Best-selling author & NY Times Magazine columnist Michael Pollan is one of the best writers since…like, Henry David Thoreau. He’s a pleasure to read, even about the most arcane subjects (Farm Bill, anyone?). Recently, he penned a NY Times Magazine cover feature to Obama or McCain, which got infamously got Obama’s attention. Apparently, agribusiness (the big bad agricultural corps) was not happy, and Obama quieted down.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. I’m grateful to Deborah Amos for sitting in while I was away these past two weeks – it’s good to be back.
This is an odd Thanksgiving weekend, shrouded by ambivalence. We always have much to be thankful for as Americans: the right to vote, the Constitution, no dictatorship or caste system, the freedom to thank our God or no God at all. But the contradictions of our society are starkly self-evident this weekend. Not since the Great Depression have so many people been so haunted by insecurity.
Look at these long lines of people at a food bank in San Francisco. Some 32 million Americans – at least one in nine households – had trouble at some time in the last year putting enough food on the table. And that was long before the current meltdown. As the economy sours food banks across the country have seen a 25% increase in demand, with middle class families accounting for most of the growth.
At the same time many families are having trouble finding enough to eat, many of our biggest farmers have never had it so good.
The Government Accountability Office – our government’s top watchdog – is out this week with a new report on how the agricultural department is managing farm subsidies. Not well, it seems, not well.
BARACK OBAMA: There’s a report today that from 2003 to 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such subsidies. If this is true, and this was just a report this morning, but if it’s true, it is a prime example of the kind of waste that I intend to end as president.
BILL MOYERS: President-elect Obama has been busy putting his team together. His choice for Secretary of Agriculture could be perhaps the most important clue as to whether Obama really intends to bring change to Washington as he promised. If so, he’ll have to take on one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, the people who turned agriculture into agribusiness. As “Time” magazine recently put: farm policy is “a welfare program for the megafarms that use the most fuel, water and pesticides; emit the most greenhouse gases; grow the most fattening crops; hire the most illegals; and depopulate rural America.”
For a brief moment during the campaign, reformers thought Barack Obama might include agriculture in the “agenda of change” he would take to Washington. He told TIME magazine that the way we produce our food “is partly contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in health care costs.” The farm lobby roared in protest. Obama buckled, took it back, and said he was “simply paraphrasing an article he read.”
Ah, yes – but what an article! Here it is: nine pages in the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE on October 12. An open letter to the future “Farmer in Chief” – from one of the country’s leading experts on food – Michael Pollan. Significant progress on health care, energy independence, and climate change, Pollan told the candidates, depends on something you haven’t talked about at all – food.
That article triggered such a response that an online movement has sprung up calling on President-elect Obama to name Michael Pollan Secretary of Agriculture.
Pollan’s popular books include: THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS, and this most recent work, IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: AN EATER’S MANIFESTO.
What you won’t find in his writings is a Shermanesque-like statement saying that if nominated he will not serve. But let’s watch my guest Michael Pollan turn pale as I ask him suppose Obama did yield to legions of admirers and name you Secretary of Agriculture instead of yet one more advocate of industrial farming? Where would you start?
MICHAEL POLLAN: I’m ready for the Shermanesque statement.
BILL MOYERS: Make it. We’ll make some news on this.
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