Review: Michael Pollan’s “You Are What You Grow”

You’re probably fully satiated after reading so much about fat, but I think it’s important to finish this newsletter by summarizing an important article written for the New York Times by Michael Pollan, a journalist who writes about food economics and whose articles I’ve quoted before. The article, which is about the Farm Bill, is entitled “You Are what You Grow” you can find it on Pollan’s website. The Farm Bill is a piece of legislation renewed and updated every five years that authorizes the government to subsidize farmers’ crops. The beneficiaries of the subsidies are a small number of very large farms that grow primarily wheat, corn, soy, rice and cotton. These farms provide almost all of the nation’s food supply, whether in the form of processed foods that contain corn, wheat and soy as primary ingredients, or in the form of corn, wheat and soy feed given to farm animals raised for meat and dairy. Due to these subsidies, food manufacturers can sell foods containing the above–mentioned commodities, or meat that has been fed on them, at artificially low prices. Farmers who try to grow other crops such as green vegetables, root vegetables or even fruit are largely shut out, and the prices for their crops seem abnormally high. As Pollan points out in his article, a dollar spent at the supermarket can buy 875 calories of soda (essentially water and liquid corn sugar, aka high fructose corn syrup), but only 170 calories of a natural food, orange juice.

Look at the ingredients of almost any processed food and you’re likely to find wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil among the ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with wheat, corn and soy, but manufacturers have processed valuable nutrients and fiber out of them, so that they are low–density but high calorie. In other words, they don’t make you full, but they do make you fat. Lower–income people who can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables often have to turn to these high–calorie processed foods whether they like it or not, which can condemn them to both obesity and diabetes. They’re stuck buying meat and milk from animals that have been fed on corn and soy instead of grass, and they are stuck with poor quality vegetable oil. Even the middle class have to seriously budget if they want to eat plenty of good quality fat and meat.

If the government were choosing to help out farmers who are trying to grow other kinds of vegetables, who are growing fruit, and who are feeding their farm animals grass, everyone would be able to afford as much healthy food as they wanted to, in a second. Other societal problems might clear up as well. The artificially low price of our major crops, particularly corn, messes with other countries’ economies when we choose to export these commodities. Part of the reason why illegal immigration is such a problem, as Pollan illustrates, is that millions of Mexican farmers have been thrown out of business and off the land due to the fact that they can’t compete with the fake low price of imported excess American crops. Nevertheless the farm bill continues to reward massive farms based on the quantity of the crops that they grow that make us sick.

Some might say that the government has no business influencing the price of crops and ultimately food in this way. At one time, when most farms were small and could go under from just one bad year, it made more sense for the government to help them out. In the 1930s, there were six million individual farms. Now only 157,000 farms account for 72% of farm sales. These massive farms continue to influence government policy so that they keep getting their subsidies. As a result, people who buy food (that is, everybody) are not getting the option of participating in a true free market. The government is interfering in a way that makes it very hard for us to influence what farmers grow by spending our money on what we want.

Consumers are not powerless, though, and have already done a lot to change things; in many cases just by avoiding foods made with corn, wheat and soy altogether because we know they’re not good for our health and not a bargain at any price. As more people stop drinking soda and eating junk food, food manufacturers will stop trying to force these crops on us. For now, do your best to support local farms, whether through a farmer’s market or CSA, and fill up on foods that are not so high in calories but are still very filling. Although the farm bill doesn’t support it, good quality food will always be more satisfying than high quantity.