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The Food Industry Challenges That Obama Needs to Address

President-elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture could be perhaps the most important clue as to whether Obama really intends to bring change to Washington. It will determine whether or not he plans to take on one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, the businessmen who turned agriculture into agribusiness.

Current farm policy was called by Time magazine, "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."

An online movement has sprung up calling on President-elect Obama to name anti-agribusiness crusader Michael Pollan Secretary of Agriculture. Pollan's popular books include The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

In this fascinating interview, Bill Moyers asked Michael Pollan what would happen if he was named Secretary of Agriculture instead of yet one more advocate of industrial farming.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

In this fascinating PBS interview with Bill Moyer, Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore's Dilemma , talks about what he believes President-elect Obama needs to do to repair the American food system, based on his article "An Open Letter to the Farmer in Chief," recently published in The New York Times.

(A full transcript of the interview is available here if you have trouble viewing the video.)

And, in case you didn’t already know this, Pollan also penned the brilliant New York Times article about the perils of factory-farmed beef back in 2002. Both his articles and books are well worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

What’s Wrong with the American Food System?

Like Pollan, I believe many of our society’s chronic health problems could be resolved if attention was paid, at the highest levels of government, to the root problem –our agricultural subsidies. In fact, Pollan suggests a “Food Czar” at the White House rather than a Secretary of Agriculture, as the Department of Agriculture is so deeply entrenched with the agri-business.

As has been recently disclosed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), between 2003 and 2006, millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies, even though they earned more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such subsidies. In a recent speech, President-elect Obama stated that this was a prime example of the kind of waste he intends to end once he takes office.

Time will tell if he has the clout to make that happen. Because as Michael Pollan points out, these are very powerful forces to contend with; the agriculture lobby is more powerful than even the pharmaceutical industry!

A previous article in The New York Times, published April 24, 2008, highlights the disastrous politics of our current farm bill, and the ostrich-like behavior of our U.S. government officials. 

And as another glaring example of how broken the system is, between 2000 and 2006, the U.S. federal government paid at least $1.3 billion in “direct payment” subsidies for rice and other crops to people who did no farming, according to The Washington Post. 

I’m not sure what’s worse: paying for crops that contribute to declining public health and rising health care costs, or paying for non-existent crops…

Either way, one thing is for sure. These subsidies impact how we produce our food, which impacts disease rates, which in turn drive health care costs into the stratosphere.

As Pollan explains here, our food policy reaches VERY deep into our everyday lives – from the rise of diabetes all the way to our national security. Unless the food policy is addressed and corrected, little progress will be made to improve the current health care crisis, increase our energy independence, and reduce the negative impact on our environment and climate.

“The way we currently grow, process, and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them,” he says.

Our Government is Subsidizing Fast Food

The food crops currently subsidized are corn, wheat, soy and rice. Growing little else but corn and soy means we end up with a fast food diet. In essence, these commodity programs are subsidies for the creation of junk and fast food, not REAL food that could have a positive impact on public health.

The average American is now 10 pounds overweight, which translates into $250 billion in added yearly health care costs, not to mention a shorter lifespan.

But in addition to producing little else but fast food, this type of monoculture is also very dependent on fossil fuels.

As Pollan states, we’re actually eating oil – we just don’t know it. Because when you grow one type of crop almost exclusively, you deplete the soil, which means you have to use more fertilizer, which is made from fossil fuel. Monocultures also invite more pests, which need to be treated with ever increasing amounts of pesticides – also made from fossil fuel. 

Cheap food is actually incredibly expensive once everything is added up, including stratospheric health care costs, continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the destruction of the earth as a whole.

Pollan says:

“Food is the shadow issue over all [those] other issues. You're only going to get so far with healthcare costs unless you look at the diet.

Let's look at the school lunch program. This is where we're feeding a big part of our population. We are essentially feeding them fast food and teaching them how to eat it quickly. If we could spend a dollar or more per day per child and work on the nutritional quality of that food – and require that a certain percentage of that school lunch fund in every school district has to be spent within 100 miles to revive local agriculture, to create more jobs on farms, to rural redevelopment – you will achieve a great many goals through doing that.

