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Michael Pollan at PV1: The State of the Food Movement: What Needs to Happen Now

Posts: 3666
Location: Moved from south central WI to Portland, OR
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Me again!

So, are you sad that you didn't get to go to the Permaculture Voices conference? Did you go but you can't remember what was said? Well, I am an obsessive note taker (most of the time) and I took notes at most of the talks I attended.

I will share them here with you!

Please note that this is in no way a transcription. These are my notes, taken in real time, on the fly, whilst trying to look at the slides and follow along. I find that note taking helps me synthesize information. None of this should be construed as an accurate quotation, even when I put it in quotes. (For example, I'm pretty sure not a single speaker used the utterance "Yo.") Much of the time, I am trying to summarize and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some things wrong.

My next notes document is Michael Pollan. The topic this time was "The State of the Food Movement: What Needs to Happen Now"


Michael Pollan

Diego and Michael, sitting on bar chairs on the stage.

M: “Thanks for hosting and pulling together this remarkable gathering.”
D: one reason the politicians don’t take things seriously is that the politicians are not seeing it. What is the state of the food movement in America?
M: unorganized. It’s kind of a huge umbrella, or a big lumpy tent. It’s so compartmentalized. There’s so many different pieces of it. There is some common ground. I think everybody agrees they’d like to see more sustainable agriculture. I think everybody would like food to be more equitably distributed. I think permaculture is really the cutting edge of the food movement. I see it as the antennae of agriculture, looking to see where things are going. There is no central leadership of the food movement. There’s no sierra club of the food movement. It’s a nascent movement.

President Obama talked to a friend of mine right before he took office. He has a sophisticated understanding of the problems of monoculture, how it ties to all these problems. . . “I get it, I know where we need to go, but I need an army at my back. Show me the movement.”

If you want to make things better, you’ve got to get political. It’s very hard to avoid the political realm.

D: how does the new Farm Bill change things?
M: 99% of the Farm Bill is just crap. It’s just not a progressive piece of legislature. However, there are some really encouraging things in that bill. You can see them as crumbs, or as the seeds for new development. Money for conversion to organic. Money for school food programs. Money for local food. A lot of the ideas from ***, a Maine farmer who is now in the House of Representatives, did get into the bill.

We are moving from subsidies to crop insurance. There are a lot of problems with this because it privatizes success and socializes loss. It’s always been rigged in favor of bigger farms, because it was organized via crop. If you were growing 30 crops, you couldn’t get through the paperwork. Now, there is a sub-program that is designed for diversified farms. (applause)

Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, the Environmental Working Group—these people work so hard, and have succeeded in establishing a couple of beach heads.

D: GMO labeling has handicapped the organic food movement?
M: The fight against GMOs has been huge and hard. It’s taking up a lot of energy. It is making progress. It has raised the profile of the issue, such that now you have a large group of people looking for non-GMO food. And now, the big corporations are giving it to them. “Non-GMO” is the second fastest growing label in the supermarket (“gluten free” is the fastest).

If you are producing food organically, it’s hard to compete against products that just avoid GMOs. If we succeed at banning GMOs, we’re bringing American agriculture back to 1996. We need to go further.

Weirdly enough, you can’t say you are GMO free on your organic product. You can only say you are organic.

D: (something about getting your story out there? I missed it.)
M: I think transparency is essential to food marketing. You have people selling food, particularly meat, where they are pretending to be selling food from small farms (put pictures on the labels). The great edge we have is that we are happy to tell our story, to bring people in, to let them see what we’re doing.

I went to see a free range organic chicken operation in Petaluma California and they had a 50K bird shed. We had to put on the biohazard suits. When I asked where the grass was, he pointed to a little door that led out to a 6 foot wide strip of grass. No chickens out there. Why aren’t they outside? Well, we don’t open the door until they are 4 weeks old, and we slaughter them at 6 weeks.

Those of us who can, we need to invite our customers onto our farm. At Joel salatin’s farm, anyone is welcome to come on chicken slaughter day, and that’s a powerful message.

Hmm, maybe we should push for webcams on farms. Let us see how your animals are living.

