Governor of Iowa.  Vilsack has seemed more interested in promoting big agribusiness as it is than in reforming it.

On that same day, Gabriel Winant of Salon.com asked Michael Pollan for his reaction to the selection of Vilsack.  Pollan replied that Vilsack’s record in Iowa “does not give one much reason to believe he’s going to bring a reformist agenda to the Department of Agriculture.”  Pollan went on to explain:

He was biotech governor of the year.  And he has very close relations to Monsanto.  As with every other pick, the focus is on the Nixon-in-China scenario, the hopeful fantasy, which is that these people will be able to drive reform in their bureaucracies — that’s the story of this Cabinet.  Whether that comes true or not, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

By making Michael Pollan the subject of his article, perhaps George Will’s hidden message was:  Don’t expect too much Change from this administration or you will be sadly disappointed.