When President-elect Barack Obama chose former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as his secretary of agriculture, he praised Vilsack's knowledge of both agriculture and energy. But author Michael Pollan says the incoming administration's focus should be on food and the people who eat it.
Obama announced his selection Wednesday and touted Vilsack's credentials.
"As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision," Obama said, "promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use."
Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and a leader in the sustainable food movement, said Obama will not make progress on climate change or energy independence — or health care, for that matter — unless America's food system is included in the plan.
"The food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases," Pollan told NPR's Renee Montagne. "It is responsible for the catastrophic American diet that is leading 50 percent of us to suffer from chronic disease, and that drives up health care costs."
A secretary for food, Pollan said, could put the focus on diversifying America's farms and using local food sources around the nation.
But those topics weren't in the spotlight when Obama selected Vilsack to be agriculture secretary, said Pollan, who also wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire.
"I was very disappointed in that news conference," he said, "not to hear Vilsack use the word 'food' — or 'eaters.' And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land."
And so, he said, it's difficult not to see the choice of Vilsack as "agribusiness as usual."
In the months before Vilsack was picked for the post, Pollan wrote an article urging the president-elect to rename the Department of Agriculture as the Department of Food, led by a secretary of food. That did not happen Wednesday.
Pollan also saw "reasons to be cautiously hopeful" about Vilsack, pointing to his suggestion to cap subsidies and use the money gained to fund conservation efforts. Vilsack also has urged more food production on the local level.
But under the former governor, Iowa's feedlots expanded — and some localities lost the power to control where those feedlots are located, Pollan said.
"I'm hoping that now he will take a broader view," Pollan said.
As for the possibility that a change in America's agriculture priorities could raise the cost of food, Pollan said that other factors can also lead to higher prices.
"It's the embrace of corn-based ethanol that has driven up all food prices," Pollan said. "It's not making agriculture more sustainable."
And changing the food system could bring savings, he noted, citing Obama's recent mention of federal subsidies that are paid to wealthy farmers.
"I think if we could back off on ethanol, that will buy us a lot of wiggle room," Pollan said.
Although Obama and Vilsack have supported corn-based ethanol production in the past, a challenge may come from elsewhere within the new Obama administration, Pollan said. "The new secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a pretty fierce critic of corn-based ethanol," he said, "and I would imagine will be arguing for moving away from corn as a feedstock for ethanol, toward other crops.
Pollan says he hopes those crops won't compete with food crops. Viable alternatives to corn-based ethanol could include trees and crop waste — even grasses, he said.
"And whether Vilsack and Obama are ready to go there remains to be seen," Pollan said. "But certainly, Steven Chu will be pushing them that way."