Transparency is one of the things we should fight for.

D: If you just starting out, your ability to be transparent is a huge market advantage.
M: Ag gag laws are trying to criminalize the taking of pictures and video of industrial agriculture. The industry is fighting against transparency.

D: There’s some interest from the scientific community, but there’s not enough science in permaculture.
M; I think permaculture has a very important story to tell that we’re not telling yet. Permaculture offers a powerful set of solutions for our world’s problems. Monocrops are particularly vulnerable to the world we are moving into. When hurricanes swept over Belize, the industrial farms fared much worse than the diversified farms. To the extent that permaculture is a regenerative agriculture, it’s actually capable of reversing some of the carbon problems we have.

Photosynthesis is the only free lunch in nature.

If you’ve been on a farm that’s been using rotational grazing, you can see the soil built up - that’s carbon. It’s important that we figure out ways to invite in the scientists that are studying climate change, etc to come onto our farms and measure what we are doing. How much carbon can we sequester here? Are we sequestering the carbon in a very stable form? It seems to depend on the microbiota. A certain fungus will lead to more stable soils. There are people in this room who know how to sequester carbon, but the scientists don’t know about it.

If we’re going to make a difference, it’s going to be because we have made a difference in the system and we are rewarding farmers for sequestering carbon. The soil scientists are fundamentally sympathetic to what you are doing but they need data.

D: how does the drought here in California impact the move to regenerative systems?
M: it’s going to be interesting, it depends on how long this drought lasts. It’s very hard to do animal agriculture in California. The grass based ranchers are depending on alfalfa (it’s taking 25% of our water). The bigger burden falls on the industrial dairies who are using huge amounts of water to keep cattle in the desert, which is kind of crazy.

The pressures are there in good ways (switching to drip irrigations) and also in bad ways (the grass farmers are losing out and their land is being planted in almonds). The farmers in California seem much more prone to complete change, that could be a good thing.

D: we have an interesting mix of people here, people who are in production, and who want to
M: Permaculture really is the leading edge. You always need a leading edge. It’s a hard place to be, because people don’t understand what the hell you’re doing. These are complex systems.

They are so beautiful, and they give such hope.

When I talk about permaculture (I don’t always use that word, because people don’t know what it means) but when I talk about how it’s possible to have systems that create more than they destroy. Most of us tend to think that resources are a zero sum game: more for us means less for nature. When I was on a permaculture farm, I saw that if you do things properly, you can pull a huge amount of delicious nutritious food and at the end of the season, there will be more soil, not less, more fertility, not less, more carbon.

You have one of the most hopeful stories, that we need now. It’s important to go out there and tell that story.

There is a free lunch, and it’s called solar energy.

I think you’ve got consumers behind you, once they learn about this. You have enormous challenges, the rules and economic conventions are stacked against you. We need an army of Joel Salatins, and a lot of the new recruits are in this room.

questions from the audience:

Q: If you don’t use the word permaculture, what is the value of practitioners using that word.
M: I’m a writer, and I avoid jargon. You want to distinguish yourself from just organic, which can be industrial. Regenerative agriculture is a word we use. I would use it more if there was consensus on what it meant.

Q: for the last 20 years I was inspired by Joel Salatin and Sally Fallon. We’ve been analyzing how to get the word out. I think educating the public is the way to go. We tried to work with the legislators, we tried to get the university to come to Sally’s farm and test the water, test the soil, they wouldn’t come. I think the way to move forward is with educating people.

M: I agree, the consumer should be the audience. Politicians don’t really lead, they follow. Remember back in 2000, the first draft of the organic rules had all sorts of outrageous nonsense in it. 425,000 people wrote in to the USDA and they backed right off.

That said, you can’t ignore politics. Even if you say that the way forward is to build an independent economy of producers and consumers, you will be impacted by things like the FMSA. The consumer is where I focus my efforts.

Q: I think your “Food Rules” is a tool. We need an executive summary that connects relocalizing farming to community.
M: Yes, my focus has been on food and agriculture. There is more to localism. There’s a design component to that, there’s a finance component to that. (alternative banks, alternative currency) Yeah, cool, someone else should write that book.

