Thursday, November 6, 2008

Get Michael Pollan a Cabinet Post

Of all the problems facing us today, the destruction of our food supply by corporations and government lobbyists is probably the easiest to fix and one that might have the broadest consequences. As Michael Pollan has written about in his book In Defense of Food, the modern food industry has run roughshod over our eating traditions, and the results have been catastrophic. We're so worried about making health care universal and/or affordable, but we would need only a fraction of it if we just ate properly. But we don't eat properly because our food system is designed for quantity, addiction and profit rather than quality, health and taste. Pollan refers to numerous studies done on the Western diet's affect on people from native populations who had almost zero incidence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes before adopting it. They found that as soon as people adopted our eating habits, they got our diseases.

What's worse, our medical industry works hand in hand with the food industry, creating treatment for symptoms, but rarely addressing the underlying problem. So people take statins for the heart disease they have because they eat processed grains that flood them with too many Omega-6 fatty acids and inflame their systems. Instead of getting off the fake food and eating more organic fruits, vegetables and grass-fed meat, people continue with the Western diet and pay into the health care system. The medical profession has a vested interest in keeping us coming back for more treatment, and the drug companies lavish our doctors with unethical perks to persuade them to prescribe their products.

The good news is that it's an fairly easy solution - educate people to eat properly (not as per the AMA's faulty recommendations - they were part of the war on fats, and actually encouraged transfat consumption over natural products like butter), and watch the need for and cost of health care diminish to a fraction of what it is currently. The main obstacle to educating people on their health is that there's tremendous profit in having us eat processed foods. After all, you can patent the formula to Coca Cola, but you can't patent organic peaches. And growing organic takes more effort, and is harder to do on a large scale. But it's important not only because pesticides are harmful, but also because anything that artificially kills pests and diseases breeds produce that didn't have to develop the defenses itself. And many of the antioxidants that product against cancer and lower the risk of heart disease develop in plants to defend against bacteria themselves.

So there is an enormous vested interest in keeping us buying food from a box and also in using harmful chemicals that deprive us of essential nutrients. To that end, there are companies who commission studies designed to show that pesticides aren't harmful, and who hire lobbyists who make sure the laws on what can be sprayed on food and what can be run off into the environment are lax.

But if the population became truly educated about what they ate, they could vote with their dollars at farmer's markets and collectives - they could grow extra food in their back yards, they could swear off the fast food, and the food from a box. Moreover, they could make it known to their representatives that they want the food (and drug) companies to be held to high standards, and bloggers could call out the worst offenders and disseminate information to the public at large.

But just as President-elect Obama encouraged people to get involved in his campaign by creating a movement for change and setting up the infrastructure, he could also speed up this process of education about health vastly by enlisting his support, encouragement and network. With two foreign wars, a massive financial crises and huge entitlement liabilities, this might seem like a low priority, but it's not. It would solve the health care problem within a couple years by cutting the cost enormously. It would also have an enormously beneficial effect on the work force - people would be energetic healthy and productive - and it would be hugely beneficial to the environment. And there would not need to be a major outlay of cash.

Now that we're only beginning to understand fully the ways in which Wall Street and other corporate interests gambled with our pensions and retirement accounts to rack up huge profits before needing a bailout, it's important to go further and realize that the food and drug industry are doing the same in matters of nutrition and health.

So get Michael Pollan a cabinet post - (or at least a meeting) with our new president.


Jonah Keri said...

The good news is that Obama read Pollan's "Open Letter to the Next President" that was recently published in the New York Times, and acknowledges the food industry and what we eat as a legitimate issue that needs tackling.

Politically speaking, just as I know you didn't think Obama could afford to fixate on FISA when he had bigger electoral fish to fry, I think he'll probably do things like draw down troops from Iraq, scale back and/or eliminate Gitmo and black sites etc. before he makes a public show of addressing food. But I do think it'll be addressed at some point. The Bush administration has done so much harm that Obama will definitely need two terms to make a dent in all the problems we're facing today.

Chris Liss said...

Good to know - I hadn't realized that he read Pollan's letter. But unlike FISA which is really not an issue except symbolically, i.e., I'm not worried about getting my calls tapped so much as the erosion of my general privacy rights, this issue directly affects the cost and availability of health care and the national debt which is a huge one. It's also far easier to solve than some of the international crisis, and far cheaper. I agree that Gitmo's got to go asap. Charge the bad guys, try them and release the rest with compensation and sincere apologies.