Omnivore Author for Agriculture Secretary?

Omnivore Author for Agriculture Secretary?

As if candidate Obama wasn’t served enough grief with his arugula during the campaign, his supporters are now petitioning President-elect Obama to appoint Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan as Secretary of Agriculture. A celebrated nature writer, author of the award-winning The Omnivore’s Dilemma and current bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, foodie demigod Pollan recently wrote to Mr. Obama about food policy, and shared the letter with a few friends via the New York Times Magazine.

A talented, insightful writer, Mr. Pollan might be a valuable advisor for more rational food policy, but his appointment as Agriculture Secretary is simply not on the table.

Michael Pollan has elaborated Wendell Berry’s observation that “eating is an agricultural act,” following the food chain backwards from plate to plow, urging eaters to avert ecological disaster by demanding better foodstuffs. The practical utility of this claim is not at issue here; neither is Mr. Pollan’s lack of administrative experience. A Pollan appointment is simply not on the menu due to the scope of USDA’s mission and the facts of political life.

Agriculture is not just about food, and neither is USDA. The department’s mission includes virtually all aspects of food, fiber, and forest products, conditions in the rural areas that produce them, and the concerns of rural Americans, farmers, growers, ranchers, packers, processors, distributors, and consumers. The breadth of this mission, international in scope, has transformed USDA into a conglomerate of 17 Agencies and 12 Offices dealing with imports and exports, inspection, legal compliance, rural economic development, credit, loan, and insurance programs, commodities, forest and grassland ecology, and more.

What you put on your plate and in your belly, Mr. Pollan’s focal point, has little to do with most of these issues. Michael Pollan could certainly make valuable contributions to several USDA agencies (Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion [CNPP], Office of Communications [OC]), but overall department leadership is well beyond his experience, interests, and concerns. Does he even want the job?

There are also political realities. Mr. Obama prevailed in Iowa despite the Arugula Factor, winning the caucus and general election, but most agricultural states in the South and Mid-America voted for his opponent. The new administration will need the cooperation of “Red State” Congressional delegations to achieve its goals at home and abroad. Appointing a consumer-oriented agricultural theorist to head USDA will not win Congressional friends in farm country.

Omnivore Author for Agriculture Secretary?

Foodies bristle at the observation that their views are not shared in lower socio-economic strata, but the fact is well-known to our leaders. Mr. Obama followed his arugula gaffe with praise of Philly cheesesteak, Senator Clinton campaigned by downing boilermakers, and Governor Palin endorsed Diet Dr Pepper. These items are not on the menu  at Chez Panisse and other Berkeley eateries where Mr. Pollan is revered. The voting may be over, but 21st century campaigns never end.

Mr. Obama needs to eschew elitist appearances to maintain popular support among burger-eating Real Americans in this time of economic peril. A Berkeley professor who tells Twinkie-chomping citizens what to eat would be an indigestible Agriculture appointment.

Image by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

11 Responses to “Omnivore Author for Agriculture Secretary?”

  1. Mike Licht Says:

    UPDATE: There is a thoughtful list of USDA secretary candidates on the DC blog Gherkins & Tomatoes, though the names listed as “People Who Should Stay Far Away From Food and Farms” and “People Who are Acceptable or ‘Not So Bad'” are the most likely Obama appointees.

    As a former Austin resident, I realize the entertainment value of a Secretary Jim Hightower would be high, but his appointment would likely incite secession of all those square states in the middle of America.

  2. ryanhottle Says:

    Recommending Michael Pollan for Secretary of Agriculture isn’t about “elitist foodies,” it’s about turning around an insanely unsustainable food system into one that can weather the coming storms of peak oil, economic collapse, and global climate change. Casting Pollan against “burger-eating Real Americans” is a cop out for actually examining the specific policy recommendations he is suggesting. While we don’t even know if Pollan wants the recommendation or whether he is up to it, let’s talk about the issues of food and agriculture policy instead of just spreading propaganda about supposed elitism.

  3. Mike Licht Says:

    ryanhottle says: [snip] Casting Pollan against “burger-eating Real Americans” is a cop out [snip]

    I hesitated mentioning this, but what do you think all that Arugula Factor buzz was about? Don’t blame the messenger.

    [snip]we don’t even know if Pollan wants the recommendation [snip]

    So why waste everybody’s time with this petition stuff?

    [snip]or whether he is up to it[snip]

    He’s clearly not. Is he good at what he does do? Most certainly. Is what he does valuable? Of course. If you are really interested in the actual USDA appointment, recognize that Mr. Pollan should not be on the short list.

    [snip] let’s talk about the issues of food and agriculture policy [snip]

    I hate to tell you this, but your single-issue interest is not on the front burner right now. Is it important? Yes. Is the time ripe? No. See who is appointed Ag Sec and act (or react) accordingly.

  4. Mike Licht Says:

    Update:

    Does Michael Pollan want to be White House Food Policy Czar?

