While I’ve not doubt that a vegan president-elect Kucinich would be closer to my views on the animals-we-call-food, it’s enheartening truly to see Obama talking about food policy with a true intellectual approach, trying to understand how environmental issues are mixed up with how “food” is produced.

First, to backtrack. Via ecorazzi ( Barack Obama Discusses the Dangers of Modern Factory Agriculture ) I read that Obama mentioned having read a recent Michael Pollan article in the NY Times, and that:

Obama is publicly acknowledging that factory farming contributes more to global warming than all our methods of transportation combined!

Following Ecorazzi’s lead, I went to the original post, on The New Republic ( Obama Channels Michael Pollan ), which claims that:

Obama chats with Time‘s Joe Klein and serves up some critical thinking on food policy, laying out the web of incentives and subsidies that distort our agricultural system.

They in turn linked “some critical thinking” to the full interview transcript at the Swampland blog at TIME ( The Full Obama Interview ), from which this quote is drawn:

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

Finally, in a link from the New Republic article, I found the original Pollan piece Obama referenced ( An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief ), in which Pollan says, among other things:

In fact there is nothing inherently efficient or economical about raising vast cities of animals in confinement. Three struts, each put into place by federal policy, support the modern CAFO, and the most important of these — the ability to buy grain for less than it costs to grow it — has just been kicked away. The second strut is F.D.A. approval for the routine use of antibiotics in feed, without which the animals in these places could not survive their crowded, filthy and miserable existence. And the third is that the government does not require CAFOs to treat their wastes as it would require human cities of comparable size to do. The F.D.A. should ban the routine use of antibiotics in livestock feed on public-health grounds, now that we have evidence that the practice is leading to the evolution of drug-resistant bacterial diseases and to outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella poisoning. CAFOs should also be regulated like the factories they are, required to clean up their waste like any other industry or municipality.

While Pollan’s no ethical vegan – and is resolutely clear about that throughout his work – at least he is pointing the way toward the artificial, politically and institutionally created machine that is modern farming, and that there isn’t anything “natural” or “inevitable” about the way it is carried out.

Pollan continues:

It will be argued that moving animals off feedlots and back onto farms will raise the price of meat. It probably will — as it should. You will need to make the case that paying the real cost of meat, and therefore eating less of it, is a good thing for our health, for the environment, for our dwindling reserves of fresh water and for the welfare of the animals. Meat and milk production represent the food industry’s greatest burden on the environment; a recent U.N. study estimated that the world’s livestock alone account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than all forms of transportation combined. (According to one study, a pound of feedlot beef also takes 5,000 gallons of water to produce.) And while animals living on farms will still emit their share of greenhouse gases, grazing them on grass and returning their waste to the soil will substantially offset their carbon hoof prints, as will getting ruminant animals off grain. A bushel of grain takes approximately a half gallon of oil to produce; grass can be grown with little more than sunshine.

Indeed! While I’d love to see recognition of the ethical rationale behind veganism and animal rights, I also think it’s important for people to understand the broader impact of the “standard American diet” and then connect those impacts to the choices you make every single time you sit down to a meal.

One issue which potentially gets lost in the translation from Pollan’s piece back up to the Ecorazzi article. The U.N. study doesn’t specifically say, I’d argue, that livestock production accounts for more greenhouse gas production than all forms of transportation combined “as a consequence” of “the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil.” The U.N. report is more focused on the consequences and environmental impacts of the food system, not what drives it to be that way.

It may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I think anyone serious about these issues needs to dive into the report itself, not just popularized reporting about it.

At the end of the day, it gives me continued hope that the conversation is even occuring, and that the next President of the United States is cognizant of and apparently taking quite seriously the connections between confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs), the health care crisis, and the environmental crisis – and the fact that federal policy can and should impact those crises.