A Politics That Will Kill Us
THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA: A NATURAL HISTORY OF FOUR MEALS
By Michael Pollan
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney often joked during the primaries: “Being a conservative Republican in Massachusetts is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention.” Try that joke the other way around, and it doesn’t work, does it?
Meat-eating is right-wing, everybody knows that! We even describe a rip-roaring conservative speech as “red-meat.” Crunchy granola is correspondingly left-wing. Whole Foods is liberal fascist, according to Jonah Goldberg, while Wal-Mart is bad for America, according to PBS’s Frontline.
These stereotypes have a basis in reality, for sure. There are more Whole Foods stores in Massachusetts’ 617 area code than in both Carolinas; more in Chicago and Evanston than in all of Georgia. Meanwhile, the state of Alabama supports only one Whole Foods store, but three Ruth’s Chris steakhouses. Mississippi: 0 Whole Foods, 3 Ruth’s Chris.
Yet the stereotype equally bumps up against certain contradictions. I happened into my nearest Whole Foods on Saturday. Among other things, I bought a half gallon of milk for $3.79 — almost double the price I could have paid at Walmart. For my money, I got organic milk from cows raised on grass rather than corn.
I prefer that my children drink milk free from pesticides, herbicides and artificial hormones. I am relieved not to contribute to the promiscuous overuse of antibiotics in cattle, hastening the development of anti-biotic resistant superbugs. If the extra tariff secures more humane treatment for the dairy cows on which we depend, that’s welcome news too.
As I bicycled the groceries home in my “I used to be a plastic bottle” recycled Whole Foods bag, I must have looked the image of a northwest Washington progressive. Yet it is very easy for me to imagine how the cultural polarities on food might have been reversed.
I can imagine a cultural left that fumed: The local family farm is as obsolete as the two-parent family! If you have an extra buck and three quarters burning a hole in your pocket, David Frum, why not give it to the panhandler on the corner rather than an overpriced dairy? Before getting exercised about the welfare of milk cows, how about some concern for the child prostitutes of the Third World or the underprivileged here at home?
Likewise, I can imagine a cultural right that championed premium milk in exactly the same way that it now champions luxury cars and $20 cigars. Or that worried as much about its own health and nutrition as it did about the strength and fitness of professional athletes.
No, it didn’t work out that way. But it easily could have — and could still again.
From the time of Teddy Roosevelt until the day before yesterday, it was the American right that worried more about the fitness and strength of the American population. (While the left tended to dismiss such concerns as imports from militaristic Prussia — as indeed they were.) It was President Eisenhower who founded the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, President Nixon who empowered the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor pesticides, and President Reagan who allowed himself to be photographed lifting weights. (He looked good at it too.)
This history was much on my mind as I recently read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (More exactly: as I listened to it on long bike rides with my wife through the farm country of Prince Edward County, Ontario.)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been a blue-state bestseller over the past three years, summoning educated Americans to a closer engagement with the origins of the food they eat. Pollan wittily marches readers up and down the food chains that lead to four finished meals: a McDonald’s family feast consumed in a car on a California freeway, an organic dinner made from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods, a dinner whose ingredients come from a single farm, and a dinner that the author hunted and foraged for himself.
Along the way, Pollan introduces readers to the vast American system of industrial agriculture: to the effects of farm subsidies and the operations of agribusiness — to the health and wellness effects of processed foods and excess fats and sugars — to the moral and economic tradeoffs embedded in all our eating, including the eating that goes by the name of “organic.”
Pollan lives in Berkeley, teaches journalism, and used to edit Harper’s. That’s a biography demarked with red flags for the conservative reader. Pollan cannot resist the occasional grand pronouncement about “capitalism” and its machinations. That’s an irritatingly unconsidered remark. Pollan’s hopes for a different kind of agriculture rests exactly and wholly upon the wealth generated by free markets. It demands a very high level of per-capita income to afford milk at $3.79 per half gallon.
Unconsidered remarks aside, however, Pollan’s work ought to appeal to the market-minded reader. Pollan does some of his best work identifying the wasteful externalities concealed by agricultural subsidies. The corn that feeds Walmart’s cows may be genuinely cheaper than the grass that nourishes the cows yielding my expensive milk. But it’s not quite so much cheaper as the Walmart shopper thinks. The price of a bushel of corn averaged $2.74 between 2002 and 2007. But the federal government guarantees a price closer to $4. The difference comes in the form of a check from the federal Treasury.
There are other externalities too in American agriculture. The one that worries me most is the as yet unexacted cost of the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. As antibiotics are used more, bacteria mutate to defeat them. By some estimates, 18,000 Americans died last year from drug-resistant infections. The routine use of antibiotics to defeat the infections that arise in overcrowded and under-sanitary feedlots is an important accelerant to the evolution of drug-resistant superbugs. If milk at $3.79 saves you from untreatable illness, you might think it a more economical purchase than it looks at first.
