Michael Pollan has written an inspiring exploration of how the new US emphasis on energy security could revolutionize agriculture, food and health, Farmer in Chief. He calls for huge social and legal changes, reversing the decades-old American (and Canadian) policy of subsidizing cheap food with cheap oil, and replacing it with a policy of sustainable, low-petroleum, domestic agriculture. It would mean more farmers and gardeners growing less food, but better quality, better tasting, more healthful, more local food. Could it happen?
Normally, such visionary ideas don’t get very far in the hard world of practical politics. And huge industries have been built up that benefit from the current system. But now that the US President-Elect, Barack Obama, has commented favourably on the article, with his mandate for change, the entire conversation about sustainable agriculture could suddenly become serious.
Pollan points out that federal policy deliberately made agriculture one of the heaviest users of fossil fuels, and that policy can be changed. He calls for major revisions to farm subsidies and regulations, to permit and reward old-fashioned diversified farms instead of monocultures. Routine use of antibiotics in farm animals would be prohibited, and feedlots would be required to treat their waste the same way that factories do. A new generation of farmers would be trained. Local, regional and seasonal food would become a much more important part of personal and institutional diets. Symbolism is, as always, important. Maybe the White House will appoint a farmer as well as a chef and both of them will have websites. Maybe they will plant a new Victory Garden on the White House lawn, as Eleanor Roosevelt did 65 years ago. Maybe it will become fashionable to reduce the carbon calories of one’s food.
There is no trace of such a vision in Canada, at the moment. But where the US leads, we must almost always follow. Many Canadians are already switching some food purchases from supermarkets and imported foods to local farmers, when they can; local farmers in Toronto have gone from begging for markets to being run off their feet. Many others are talking about some version of the hundred mile diet, and many farmers are desperate for something better. If the US gets serious about reducing its dependence on foreign oil, as Obama has promised to do, changes like this may come more quickly than we think.