Michael Pollan to the President-Elect

Michael Pollan has penned another hard-hitting missive about how food is destroying our health.

The one-man food policy think-tank and author of such gems as The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food published a letter in the New York Times. It begins:
Dear Mr. President-Elect,

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.
Pollan emphasizes that the old approach to agriculture, which has increasingly relied on cheap petroleum, is no longer sustainable, which he says:
Brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to make the reform of the entire food system one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them.
Pollan also highlights the zero-sum game whereby we have spent increasingly less on food and increasingly more on healthcare since the 1960s. In 1960, he says we spent 5% of our income on healthcare and 18% on food; today it's 16% on healthcare and less than 10% on food. Along with the availability of cheap, nutrient-free calories, the 1980s USDA Food Pyramid (aka the Pasta Pyramid) marketed them beautifully, launching an epidemic of the diseases it was designed to prevent: heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and obesity. Quadruple ooops! In Pollan's words:
While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. You cannot expect to reform the health care system, much less expand coverage, without confronting the public-health catastrophe that is the modern American diet.
My prose is inadequate to paraphrase more of Pollan's excellent letter. Just read it.

Pictured above, your editor and Michal Pollan at Stanford after his In Defense of Food talk. 

Note to self: Always wear make-up when in public as you never know with whom you'll have a photo op.


Salome said...

Among the eight components of a CSHP model are Physical Education and Family and Community Involvement. GAO studies show that the program strategy identified by experts as most important to prevent or reduce childhood obesity is "increasing physical activity," and that parental and social support for physical activity is associated with increased physical activity. http://www.phentermine-effects.com

Alix said...

Hey, guess what? Treehugger reports that Obama read Pollan's essay and actually spoke about it recently! woo hooo! Pollan apparently refused to summarize it into a couple pages for Obama, saying that if he could have made the point in fewer than 8,000 words, he would have.

Anonymous said...

Just happened upon your site and I must respectfully point you in the right direction regarding a post you had a while back about CT scanning and cancer risk. As an individual with some background in radiologic research, I can ASSURE you and your readers that the Brenner study that you spoke about was conducted using doses that are MUCH, MUCH higher than today's pediatric protocols. They used the average of adult and pediatric doses from 1996-2000. Doses have been reduced considerably! Parents need not worry about any CT studies done on their children as long as the diagnostic studies were carried out at a facility that employs pediatric protocol. Also, if you read the entirety of the study (not just what the fear-mongering media put out in articles) you will find that the study's authors explicitly note that the doses used in the study WERE NOT PEDIATRIC DOSES! The study's authors also state that it is very difficult to extrapolate risk that small (on the order of 0.08% and lower). In other words, no one knows if ANY risk even exists! Please, please, please gets facts straight.

Anonymous said...

I just re-read what I wrote above regarding CT doses, etc, and felt that it may have come off as rude. I certainly did not mean for it to sound rude. Instead, I hope that my above comment will shed some light on the facts of the study itself, as the media did not really get it right! You are correct to state that it is best to limit exposure, however, for those children and adults that undergo CT scanning for medical necessity, there is no need to worry - radiologists and physicists understand the concerns and have moved quickly to reduce protocols, thereby protecting patients. At the doses used today, the risk is so minimal (again, if there even is one) that it would definitely not be something to lose any sleep over!

Alix said...

Anonymous, thanks for pointing out that the doses in the study are no longer used. there was no way I could have known that and am glad to know the risk for children was not based on pediatric doses.

Still, I'm going avoid as much radiation as possible, no matter how small the dose, ionizing radiation accumulates over a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Alix - thank you for your response. Yes, the doses are much lower now, and even for those children who had scans "back in the day" when those study numbers were gathered, if it was done at a facility that routinely scans children, they would have used pediatric protocols instead of those quoted in the study!

I am one who appreciates the media in most cases, but am regretful that in this instance, the facts of the study were grossly misrepresented by many mainstream media outlets (USA Today, etc). I believe that the ability to accurately read a medical study and responsibly relay that information is an acquired skill that takes much time to perfect, and unfortunately, the media totally missed the mark with this one.

I am glad to recommend a site that may allay many unfounded fears. Try the Health Physics Society. www.hps.org They are a wonderful resource for all things radiologically related and is considered a leading authority.