You will have a healthier population of kids who will perform better in the afternoon after that lunch. You will have the shot in the arm to local economies through helping local agriculture. And you will teach this generation habits that will last a lifetime about eating.”

Remember That YOU are Still in Charge of What Your Family Eats!

Industrial agriculture lobbyists wield incredible power in Congress. However, they cannot dictate where you choose to buy food for your family. So please do your health a favor and support the small family farms in your area. You’ll receive nutritious food from a source that you can trust, and you’ll be supporting the honest work of a real family farm.

It all boils down to this: if you want to optimize your health, you must return to the basics of healthy food choices.

The problem is, there is so much confusion about what is healthy – and in some cases, whether or not something is actually food -- and as Pollan describes, one of the reasons is due to the obsessive focus on individual ingredients or nutrients rather than the food as a whole.

So let’s clarify.

The simplest way back toward health is to focus on WHOLE foods; foods that have not been processed or altered from their original state. Food that has been grown or raised as nature intended, without the use of chemical additives, pesticides and fertilizers.

It’s as simple as that!

Speed is of paramount importance to most people. Fast food and processed food products are the norm for most working people simply because of its ease and speed. Likewise, most people want to change their health status, or their weight, quickly. Hence the plethora of drugs and processed foods that promise to do just that.

Well, folks, here’s a thought for you to chew on; the FASTEST way to optimal health is through choosing a diet made up of whole foods. And, making your food selections based on your nutritional type can speed up your progress even further.

So if you’re REALLY interested in speeding up your recovery from disease, losing weight and increasing your overall health quickly, putting your daily diet front and center is akin to zipping down an empty expressway, compared to toiling through a traffic jam, because whole foods give you MORE than the sum of their individual nutrients.

Whole, organic foods contain so many other things that work together synergistically, making them superior to anything that contains only the active ingredient (and frequently as a synthetic version at that).

That’s also one of the reasons why I do not emphasize using supplements in my health recommendations. There is a danger in getting too hung up on particular nutrients because you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll miss your mark. 

There are some exceptions, such as omega-3, due to most fish being dangerously high in toxins these days, and vitamin D3, if you’re unable to get sufficient amounts of sun exposure throughout the year. But in general, most of your essential nutrients are available in organic, whole foods.

Eating a diet of processed foods while popping vitamins and supplements, thinking you’re getting everything you need for health, is a reckless miscalculation that will extract its true cost in the form of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Any amount of time and money you save today by stopping at a fast food restaurant, you’re bound to repay later when you’re too ill to lead an active life.

Voice Your Opinion on Selection of Next Secretary of Agriculture

Although Bill Moyer plays around with the idea of Michael Pollan taking the helm as the next Secretary of Agriculture, that is not going to happen. Instead, President-elect Obama has chosen former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to spearhead the department. The Organic Consumers Association has put together a petition to block the confirmation of Vilsack, as the former Governor's track record offers a less than promising glimpse of what may lie in store for our future, if he takes office.

Over the past month, Organic Consumers Association members have emailed more than 20,000 letters to President-Elect Obama¹s Transition Team, calling for the appointment of a Secretary of Agriculture who would develop and implement a plan that promotes family-scale farming, a safe and nutritious food system with a sustainable and organic vision for the future.

Tom Vilsack¹s business as usual positions, on the other hand, include the following:

  • Vilsack has been a strong supporter of genetically engineered crops,
    including bio-pharmaceutical corn.
  • The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry
    Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder
    and former chair of the Governor's Biotechnology Partnership.
  • When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child of
    economic development potential was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning
    dairy cows.
  • The undemocratic and highly unpopular 2005 seed pre-emption bill was
    Vilsack's brainchild. The law strips local government¹s right to regulate
    Genetically Engineered seed.
  • Vilsack is an ardent support of corn and soy-based biofuels, which use as
    much or more fossil energy to produce them as they generate, while driving
    up world food prices and literally starving the poor.

If you agree that America doesn't need yet another politician who's already made room in his bed for the industry lobby, join the Organic Consumers Association and sign their petition to block Vilsack's appointment as Secretary of Agriculture. Their online petition can be found here:

TAKE ACTION: Stop Vilsack's Appointment as Secretary of Agriculture.