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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cooking Up Healthcare Reform

Air Date: Week of

Michael Pollan’s newest book.

The number of diet-related illnesses in the United States is growing. Author and journalism professor Michael Pollan says many of these diseases are preventable. He tells host Steve Curwood that improving U.S. agricultural practices and incentives could improve the way we eat, and reduce what we spend on medical care.


CURWOOD: Though the focus of the upcoming UN and G20 summits will be on climate change, at the moment, health care reform is dominating debate on Capitol Hill. But if you ask author Michael Pollan, he’ll tell you climate change and health care are closely related.

Our sugar- and fat-laden diet is based on fossil fuel, he says, and when you add up the global warming gases from agriculture, it’s more than what comes out of cars and trucks. Two out of three Americans are overweight, and that costs the health system billions of dollars a year. And Michael Pollan says if we want to cut health care costs and help save the planet it’s time to stop subsidizing the industrial production of junk food.

POLLAN: We’re very concerned, and rightly so, about soaring health care costs. We’re spending about $2.3 trillion on health, which is about twice as much as people do in Europe, and in Europe they have a healthier population. The focus in our discussions about this health care cost crisis has all been about the inefficiencies built into the system.

And I don’t think we’re paying enough attention to the factors outside of the system that are causing us to be so unhealthy. We have soaring rates of preventable chronic diseases. One of the big expenses for the health care system now, and certainly going forward, is type-II diabetes. Type-II diabetes is caused by several factors, but, uh, large shots of glucose to the metabolism are a very important one of them.

And you’ve got adolescents in this country that are on average getting 15 percent of their calories today from soda. Most of the experts that have looked at the question say that if you could reduce soda consumption – and not just soda, but all sweetened beverages: ice tea, Gatorade, all those products – you would help with that problem, and you would save an awful lot of money because every case of type-II diabetes costs on average about more than about $7,000 a year to treat, to maintain. And the mystery is why don’t we talk more about this as we’re debating our health care system?

CURWOOD: And why don’t we talk about this?

POLLAN: I think part of it is that it seems incredibly difficult to people to tackle the food system. It’s a more entrenched and powerful industry, even than the health care system. Uh, in the case of reforming health care you at least have all those powerful corporations that can’t afford their health insurance bills and they become allies of the president or congress in efforts to reform. Food – you don’t really have that yet. You have a situation where everybody likes cheap food, at least in the short term. So, I think what you need before you’re going to have a powerful movement to reform the food system is, in fact, the health insurance industry getting on your side.

And, that’s what I’m really hopeful about because if we do reform health care, even in a kind of diluted, mild way, and only get the insurance reforms that even the weakest bills provide for – which is to say, no more pre-existing conditions, that the insurance companies have to take everyone at the same price, and that they can’t toss you off the plan once you get sick. If we just get those three changes the health care insurers will recognize, I think overnight, that they have a powerful interest in preventing every case of type-II diabetes, every case of obesity, every case of heart disease. And they will then become powerful allies of the movement to reform the food system.

CURWOOD: How fair is it to point to the finger at the food industry, which supplies an abundance of inexpensive food, for what are basically unwise personal choices?

Michael Pollan

POLLAN: Well, you know, that’s the argument that the food industry has always used that it’s a matter of personal responsibility. There’s a whole lot of research to raise questions about that, and to point to the fact that people are manipulated by the way food is processed. But even if you don’t buy that, I think everyone can buy the fact that children are not in a position to exercise personal responsibility when it comes to their food choices.

And that there is a real ethical and moral question about marketing unhealthy foods to children, which happens, of course, routinely if you’ve ever turned on the Cartoon Network. You know, maybe children should be protected from the food marketing marketplace, but then you have another area here; if you have a dollar to spend in the supermarket you will find yourself – and you don’t have a lot of money – they way our system is set up, you can get more calories per dollar of junk food than you can of healthy food.

