Journalist Michael Pollan deserves credit for elevating the national conversation about food. Over the course of 25 years, his articles and books have thoughtfully contemplated the troubling side effects of the American diet and the way our food is produced.
But his latest piece in the New York Times Magazine reads like a script for a black and white Western, with food companies, agribusiness and commodity producers cast in the role of Bad Guy and local organic farmers and with vegans cast as the Men in White Hats.
In Pollan’s script, the bad guys are responsible for everything from America’s weight problem and rising health care costs to widespread environmental degradation and monocultures that threaten national security. If only the law would get on the good guys’ side, he muses.
Food production is actually changing
All industries have issues that continually need to be addressed, and the food industry is no exception.
Agriculture consumes a lot of land and water and emits greenhouse gas emissions that must be curbed. And, yes, our diets have contributed to America’s obesity epidemic.
Except, our food system is changing, more than Pollan acknowledges.
The uptick in consumer demand for local, organic products is promising. So, too, are the contributions that Pollan’s so-called villains – the companies, agribusinesses and commodity farmers who produce what’s on our plate – are making to the environment. They deserve recognition.
Grocer giant transforming supply chain
When North America’s largest grocer commits to reducing its greenhouse gas footprint, it sends ripples through the agricultural supply chain. That’s what happened when Walmart set an ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal and asked its suppliers to use fertilizer-efficient grains in their products.
Fertilizer pollution has been a nagging problem for decades.
Scientists estimate that only 40 percent of fertilizers applied in a given season are absorbed by crops that year. While some fertilizers stay in the soil, the rest is lost to the air in the form of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas – or it washes into rivers and streams, creating dead zones that contaminate drinking water supplies and kill fish.
Today, more than 15 food companies are implementing programs to source fertilizer-efficient ingredients, including big brands such as General Mills, Smithfield Foods, Kellogg’s and Campbell Soup. Look for more producers to come onboard in coming months.
2 million acres already enrolled, more coming
Their commitments have inspired agricultural retailers – the people who sell fertilizer and other agricultural products to farmers. They’re now developing programs that help growers maximize fertilizer efficiency and improve soil health, which in turn boosts yields and increases a farm’s resilience to climate change.
One of those programs, SUSTAIN, now part of Land O’Lakes, committed to enrolling 10 million acres of farmland in sustainable practices by the end of this decade.
It leaves us a long way from making sustainability the business norm across the nation’s 250 million acres of corn, wheat and soybeans; but 10 million is a lot of farmland.
And this great start happened very quickly. In just two years, SUSTAIN has reached farmers on 2 million acres. Think about the impact we could make if even more ag retailers and advisors got into the game.
Farmers as good guys
As my colleague Miriam Horn notes in her new book, Rancher Farmer Fisherman, some of the biggest conservation heroes in America are so-called industrial-scale farmers such as Justin Knopf, who grows wheat and soybeans on thousands of acres across the Kansas prairie.
To restore and protect his soil, Knopf forgoes tilling and plants cover crops. Many of his farmer neighbors do the same. So do hundreds of the heartland farmers Environmental Defense Fund works with to make sustainable practices the norm.
Change will never occur if we stay entrenched in political ideologies.
Those who paint large-scale farmers, agribusiness and food companies as the monolithic villain ignore the improvements that are being made today on the ground, in corporate offices and in food company kitchens. And they do little to further the dialog about how we’re going to meet growing demands for food in a changing climate.
Change won’t occur overnight. But it will never occur if we stay entrenched in political ideologies.
By working together, we can scale up sustainable practices much more rapidly. Given future population projections, we have no time to lose.