Q: Food sovereignty laws: a way for communities to say “the system is broken and we are going to opt out of it.” Communities in the Northeast are spurning federal law, and this will likely go to the supreme court.
M: Getting beyond the issue of food security (having enough to eat) is food sovereignty. We want a say in the design of our food system. We want power rather than a bag of grain. This has been taken up by relocalizing groups.

Food sovereignty is a powerful principle. When there’s a conflict between local rules and federal rules, it’s interesting. We’ve got that going on right now with marijuana, and the government has backed off on that. Would that happen with raw milk? As long as nobody gets hurt, I think they will back off there as well.

In California, our anti-battery law says you can’t import eggs to California that break our law. Missouri and four other states are suing on this. This will likely go to the supreme court as well.

Q: What models could we borrow from to capitalize on economies of scale without all the onerous regulations and . . .
M: I really like the resurgence of cooperative food groups. As you scale up though, the management issues are unavoidable. There are a lot of people who want to get into this, but they are not plant or animal people. Young people come to my office hours, they want to get involved. I tell them we need lawyers and accountants and marketers. When you are a diversified farmer, you wear so many different hats. This is an argument for division of labor. Distribution is a huge challenge, it’s not as glamorous but it’s so important. We need to find the people who will understand how all these other things bring

Q: what about the marvels of hemp?
M: there’s actually a provision in the new farm bill about hemp, and it’s there because of Mitch McConnel, of all people.

The world is changing so fast. In 2008 California passed a law banning gay marriage. It’s moving really fast on marijuana as well. Industrial hemp is coming—it’s going to be hard to stop. The wind of political change is at your back.

Q: What’s your elevator speech for permaculture?
M: I don’t know if I have one. Most agriculture is extractive. We take from the soil and it is diminished. We try to put things back with chemicals. There is another kind of agriculture that begins with the soil. It takes food off the land and actually builds soil at the same time. We need to be talking more about soil.

If you go back to the deep history of this movement, to Rodale and Lady *** and Sir Albert Howard, it was all about soil. A conversation about soil is a good efficient way to get the point across.

The recent study that showed that milk from organic grass fed cows is fundamentally different—that’s how you reach people. Health is how people make changes in their food. “You can’t get healthy food without healthy soil.”

Q: black and grey market sources of food - I see more and more of this. I’m crossing state lines to get my raw milk, getting duck eggs from a neighbor..
M: Yes, those markets are growing. A lot of people are checking out of the industrial food system. I totally understand that you should be able to eat what you want to eat. I do have reservations when it comes to children. Raw milk can be dangerous to children. That’s the milk your grandfather drank, but you don’t have your grandfather’s immune system. There are a lot of immune compromised people out there. I think the government’s behavior has been really heavy handed, but you do need to think about protecting the children.

This is sort of like in the old soviet union, when everybody was checking out of the major food system. 50% of the food was being distributed illegally. This made the collapse of the Soviet Union more possible, really.

Q: Can you comment on the role of science and scientific research in the future of permaculture?
M: It should be important. It’s important to get your hunches confirmed. It’s a language with which you can communicate with regulators and legislators. Is this food healthier? How much does this matter? Some say we’re not getting enough micronutrients in our food, some say our main problem is too many calories. We need to promulgate our results, show what we are accomplishing.

It’s not like the scientists are always right. They are not the ultimate authority, they are one authority.

Q: How should we be convincing the customers that our food is better, is worth more.
M: I think the key is welcoming people onto your farm. To let people know that you want to meet them. As people lose confidence in the industrial food system, knowing your farmer becomes really important. I know farmer’s markets are inefficient, but they do facilitate information transfer. Figuring out effective ways to challenge the competition is important. “Yes you can get eggs for half the price, but can you go visit where they come from? If you go, will they make you wear a biohazard suit?”

Joel Salatin used to crack an egg and pour the contents back and forth between his hands to show that the yolk doesn’t break, that there’s not a watery white. He had to show the chefs that there was a difference in his product.