Preventable suffering of animals could also be regarded as an externality. Americans care about the animals they know: It’s estimated that Americans spend some $40 billion a year on the care of their pets. Yet the cow or pig you eat is as intimate a part of your life as the dog or cat with which you live. If Americans understood what the lives of those cows or pigs looked like, I wonder whether they would begrudge the extra cents per pound it would cost to ameliorate these animals’ living conditions. As wealth increases and living standards improve, that price becomes easier to pay — and harder to justify not paying.
One of my favorite passages in Matt Scully’s Dominion makes the point that more advanced societies can afford to abandon practices that were once essential. Eskimos might have no choice but to harpoon whales. We do. In the same way, food practices that can be justified in a poorer era that struggled to make meat accessible to the poor at all may cease to be justified in an era when the average American eats a pound and a quarter of beef per week — and when poorer Americans eat more beef than richer Americans do.
That last point raises the issue in the American diet that deserves greatest concern: its effect not on the eaten, but on the eaters.
Half of adult Americans are obese. (Two-thirds are overweight.) Among under-19s, about one in three is overweight and one in six obese.
Americans are much fatter than they were a generation ago. While obesity is a gathering problem through the developed world, America is home to a greater proportion of dangerously fat people than any other country.
Obesity and its common health consequence diabetes account for about one health dollar in nine spent in the United States. While the obese live about as long as everybody else, they suffer many more health problems through life, from bad knees to depression to cardiovascular disease.
Behind this trend are many causes. The spread of fast food is one obvious one. Teenagers now eat typically between 3 and 4 fast-food meals a week, with each additional fast food meal being associated with weight gains of between 0.9 and 1.7 pounds, depending on the length of time the eater has been consuming fast food.
Federal subsidies to corn, federal tariffs against sugar, and genuine improvements in the efficiency of corn production have together created a new market in super-cheap corn sweeteners. They show up in everything from sodas to toothpaste. These new sweeteners have not displaced sugar — Americans simply added corn. In 1967, the average American consumed an already excessive 114 pounds of sweeteners, per year, almost all of it in the form of cane sugar. By 2003, the sweetener ration had jumped past 140 pounds, more than 60 pounds of it in the form of corn sweeteners. Soda pop seems to be the prime culprit: the average American now drinks nearly a gallon of soda per week.
When I wrote about this problem in my book Comeback and proposed that conservatives ought to take it seriously as a public health issue, an offended National Review reviewer was led to question whether I still had any conservative instincts at all.
And yet obesity — and especially child obesity — is at least as proper a subject of government concern from a conservative point of view as single parenthood. Conservatives correctly realize that a society with a lot of single parents will require a bigger welfare state. Since conservatives prefer a smaller welfare state, conservatives have a stake in sustainable family patterns. Yet obesity also creates a demand for government programs, even more directly and expensive than the costs of single parenthood. Here’s a paper from the Texas Department of Human Services that estimates that Type 2 diabetes accounts for 9% of the state’s Medicaid budget, about $192 million per year. If diabetes continues to increase at the current trend line, by 2030 the disease will consume somewhere between 13% and 20% of the state’s Medicaid budget. Since that budget is likely to grow substantially (DHS hypothesizes by between 6 and 8 times), the paper projects that type 2 diabetes will cost the state more than $1.5 billion per year by 2030. If that’s not a public health crisis, what is?
The policy response to this crisis is not obvious. And yet there are some immediate steps that make sense. State governments should ban soda machines from schools. Local governments should adopt zoning ordinances that prevent the siting of fast-food restaurants within 1000 yards of schools. (Research suggests that the near presence of a fast-food restaurant causes a 5% increase in student obesity.) Impose a steep excise tax on high-fructose corn syrup.
Over the medium term, Congress should work to shift federal aid to agriculture away from supports for specific crops — corn, soy etc. — to subsidies for the use of land for farming of any kind.
In the end, however, the impact of public policy will likely prove modest. Conversely, the more responsible approach to food and nature recommended by Michael Pollan and his admirers is the very epitome of conservative individualism and personal responsibility.
I sometimes get invitations to conservative “smokers” — evenings where money is raised for a conservative cause over martinis, thick corn-fed steaks, and three courses of cigars. Think for a minute of the message embedded in such evenings: “Come support a politics that will kill you!”
We live at a time when it is becoming possible for human beings to live well and strong for longer than ever imagined — when children can enjoy the company of parents, grandchildren of grandparents for decades of activity and joy. Industrial agriculture offered abundance at an environmental and health price. The advance of technology now permits us to transform an agriculture of quantity into one of quality with greater health as the surprising prize. Conservatives celebrate the total quality revolution in manufactures as a great American achievement. Why not in food too?
Drop the fried nuggets, and put on the walking shoes; push away the super-sized burger and rediscover the taste of real beef. Of course conservatives respect the freedom to make bad choices. But why celebrate bad choices? Why accept obesity and coronary disease as “conservative”? Why dismiss health and wellbeing as liberal? Don’t conservatives champion the “culture of life”? Then what on earth are we doing with cigars in our mouths and colas in our cupholders?