Food Activist john robbins and author michael pollan speak at a public event called, “Every Body Eats,” about topics including Prop 37, the election and the globalized food system. Photo by Mikaela Todd

American energy independence, rising health-care costs, environmental degradation and national security. What do all these things have in common?

A troubled relationship with the food we eat and how it’s grown, at least according to best-selling author, veteran food journalist and sustainability spokesman Michael Pollan. Pollan addressed a sold-out crowd at Santa Cruz High School on Oct. 25 as the featured speaker in a panel discussion on food and its future.

Titled “Every Body Eats,” the discussion was sponsored by Slowcoast and Sustainable Santa Cruz with all proceeds going to the Homeless Garden Project (HGP), a local nonprofit.

In addition to Pollan, speakers included: Jamie Smith, manager of Food Services and Nutrition for Santa Cruz’s public schools, Darrie Ganzhorn, director of the HGP, Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards, Jim Cochran, owner and founder of Swanton Berry Farm, and Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist. The event was moderated by food activist John Robbins, author of “Diet For a New America.”

The night’s first topic was Proposition 37, the controversial ballot initiative that would implement mandatory labeling on all food products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) in California.

“I think it’s a real moment of truth for the food movement,” Pollan said. “Up until now we’ve been voting with our forks, and that’s great, but it’s not the same as voting with our votes. And this is a chance to do just that.”

Pollan said even though the level of public interest in food related issues has never been higher — citing the recent surge in farmer’s markets and the organic craze — those issues still command very little respect in Washington D.C. Although President Obama quoted an article Pollan wrote describing the links between food, healthcare, energy and the environment in a speech, Pollan said the President “still hasn’t decided the time is right to invest political capital in these issues.”

Pollan said Prop 37 could change that.

“This is an opportunity to demonstrate that there are actually votes behind this movement,” Pollan said. “This is our chance to make him do it.”

Pollan and Robbins both acknowledged that the fate of the proposition is far from certain. A recent poll showed only 44 percent of California voters support the measure while 42 percent oppose it, a far cry from the 2–1 margin it enjoyed as recently as September. At the heart of that change is an “advertising blitz,” according to the the LA times, against the proposition by its detractors. So far the “No on 37” campaign has outspent Prop 37’s supporters $41 million to $7 million.

“The food industry understands what’s at stake here, that’s why they’re spending a million dollars a day against it,” Pollan said. “What’s at stake is that the public wants to have a say in how their food is produced.”

The panelists also discussed what they see as the broad shortcomings of the U.S. industrial agriculture system and its consequences.

Pollan began his critique with the vast farms specializing in single crops that form the backbone of the industrial agricultural system, a recent development that he views as a long-term challenge to the stability of the system.

“Instead of placing one big bet with regards to how our food is grown, we need to make lots of smaller bets,” Pollan said. “There’s a resilience in diversity, and currently that’s being undermined.”

Robbins emphasized the inequity of distribution within the globalized food system, noting that roughly one billion people worldwide are underfed while another one billion are overweight.

“So there’s this kind of macabre mirror image, a billion here, a billion there, and soon you’re talking about a tragedy of epic proportions,” Robbins said. “The food on our plates ends up touching all these different areas of our lives.”

Pollan said the next president could take a major step toward addressing each of these issues by shifting government support away from industrial agriculture and toward local, sustainable alternatives.

Use less machinery, petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides in our agriculture, Pollan said, and the U.S. could significantly decrease its dependence on oil. Pollan added that the U.S. agricultural system currently uses more fossil fuel than any sector of the economy other than cars.

By promoting a healthier diet centered around fresh produce and removing subsidies that artificially deflate the price of processed food, Pollan said the U.S. could make progress in combating health care costs, the bulk of which are caused by preventable diseases linked to diet and lifestyle.

“It’s a deeply dysfunctional system at the moment,” Pollan said. “There are other ways to do it and that’s what we’re trying to build.”

Pollan said although the government can provide important incentives for moving the U.S. in the direction he described, in the end the task will ultimately fall upon the shoulders of the next generation.

Jamie Smith, manager of Food Services and Nutrition for Santa Cruz city schools, said he is already hopeful change is taking root.

Since being hired in 2009 Smith has eliminated processed foods from the cafeterias and switched them to cooking from scratch, and has since witnessed an upsurge of interest among students in cooking and growing food.

“Getting away from the processed foods was the easy part,” Smith said. “Now we’re on the next step, which is educating our kids about the food they eat.”