Q: Our key task is promoting polyculture. How do we get the word out about the importance of polyculture, the emergence of a new economy. (this question was kind of rambling)
M: Yes, the key difference we need to distinguish is monoculture vs. polyculture. “The original sin of monoculture.” The simplification of our diets, the over reliance on corn and soy. When you go from monoculture to polyculture, you have solved a lot of problems. You will inherently tend to have a more local framework. You move from a system where Iowa does corn, California does asparagus, New York does apples, to more diversified and thus more local. You won’t have enough asparagus for the Cisco truck.

I do know that right now we can change what’s happening on the ground. Yeah, eventually we have to challenge the economic structures. We have to be as innovative in business as we have been in the field. The big money will crush competition (if they can).
Julia Winter
Posts: 3666
Location: Moved from south central WI to Portland, OR
hugelkultur urban chicken food preservation bike bee
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I think I'll just tack this one here in this thread as well - it's Michael Pollan's second thing at the Permaculture Voices conference. I have a lot of ***, which is what I use when I want to go back in later and fill in what I missed. However, it's bedtime and my work-work (meaning, the work I get paid for, not this stuff) isn't done, so I'm just going to post it. Maybe others can fill in some of my gaps below!


Michael Pollan and Danielle Nierenberg
The Year of the Family Farm

Video: foodtank.com

Q: your take on the importance of family farming in your travels around the world.
Danielle: the most important thing to remember as we celebrate the international year of family farmers is that farmers aren’t just farmers. They are businesswoman and businessmen, entrepreneurs, innovators, stewards of the land. They rarely get recognized for any of those things. Now is the time to celebrate farmers and also to invest in them.
Michael: I would add that there’s a perception that now we have industrial farming, we no longer need small farms. As the video notes, most food is still produced on family farms. It was a great idea for the United Nations to take this up.

Q: How do we protect our families from possible calamities?
D: How do we keep the vibrancy of agriculture alive against the forces that are against us. I was able to visit farms all across sub-Saharan Africa. . . We really need to cultivate the next generation of agricultural leaders, people to tell the story. My favorite group of people to meet with are the young people. I spent some time in Uganda a few years ago and met with folks from project Disk (***?). The founder of that, in his early 20’s saw that the young people looked down on the indigenous foods, saw them as poor people food. He’s working with 30 schools, they’re learning to grow indigenous crops, they’re learning to cook and eat these foods and to market them. He was just elected vice president of Slow Food International.
M: I think we’re undergoing a sea change in our attitude about farmers. A lot of us remember when farmers were the butt of jokes. It was deliberate policy to shrink the numbers of farmers. The status of farmers fell quite quite low. This is turning around, and we can thank the chefs for starting this. Chefs like Alice Waters began crediting farmers/gardeners on their menus. We still have a way to go. Slow Food has done very good work in that area. Terra Madre, which happens every two years, is really amazing. Food producers, some of whom have never left their home town, are brought to Italy and celebrated. One of the ways we can encourage this movement is to treat farmers as the critical professionals they are.

But, we still have a way to go, because part of valuing farmers is to pay them a living wage.

Q: How can we compete with Big Corn?
M: The “feed the world” argument is a very complex one. A monoculture of corn does produce an awful lot of calories, but not really a lot of food. Some is going to cars, most is going to animal feed. Small farms are better at producing actual food for people. Check out the work of (****) who has been at the UN. He looks at the question of how are we going to feed the world and concludes that we are more likely to do this with small farms than with industrial farms.
D: We’ve been focussed on filling people up rather than nourishing them. We need to move from starchy staple crops to nutrient dense foods. The big money is not in the fruits and vegetables, in the perennial crops. Also, we waste so much food. There is enough food to feed everyone, if it didn’t spoil before getting to consumers. Food is wasted in the developing world from lack of good storage and transport. Food is wasted in the developed world from pure waste.