The study served a good purpose in that it did bring attention to those hospitals/facilities that were not implementing pediatric protocol, as well as bringing the cumulative effect concern to the attention of the companies that manufacture such equipments (X-rays, CT, therapeutic radiation, etc). I assure you that they did respond by lowering the radiation dose necessary to acquire an acceptable image and also provided standard pediatric dosing information and software that adjusts automatically during any given scan so that the absolute lowest dose possible is administered. When used appropriately (as in doing one or two scans in a series instead of multiple and of course using appropriate doses), CT scanning is an invaluable tool for diagnosticians. No one is arguing that we mustn't be mindful of radiation dose... that goes without saying. However, there is much controversy as to whether or not there actually IS a risk at these low doses to begin with.

That said, it's also imperative that I point out that the linear no-threshold (LNT) theory that this study is based on is controversial and is not accepted by many leading authorities. It is just that: a theory. So, in essence, the risk could be ZERO. But, as you know, any responsible medical community must treat each situation as if there is some inherent risk. Again, it is certainly not something that any parent, or adult for that matter, should lose sleep over! It is just best, as you mentioned, to keep things to a minimum as life progresses.

The human body is an amazing thing, provided that it is properly cared for (as your blog rightly suggests!). We are born with some tremendous defense mechanisms that can handily overcome a vast array of insults. Our cells are bombarded by insults every second of the day, any one of which *may* eventually lead to carcinogenesis. The beauty of our human bodies is that we are able to innately recover and heal. This is why of the children who undergo cranial radiation therapy for leukemia (on the order of 1800 cgy, as per a children's hospital) only very, very few develop secondary malignancies later on in life. To put that number in perspective, a single head CT to a young child is usually on the order of about 2.5 cgy (or less that 2 msv), according to the National Cancer Institute. That is a whopping 720 times less!

I apologize for being so long-winded... this is a very important subject in healthcare today. Again, you are correct that radiation is cumulative and that it is prudent to minimize exposure. But it is my hope that this again sheds some light on a very misunderstood subject!

Kelly said...

A friend of mine works at Voce with Stacy Libby who recommended your blog. I'm really glad I checked it out, as I am an avid fan of Michael Pollan. I've had the opportunity to see him speak on a couple of occasions, so yes, to your point, I think you can have a crush on someone's brain. :)

His point is well taken. As a holistic health counselor and someone that follows politics, it is clear to me that health should be on the forefront of any political figures agenda. In addition to food becoming a central issue that will need to be addressed in the next administration, the health of the average american will need attention as well. For us to grow as a nation we have got to focus on this issue.

You see the result of our neglect in our everyday life. You see it on the playgrounds with the obese children, the rates of disease that are being brought back to what we are eating, and the list goes on.

How fantastic would it be for the next Obama to create a cabinet position dealing with the health of America? If the nation as a whole were to be more healthy we would have less expensive health care, children eager to learn that are not bogged down on pharmaceuticals, and not to mention--plain happier people.

Thank you for bringing this letter to my attention. Looking forward to reading more!

Alix said...

Anonymous, thank you so much for your very level-headed information and analysis regarding CT dangers being less than what was portrayed in that study. That's exactly why I have this blog, so at least in the back and forth, the truth can come out. Your information is very comforting to know, and I agree, CT is an invaluable diagnostic tool, just one of those things -- even knowing it's more safe than that one study portrayed -- I will definitely keep to a minimum for me and my kids.

Did you see the new news from the FDA with their internal whistle-blowers accusing colleagues of approving unsafe medical devices - one article called out mammography in particular, but I haven't dug deeper to see what it's all about.

Alix said...

Kelly, thanks for finding me and stopping by. Great to have you here!!

Backpacking Dad said...

Not sure if you're still writing here or not, but I wanted to stop by and tell you how nice it was to meet you at Stefania's on Inauguration Day.

Also? OMG am changing eating habits right now! :}

Gotta eat what your people ate before agriculture met advertising. I suppose in my case that means, um, Indian corn, game birds, fish, and pine nuts.


jh said...

Thanks for the post. I feel as though Michael Pollen will be toward the food revolution as Rachel Carlson (Silver Spring) was for environmental pollution. I have let several people borrow my copy of the Omnivore's Dilemma and every single person has changed their relationship to food because of it.

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