But nutrition is only one aspect of a larger debate over America's entire food system. And production agriculture has been blamed for everything from pollution of the nation's waterways to Americans' ever-increasing waistline.
Market to Market recently caught up with two of the drama's protagonists: Michael Pollan, an outspoken critic of America's food system who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma; and Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer who countered Pollan with a piece he calls The Omnivore's Delusion.
Producer Andrew Batt examined the merits of production agriculture with both men and filed this report.
Whether he's deemed the enemy of production agriculture or the savior of the local food movement, Michael Pollan seems to provoke passionate opinions in every corner of American agriculture.
Michael Pollan: "My message is this: Our food system is broken. It's not serving consumers and it's not serving farmers. Farmers have to get much bigger to get even. Farmers are not making a lot of money and they are dependent on federal subsidies. There is this flood of cheap food which turns out to not be a good thing. And we as consumers have a massive obesity problem." (6:40 in)
Pollan's critique of what he calls a broken "food empire" received national praise with the release of his New York Times bestselling novel: The Omnivore's Dilemma. The self-described "History of Four Meals" chronicles the food trail from dinner plate back to farm gate. He's also a major contributor for the controversial documentary FOOD Inc.
Whether it's corn-fed beef…corn-fed pork…or high fructose corn syrup…Pollan concludes that the backbone of America's diet can almost always be traced to one place: A Midwestern cornfield.
Pollan: "I have nothing against corn per se. It's what we're doing with it that is troubling. Feeding it to our cars. To our cattle. But some of the best pork I've ever had was fed on Iowa corn. Pigs should eat Iowa corn…I don't know about cattle though."
Pollan's critique of a core commodity like corn is not well received in many farm circles. Even less popular are his views that a western diet based heavily on processed corn and soy products is the leading cause of obesity in America.
The National Corn Growers Association calls his views "naïve and dangerous." And one Missouri farmer received national attention for his online rebuttal.
Blake Hurst: "We do have a problem with obesity in this country. I'm not sure how that's the fault of agriculture or how that's my fault."
If you type Blake Hurst into any online search engine, chances are you'll find an article entitled "The Omnivore's Delusion." Despite his public condemnation of what he calls agri-intellectuals, the third-generation Missouri farmer is no scholarly lightweight. And he sees trouble on the horizon for conventional agriculture.
Blake Hurst, Westboro, MO: "We can have this whole ethical debate of how we're going to eat. Do I think they're going to outlaw Roundup tomorrow? No. But is the trend moving away from my way of life. Yes. I think we're in trouble. We're not sexy."
In his online column, Hurst blasts what he deems a growing movement to "turn back the clock" to prior generations of production agriculture.
Hurst writes: "I'm so tired of people who wouldn't visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food. Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is."
Pollan: "I think it sounds good but what does that mean exactly? The image that industrial agriculture has blazed all these trails and that organic agriculture is stuck in 1920 is simply not reflected in the facts. There is a lot of debate about the yield drag between conventional and organic. It's shrinking and it's not all that big anymore."
In Pollan's view, the conventional versus organic debate has been deeply distorted by corporate advocates of biotechnology. And he adamantly rejects the notion that widespread organic production would siphon the global food supply.
Pollan: "Farmers know about a pig and a poke and GMOs have been a pig and a poke. The constant repetition that you need GMOs to feed the world leaves the impression in the public mind that they get higher yield. Maybe they will but right now they don't.
That's a very interesting proposition and I challenge anyone to prove it. But so far genetically-modified crops have not resulted in increases in yield."
An April 2010 study released by the National Academy of Sciences runs contrary to many of Pollan's claims against biotech seed. According to the research, biotech crops have lowered production costs, reduced the use of pesticides, and have generated better yields than non-biotech counterparts.
But the data also reveals some cause for concern. The report, compiled by the National Research Council, cautions that weed and insect-resistant crops could spawn the evolution of more invasive weed varieties.
Blake Hurst: "I don't think it's realistic to feed 6 billion people with no technology. We can't do it. We have to have access to commercial fertilizer, pesticides, and we need to have access to genetically modified seed. He objects to all these things.
I'm still waiting for the organic idea I can use on my farm in Missouri to accomplish what I need to raise a crop."
Missouri farmer Blake Hurst and Food Author Michael Pollan may seem like classic protagonists in an all-or-nothing battle for the future of agriculture. But neither can be pigeon-holed easily. Hurst grew up on the same land his father and grandfather farmed throughout the past century. Nearly 30 years ago, with encouragement from his wife Julie, embarked on a modest greenhouse operation. Hurst Greenery has blossomed into more than 2 climate-controlled acres and now distributes flowers and produce to customers hundreds of miles away.
While the white greenhouses stand in stark contrast to hundreds of acres of cropland, it's the kind of on-farm diversity championed by author Michael Pollan. But Hurst argues few rural entrepreneurs can cash in on the notion of local products without industrial practices.
Hurst: "I'm a lot of miles from a very large consumer market and my produce has to be handled industrially. Nobody is going to drive out here from Kansas City 120 miles away to shop every Saturday."
Pollan: "We're not going to go back to an all local agriculture. I don't think we have enough farmland close to the cities to do it. And I don't know that people want it. But I think the emphasis will shift."
Pollan contends that his multiple books have spawned a public caricature of a Berkley, California-vegetarian-journalist in favor of organics for all people – whether they like it or not. But he argues many are surprised to learn that the West-coast food author loves meat – as long as his beef is grass-fed and his free-range chickens are organically produced. His bestselling novel, The Omnivore's Dilemma even criticizes the trendy organic supermarket chain, Whole Foods, for portraying a fictional image of farmers and opines that "industrialization will cost organic its soul."
Pollan (at Luther speech): "Now this is great. Weight Watchers twinkies. An amazing product of food science."
Pollan is riding a wave of public support as he criss-crosses the country giving speeches on college campuses, debuting new books, and championing a new food model for America. His slogan: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
But outside of more organic and local foods, what federal policy changes does Pollan propose?
Pollan: "If you gave me an opportunity to rewrite the farm bill I honestly wouldn't know what to do. I would start by saying to America's farmers that were not going to cut your payments but we're going to ask you to do something else for them then we have so far.
We reward them by the bushel. We don't support prices. I have no doubt that if we were to change the goals of this system and the incentives were to produce food with a minimum amount of fossil fuel. To produce more of what I call real food and less edible food-like substances or processed foods. To take care of the water and soil, then our farmers will figure out a way to do it."
From his perspective, Blake Hurst argues federal subsidies have provided anti-farmer fodder for critics for far too long. But he contends no matter what social or political changes may be on the horizon, cheap food is a moral imperative.
Blake Hurst: "Farmers like to say the average American likes to spend only 10 percent of their income on food. But more importantly, the bottom fifth of the population spends over a third of income on food. To those folks food is expensive right now. How can we in good conscience adopt a system that is going to raise prices by 20, 30, maybe 100 percent?"
For two men on largely opposite sides of the agricultural spectrum, they do agree on one point: Food is everybody's business.
The battle for hearts and minds – And pocketbooks – is just beginning.
For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.