Q: As a family farm in Alberta, I couldn’t see how this “year of the farmer” thing was going to help us. Is this really for us, or just those farms in Africa. In Alberta, there are massive industrial family farms.
M: “Family farmer” is a big group. I can think of a family that farms 10K acres of corn/soy in Iowa. Of course, we need permaculture farms in large scale as well. There’s some pioneering work being done in South American with very long rotations between grazing and small grains, eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilizer. We don’t want to over-fetishize the small family farmer, either.
D: The UN picks themes every year. (Next year is “the year of light”) This was the result of a campaign by (****) lots of smaller agricultural groups, to try to get small family farmers recognized for what they are doing. To recognize their production of nutrient dense food.
M: who could be against the year of light? the forces of darkness??

Q: how can we build community?
M: You can’t keep your light under a bushel. It’s really important that you play a role in your community. E.g. every elementary teacher in your nearby town(s) should know that you are available for field trips. (The parents will inevitably accompany the kids on those trips.) You are part of the ecosystem of your town. Do events on your farm. Invite the community in.
D: What my organization is trying to do is to be a platform to publicize the efforts of small farmers.

Q: How should we be reaching out and educating the community?
D: Well, it depends on your farm, but you need people to know that you’re not just producing food. Your’e growing things that no other farmer is growing. You’re protecting bird species. Cultivate interest in the school kids. Get out there and communicate with your community at large.

Q: School gardens are a great way to reach out to humans when young. What are your strategies and experiences with addressing the attitudes of the baby boomer generation against labor, physical work on the land. How can we undo that paradigm.
M: I think that’s happening. College students today do not have the same attitude towards farming as their parents. That’s why when they announce that they’re going to be an organic farmer, the parents freak out. I’m a writer and I love to explain the intricate workings of a complicated farm and how much the farmer needs to know to get the complex system to sing. Describing it in such detail elevates the activity. In contrast, the industrial farm in the midwest is just ridin’ and sprain’. It’s a much simpler system.
The great myth that we need to expel is that organic farming is turning back the clock. Modern organic farming is nothing like it was 100 years ago.
D: We need to point out how agriculture can really be the solution. Youth unemployment, climate change. What we’re talking about is going to solve big problems.

Q: The 57% of farmers that are small family farms in the world—what’s the % of small farms just in the United States?
M: Hard to say. The average farm in Iowa is more than 500 acres, but is family owned. USDA says 96% of farms in america are family farms.

Q: You talked about large scale permaculture. When I think permaculture, I think small scale. Could you talk more about how the philosophy of permaculture could be expressed on a large scale?
M: Well, Joel Salatin has kind of a franchise model. He takes his interns, helps them find land, often leases the land himself, and then they produce food under his label. He’s not growing grain. We forget that grain is an important part of our food economy. It seems to me the next step is to figure out grain on a local basis. One of the most exciting developments in local agriculture are local grain economies. It’s not just growing the grain, it’s also cleaning, storage, milling. . . . If we’re concerned about the land, we need to consider the grain producing land.

This rotation in South America—I think the land grant universities should be studying this. Can we do a similar thing in the midwest? Can we take animals out of the feed lots and move them back on the land? If we do this, we will have more jobs back in the midwest, etc. I don’t necessarily think big is bad.

Q: If you go to international conferences on food, you will hear about the 1.2 billion people who go to bed hungry every night, and yet the talk moves on to increasing the market price of tomatoes. Isn’t it hypocritical when they pay lip service to the 1.2 billion just at the beginning? How does permaculture help those subsistence farmers?
M: Well, that was a tendentious question. I would point out that most of those hungry people are themselves farmers. Diversifying farms, even in a marginal way, is a powerful technology for relieving hunger. I think one of the reasons these people are hungry is because they can’t get a good price for their food. It’s not a zero sum game.
We need to look at the ability of people to afford higher quality of food. We spend (on average) 9.5% of income. This is less than any other place at any other time. We need to look at things like minimum wage. Let us not forget labor. We are trapped in this vicious circle of cheap food and falling wages. One of the reasons people have been able to put up with falling wages since the 1970’s has been that the cost of food has been dropping. We need to work on making it possible for people to be able to afford the beautiful food you produce.
The only thing that kept the leeches off of me was this tiny ad:
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