You can get 1,250 calories per dollar of chips or cookies but only 250 calories of carrots or broccoli. Um, that is due to the fact that the farm policies we have are favoring the really unhealthy calories. We subsidize corn and soy, which are really the building blocks of fast food. We subsidize feedlot meat, we do a lot to ensure that fast food is cheap. So, I think the personal responsibility argument breaks down pretty quickly and I think you really need to look at the environment in which we’re eating and the system that is dictating the choices that we supposedly have.

CURWOOD: So, how receptive is the Congress to a change in agricultural policy? What kind of political will is there for reform?

POLLAN: There’s very little in Congress, you know, at least on the two committees that powerfully control our agricultural policies, and those are the agricultural committees of the House and Senate. These committees are really strongly dominated by agri-business, they consist of farm state legislators for the most part, backed by a lot of money from food manufacturers and buyers of cheap agricultural commodities, and they reflect those interests. And they need to represent eaters as well as farmers and food manufacturers.

CURWOOD: Michael Pollan, what relation does this debate over health care and food have to do with the question of sustainability?

POLLAN: Oh, it has everything to do with sustainability. I mean these problems are very closely linked. The problem as I see it in our food system is that as we have industrialized it, we have taken a system that is at its ecological heart, of course, a solar system. I mean the only way to get food calories is to use sunlight and photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates. I mean this is the basis of everything we eat.

You know, since World War II, we’ve increasingly replaced that solar energy with the power of fossil fuel. We use fossil fuels to make the fertilizers, to make the pesticides, to drive the farm machinery, and then to process the food and move it all around the world. In the process of doing this, we’ve moved toward a highly productive, highly efficient monocultures. So when you have that kind of agriculture, which is incredibly productive -- and we have to grant it its power to feed us very, very cheaply – it tends to push you in the direction of highly processed, very unhealthy food.

CURWOOD: So, you’re saying, change the way we eat and we can address climate change and be healthier and cut the cost of health care?

POLLAN: And reduce our fossil fuel consumption. It’s kind of amazing you could get all those benefits. But it won’t be easy to squeeze the fossil fuel out of the food system. Means going back to much more diversified farming, going back to more regional agriculture, and all of which is going to take a lot more farmers than we have right now. It won’t be easy, but in the same way we need to learn how to run an industrial civilization without cheap fossil fuel, because we can’t count on it in the future and we can’t afford what it’s doing to the climate; we’re gonna need to figure out how to run a food system using solar energy again.

Michael Pollan’s newest book.

CURWOOD: So how do you suggest we tackle our unhealthy eating habits? What practical policies need to be implemented?

POLLAN: I think we need to look at the set of incentives we have in our agricultural system. I think it’s important to understand that it’s not a free market system, that since the Depression, the government has played a very important role in the design and functioning of our food system. The incentives that we have designed for farmers, the way we support them with our subsidies, and other programs, has been to strongly encourage them to overproduce – to produce more corn, and soy, and wheat than we can eat.

The reason for that is, if you can get the farmers to overproduce, the price of food comes down, and the buyers of these cheap agricultural commodities, everybody from Coca Cola to KFC to McDonalds, you know, loves that because their raw material costs goes down. So, the challenge is then to design a set of incentives that gets them to grow more food rather than raw materials for fast food that gets them to take better care of the environment. In other words, that stresses quality of farming, rather than quantity of farming.

And then you’ve got what we can do as individuals, and what I call voting with your fork. For me that came, you know, I thought a lot about that and to the extent that we can eat real food, and not too much of it, and mostly plants. You’ll be doing a lot for your health and you’ll be doing a lot for the environment. So, our eating habits, you know, look, what happens on our plate represents our deepest, most powerful engagement with the rest of the world.

CURWOOD: Michael Pollan is a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”. Thank you so much, Michael.

POLLAN: Thank you, Steve, always a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Jefferson Airplane “Wild Thyme” from ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ (Legacy Records 2009)]

YOUNG: Well, just ahead we’ll talk with someone who’s tackling these food issues one school lunch at a time – the Renegade Lunch Lady. Stay with us on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living On Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund for coverage of population and the environment. And from Gilman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living On Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.



Click here to read Michael Pollan's article, “Big Food vs. Big Insurance,” in the New York Times.

For more on Michael Pollan, click here.


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