By Steven D. Schmitt
A Letter to the Editor in the September 17, 2009 Wisconsin State Journal could not have been timed better. A Madison resident who had farmed for a career questioned why UW-Madison was spending its financial resources to bring author Michael Pollan to the Kohl Center (Sept. 24, 7 p.m.) to speak on his book, In Defense of Food, especially because he has been so critical of the current agricultural production system.
I am reading Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an account of his personal journey through the modern food chain that criticizes U.S. farm policies and large-scale industrialized farming for turning cheap surplus corn into a variety of consumer products that pose risks to public health and the environment. The man did a tremendous amount of research and interviews – and even bought his own cow.
Pollan’s word pictures and quotes from corporate and individual farmers do present an unfavorable picture of a food industry that travels a superhighway that a grain surplus into popular breakfast cereals, soft drink sweeteners and fake cheese — at huge profits. Even organic farming, he says, is adopting industrial processes to sell nonchemical products, some of which contains synthetic, albeit natural, additives. The final product is labeled “organic,” implying t]he benefits of health and nutrition.
Marjorie Stieve’s letter caught my attention because she is right about the value of farming careers and the benefits we enjoy from a diverse food supply, from local farms to supermarkets that sell arguably the freshest food available in the free world. Pollan, however, attacks large-scale farming and related policies — not farmers. He opposes selling Cheez Whiz made from processed corn in place of real cheese and natural corn. Career farmers — and new ones — would certainly prefer the latter.
This is where Pollan and Stieve actually agree. The farmer is t]he most important person in t]he food production system. Federal policies that encourage cheap food that is attractive, convenient and tasty may be a cost-efficient boon to brand-name businesses but do not promote traditional alternatives at fair farm prices. Also, a free range chicken may cost more at the store, but so would the Tyson competitor if the farmer made a living wage for his or her work instead of losing a dollar on each bushel of corn produced.
Everyone believes in rewarding hard work and eating good food. What we need is a system that pays t]he farmer 40 cents on the dollar for farm fresh eggs — not four cents – and investment in local farm to market roads for transport of nonhybrid, atrazine-free corn to local manufacturers and distributors and, eventually, to consumers.
Pollan’s talk is a vehicle to energize discussion about integrated rat]her than oversimplified solutions to a complex food system. It also brings career farmers into the debate for a better, farmer-friendly system.