    That would be more appropriate than Ag Sec.

    Jim Hightower wouldn’t be a bad FPC, either — he’s worked on the Hill and knows what to do. Humor, of questionable value to administrators, is a great tool for advisors.

    Hat tip: Kerri Conan

  5. cbertel Says:

    I agree that the people who should not be associated with agriculture probably will be the most likely people to do so. That’s disappointing to contemplate, but I will continue to hope for the best.

    About Pollan: he is not qualified to be the Secretary of Agriculture. He is a journalist with great research skills, but that doesn’t translate to being in charge something as large as the USDA. As an advisor, though, he might be valuable in some instances.

    Pollan’s real value is that he’s opening up the discussion about agriculture, bringing it front and center on the national stage.

    My whole life has essentially centered around questions of agriculture — my father is a retired plant pathologist who worked for land-grant universities, my husband works at a land-grant university in agriculture, and I worked in Haiti on a food-consumption study as part of a USAID farming systems project.

    As a nutritionist, I know that Pollan’s reach extends pretty far among certain groups, but really, again, I say that he’s not remotely qualified to be the chief of the USDA. The single-issue focus (good point above in previous comment) just doesn’t work here. We as a nation need to deal with a broad range of issues.

  6. Mike Licht Says:

    cbertel says: [snip] About Pollan: he is not qualified to be the Secretary of Agriculture. He is a journalist with great research skills, but that doesn’t translate to being in charge something as large as the USDA. As an advisor, though, he might be valuable [snip]

    We agree; apparently Mr. Pollan does, too. While he has concerns about fish, perhaps he was angling for a job when he suggested creation of a Food Policy Czar position in the Obama White House. If so, I hope he lands it.

    [Ms. Bertelsen writes the tasty blog Gherkins & Tomatoes, which is highly recommended.]

  7. Secretary Pollan? - Bitten Blog - NYTimes.com Says:

    […] Interesting post on NotionsCapital.com (my old buddy Mike Licht) about the interesting but not-exactly-mainstream move to have Michael Pollan named Ag Secretary. […]

  8. foodbubbles Says:

    [snip] let’s talk about the issues of food and agriculture policy [snip]

    Mike Licht Says:
    [snip] I hate to tell you this, but your single-issue interest is not on the front burner right now. Is it important? Yes. Is the time ripe? No. See who is appointed Ag Sec and act (or react) accordingly. [snip]

    You (Licht) said it yourself, “Agriculture is not just about food…” You’re right, but I don’t think you extend the bubble as far as it needs to go when you say it also encompasses “imports and exports, inspection, legal compliance, rural economic development, credit, loan, and insurance programs, commodities, forest and grassland ecology, and more..”

    I don’t recommend Pollan for Ag Sec either, but I think that Obama has taken heed on many of the core issues that Pollan argues for. For instance, Obama sees that agricultural practices aren’t only about our domestic farm issues. Our practices are significantly linked to our fossil fuel usage/dependency. More importantly, hecan also see the far reaching consequences of our cheap oil and monocultures, especially their effects on our health.

    Our agricultural practices are anything but a “single-issue interest”.

  9. Mike Licht Says:

    foodbubbles Says: Our practices are significantly linked to our fossil fuel usage/dependency. . . . the far reaching consequences of our cheap oil and monocultures, especially their effects on our health.

    Given the way issues are construed, Foodie assertions cannot ever be tested. That makes them articles of faith, and our Constitution forbids the government from establishing a state religion. Unless a scientist takes the post, Mr. Pollan’s proposed White House Food Czar would actually be the Food Pope.

    Food-Faith assertions resist logic by constantly shifting premises. Dietary preferences are justified by rationalizations which dart from energy consumption to atmospheric gas production to macroeconomics to pocketbook issues to ecological issues to nature worship to personal food choices as expressions of religious faith. Point this out and you will hear confirmation of the spiritual nature of this orientation: “It’s all connected, man.” Whole-system hypotheses are eminently testable, but not if their representations are so amorphous.

    Preliminary studies do not seem to bear out the climate-change food-mile premise; the production of atmospheric carbon appears greatest in production and packing-processing phases, and transportation is relatively irrelevant (sorry, Locovores). Energy consumption in retailing, production, and home storage and preparation is greater than energy used in transportation, and retail refrigeration uses a great deal of electricity.

    Do current agricultural and food chain practices squander energy, create waste, damage the soil, and cause hunger and malnourishment? Certainly. But mistaking motivational literature for operating directions will only get us lost.

  10. Mike Licht Says:

    Update:

    See the informed exploration of this topic by Steph Larsen of the Center for Rural Affairs on the Ethicurean blog. Steph responds to commenters with sound advice: Get real, get active, and get people appointed to head Agencies and Offices within USDA who will work on sustainability.

  11. Obama’s worst move yet « Show Me Eats Says:

    […] be Secretary of Agriculture. Not that it ever was going to happen (or should have), but so much for Secretary Pollan, […]

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