Bad Advice for a High Price
There's no doubt about it: "Agri-intellectual" Michael Pollan is a rock star in rich people's kitchens.
He's a bestselling author, has a devoted fan base, and continues to spread his message about the American food system. He's made a living—there are press reports that he is paid $20,000 to $45,000 per public appearance—evangelizing his vision of the way people should eat.
It's just too bad that his message could cripple rural America while at the same time neutering our country's ability to provide a safe, healthy food supply for the world's exploding population.
Last month, Mr. Pollan made an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show to push for an organic, sustainable food supply in the United States. "We're going to have to change the way we support farmers and encourage them to grow real food," he said. "If you vote for food that has been sustainably grown or humanely grown, whatever your values are, you will change the food system. It's happening now."
Organic foods do have their place in today's market. Indeed, organic sales, which now account for roughly 3% of the U.S. market, have grown substantially over the past few years (17 to 20% per year), while conventional food sales in the United States have been more in line with population growth (2 to 3% per year). Those who prefer organics and can afford to buy them should certainly be able to do so. We would only contend that this vote should be left to individuals at the check-out counter as opposed to the ballot box.
This is because the notion that we can feed an entire nation—much less the world—with organics alone is unrealistic. Pollan paints a pretty picture, for sure, but his dreamy vision of an organic, locally grown food supply simply won't work in the real world.
The National Center for Food and Policy calculated in 2003 that in order to continue to produce current crop yields without herbicides—which are a no-no in an organic, locally grown world—an additional 70 million farmhands would be needed. In other words, one in four Americans would be pulling weeds on farms for a month out of the year.
And those farms we currently have would need to get much smaller and less efficient, so there would need to be a lot more farmers and a lot more people to work in the fields for minimum wage picking vegetables (probably not the career America's army of unemployed white-collar workers had in mind).
More land would also be needed. According to Jay Lehr, Ph.D., science director of The Heartland Institute, "The reality that organic farming is less productive than non-organic farming is apparently difficult for many organic believers to accept. Direct, field-to-field comparisons show organic farms produce up to 50 percent less than conventional farms."
Not to mention that food would get more expensive, something a Time magazine reporter and fellow organic disciple begrudgingly admitted in a story last year.
That Mr. Pollan's ideas have resonated with some of this country's affluent residents is not a particular problem. But the global implications of his vision are scary. Millions of hungry people around the globe depend on efficient U.S. farmers to feed them, but they'll be left out in the cold in Pollan-land. As the United Nations' World Food Programme announced last year, there are already 1.02 billion people in the world who do not have enough to eat.
Joel Kotkin expressed a wiser, more complete perspective on the question of organics in his recent Forbes column:
"This trend toward smaller-scale specialized production represents a positive trend, but large-scale, scientifically advanced farming still produces the majority of the average family's foodstuffs, as well as the bulk of our exports. Overall, organic foods and beverages account for less than 3% of all food sales in the U.S.—hardly enough to feed a nation, much less a growing, hungry planet."
John Lucey, a food science professor at the University of Wisconsin, had this to add: "Pollan's support of spending more money to maintain a healthy diet is geared to a specific, affluent audience, which is highly receptive of the idea, but it does not take the whole country into account."
Maybe targeting his message to a handful of wealthy elites is exactly what Mr. Pollan had in mind. After all, when you make your living selling books and making speeches, you might as well start at the top.