by Luke Tsai
What does the future hold for the food movement? If Michael Pollan’s vision of that future comes to fruition, it will involve some hardball politics, a larger-than-ever role for women, and a real-life enactment of that “local chicken” sketch from Portlandia.
As a UC Berkeley professor, renowned author, and leading thinker on the politics of food, Pollan is no stranger to the lecture circuit. On November 14, he joined former US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall for a conversation on the future of the food movement. The free event was co-sponsored by the university’s College of Natural Resources and the Berkeley Food Institute. The entire talk has since been posted online, and for food policy wonks and others interested in the movement’s core issues (of environmental sustainability, public health, hunger alleviation, and so forth) the whole thing’s worth watching. As UC Berkeley journalism lecturer Linda Schacht, who moderated the discussion, put it, “I think that the future of food is one of the few [topics] that everyone, everywhere is interested in. After all, we all eat.”
Here are a few highlights:
1. “A Big, Lumpy Tent”
Pollan started his remarks by commenting on how the assumption about the food movement that ought to be questioned is whether there’s even such a thing — whether the disparate collection of often-competing interests, which he likened to “a big, lumpy tent,” was cohesive enough to be called a movement. After all, he said, “You have people passionate about animal welfare; you have people passionate about hunger and food banks; you have people working on organic agriculture, on farm-to-school programs, on teaching kids about food, on labeling issues of various kinds.”
The biggest evidence that the food movement is legitimate and that it has achieved a degree of clout as a political movement, according to Pollan? The fact that agribusiness recently spent some $100 million to defeat proposals that would have required GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled in California and Washington, and on various other PR efforts.
2. A Bigger Role for Women
Merrigan, whom Pollan praised for having been responsible for many of the progressive changes that have been enacted under the Obama administration, said that one of the trends she’s been most excited to see is the increasing role that women are playing in agriculture and in the food movement as a whole. She cited a recent Economic Research Service report that, based on data from the most recent agricultural census (in 2007), observed an upward trend in female farmers — particularly young ones, who tend to be particularly receptive to alternative business models and production methods.
As Pollan put it, “The future face of the American farmer is much more female than it’s ever been.”
3. Hardball Politics
When asked what he would do in a fantasy reality in which he’d been elected Speaker of the House (and Merrigan appointed as Secretary of Agriculture), Pollan said he’d repopulate the House Committee on Agriculture, replacing current members, who mostly come from Farm Belt states, with an infusion of urban legislators who would speak more to the interests of food eaters rather than food producers.
4. Portlandia-style “harassment”
Pollan made what was perhaps the most provocative suggestion of the night, when he encouraged people to imitate, to a limited extent, that notorious Portlandia sketch in which asking whether a chicken is “local” is taken to ridiculous extremes: “I think one of the most powerful things we can do is ask questions about where food comes from.” Pollan said he’s personally witnessed instances where someone asking a butcher whether he or she carries grass-fed beef, or asking a waiter where the meat comes from, has eventually caused the food purveyor to reconsider its sourcing policies.
“Gently harassing the people who are serving you food is worth doing,” Pollan said.