Letters to the Future: “Shift the Food System” by Michael Pollan


The Paris Climate Project has launched a national letter-writing campaign–Letters to the Future–asking authors, scientists, activists and the general public to compose letters to future generations about climate change. The project aims to draw awareness to the upcoming U.N. Climate Talks in Paris (COP21) and emphasize the significance of their outcome. You can write your own letter here and voice your concerns about the state of our planet. 

“Shift the Food System” by Michael Pollan


Dear Future Family,

I know you will not read this note until the turn of the century, but I want to explain what things were like back in 2015, before we figured out how to roll back climate change. As a civilization we were still locked into a zero -sum idea of our relationship with the natural world, in which we assumed that for us to get whatever we needed, whether it was food or energy or entertainment, nature had to be diminished. But that was never necessarily the case.

In our time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture still handed out subsidies to farmers for every bushel of corn or wheat or rice they could grow. This promoted a form of agriculture that was extremely productive and extremely destructive—of the climate, among other things.

Approximately one­ third of the carbon then in the atmosphere had formerly been sequestered in soils in the form of organic matter, but since we began plowing and deforesting, we’d been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere. At that time, the food system as a whole—that includes agriculture, food processing, and food transportation—contributed somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization—more than any other sector except energy. Fertilizer was always one of the biggest culprits for two reasons: it’s made from fossil fuels, and when you spread it on fields and it gets wet, it turns into nitrous oxide, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Slowly, we convinced the policy makers to instead give subsidies to farmers for every increment of carbon they sequestered in the soil.

Over time, we began to organize our agriculture so that it could heal the planet, feed us and tackle climate change. This began with shifting our food system from its reliance on oil, which is the central fact of industrial agriculture (not just machinery, but pesticides and fertilizers are all oil-based technologies), back to a reliance on solar energy: photosynthesis.

Carbon farming was one of the most hopeful things going on at that time in climate change research. We discovered that plants secrete sugars into the soil to feed the microbes they depend on, in the process putting carbon into the soil. This process of sequestering carbon at the same time improved the fertility and water-­holding capacity of the soil. We began relying on the sun—on photosynthesis—rather than on fossil fuels to feed ourselves. We learned that there are non-zero-­sum ways we could feed ourselves AND heal the earth. That was just one of the big changes we made toward the sustainable food system you are lucky enough to take for granted.

A teacher, author and speaker on the environment, agriculture, the food industry, society and nutrition, Pollan’s letter is adapted from an interview in Vice Magazine.


To read more Letters to the Future featured on Care2, click here.


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Julia Cabrera-Woscek

It is getting late to jump into this. Hurry up!

Grace Adams
Grace Adams3 years ago

It seems plants do make an effort to be friendly to soil microbes; plants exude sap from their roots with sugar to make soil particles stick together making it easier for plants to anchor themselves tightly in the ground and feeding the friendly soil microbes.

Gerald L.
Gerald L3 years ago

Ruminant animals are not designed to eat a high grain load resulting in metabolic acidosis = Antibiotics intervention = human uptake of A/B. Pastured meat production eliminates Oil based Nitrate fertilizers and the excessive grain & corn crops grown for confinement animals. Mono cropped grains are using herbicides and gmo seeds our modern nemesis.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 years ago

Is the left wing's :answer" of massive starvation any better? How about some sanity to this argument, and eliminate the fringes - on both sides.

Lee Rowan
Lee Rowan3 years ago

The problem is not this simple. Along with saner agriculture, we need to work on human overpopulation. You can't pretend that the planet is being expected to carry more humans than she can sanely support. The right wing's "answer" to this is a state of perpetual war, which is -- at the very least -- a wasteful way to reduce the population

Donna T.
Donna T3 years ago

thank you

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

No time to wait or waste

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Here's a thought: the ultimate answer for a finite planet with limited resources is not more food, it's fewer people. And as far as climate change is concerned, unless we get our act together and soon, the ultimate solution for this, not to mention so many other of the Earth's problems, would have to be the extinction of the human species altogether.

Sharon S.
Sharon S3 years ago

interesting concept