Sunday, November 8, 2009

An Omnivore's Defense of Defense

I will speak in hyperbole. It will be both witty and poingnant in its ability to convey my thoughts to you. Unless you're this guy, or this guy, in which case you will believe I am some cheese-eating, French-wine loving, surrender-monkey. And I am all of those things...except a surrender-monkey. And in any case its actually BECAUSE I am a cheese-eating, French-wine drinking dork that I put these thoughts out there for the little blogospehere-y types to read and consider.

Here's the hyperbole: People are starting to get as wound up as the Romans about books expressing the opinion that factory farms have serious and increasingly negative impacts on our food system and our health and that food created without laboratories is inherently more nutritious than its lab-coat, nutrient-injected, genetically-altered cousins.

Parse with me, because I wrote that last graph fairly carefully. There are some folks engaged in industrial agriculture and involved in farming today who are reacting very negatively to Michael Pollan's writing. They are proponents of industrial agriculture methods that have increased yields and reduced the price tag of a host of agricultural products for the 'Merican consumer. And they are reacting as if Pollan a) puts himself out as the be-all, end-all expert on agriculture; b) tells his readers that his science is irrefutable; c) proposes that every industrial farmer STOP what they are doing right now; and d) has convinced every American consumer to wage war on the American farmer.

I'll take his books in reverse order for the purpose of this exercise because the end result is primary, but the attacks are aimed squarely at the earlier book. Pollan's aim and authority as he sees it are spelled out fairly clearly before he even gets out of the introduction of "In Defense of Food."
My aim in this book is to help us reclaim our health and happiness as eaters. To do this requires an exercise that might at first blush seem unnecessary, if not absurd: to offer a defense of food and the eating thereof. That food and eating stand in need of a defense might seem counter-intuitive at a time when "over-nutrition" is emerging as a more serious threat to public health than under-nutrition. But I contend that most of what we're consuming today is no longer, strictly speaking, food at all, and how we're consuming it - in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone - is not really eating, at least not in the sense that civilization has long understood the term.
As for authority:
You may well, and rightly, wonder who am I to tell you how to eat? Here I am advising you to reject the advice of science and industry - and then blithely go on to offer my own advice. So on whose authority do I purport to speak? I speak mainly on the authority of tradition and common sense. Most of what we need to know about how to eat we already know, or once did until we allowed the nutrition experts and the advertisers to shake our confidence in common sense, tradition, the testimony of our senses, and the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers.
There's the what and the why of "In Defense of Food." And Pollan admits that the ability to eat in the manner he suggests in "In Defense of Food" was not possible until very recently because of the power of the industrial food economy spelled out in "Omnivore's Dilemma."
I doubt the last third of this book could have been written forty years ago, if only because there would have been no way to eat the way i propose without going back to the land and growing all your own food. It would have been the manifesto of a crackpot. There was really only one kind of food on the national menu, and that was whatever industry and nutritionism happened to be serving. Not anymore. Eaters have real choices now, and those choices have real consequences,  for our health and the health of the land and the health of our food culture - all of which, as we will see, are inextricably linked. That anyone should need to write a book advising people to "eat food" could be taken as a measure of our alienation and confusion. Or we could choose to see it in a more positive light and count ourselves fortunate indeed that there is once again real food for us to eat."
That real food is in direct response to the past 50 years of food production methods and markets. Let's be clear, "Omnivore's Dilemma" takes a fairly unforgiving look at the factory farm, the feedlots, the history of "Grain-Fed Beef" from the policy and marketing views. "In Defense of Food" takes the same glaring look at the pseudo- and incomplete science that grew up around our margarine and our high-fiber, and our hubris that we could do it better than nature.

Most importantly for my response to the attacks on the books, on Pollan, and on anyone who would be foolish enough to agree with him, I happen to have made the economic and personal decision that Pollan is more right than they are. Please don't get all paranoid-delusional on me for promoting an idea that I believe makes both more economic sense for consumers in the long run and provides food that tastes better to me.

Now on to the stories that sparked this defense of Pollan's "Defense." The first, an article written by farmer Blake Hurst, is a substantive and thoughtful counterpoint to Pollan. He is that farmer selling that product to those consumers. And his perspective from the eye of the market is both clear and factual. He sells what consumers want to buy.
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.

But now we have to listen to self-appointed experts on airplanes frightening their seatmates about the profession I have practiced for more than 30 years. I’d had enough. I turned around and politely told the lecturer that he ought not believe everything he reads. He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.
Blake, what I am telling you right now is not that you're doing it wrong, or that I need you to change your farming. I am telling you that this consumer has thought more about the impact his choices have on himself and the larger community and prefers to know his farmer, to know his food, and to buy more and more of it raised and harvested in a manner more consistent with a small farm model of Polyface than the CAFOs and corn-science-based farming that has come to dominate the market place.

And I have to take a bit of issue with your quick-hitting: "Pollan thinks farmers use commercial fertilizer because it is easier, and because it is cheap. Pollan is right. But those are perfectly defensible reasons." Yes, they're defensible reasons for a farmer focusing on being successful in the industrial-agricultural economy. I think part of what Pollan does with Omnivore's Dilemma is to show that there are, in fact, other agricultural economies that exist.

You have an economic bottom line and meet it as you see fit with methods and through markets that make the most sense to you. But it is disingenuous at best to complain because Pollan wrote a book that made a lot of folks realize they had an economic choice too. I am making my economic choices; and they will include food produced by your methods less and less. That's not a personal attack on you, and it's not an attack on any farmer, it's an economic choice that by your logic I should be just as free to make as you are.

While almost all of my rebuttal to Hurst is based on our interpretations and opinions of the implication of Pollan on both the farmer and the consumer, there was one factual assertion Hurst made that I think bears a quick review.
Finally, consumers benefit from cheap food. If you think they don’t, just remember the headlines after food prices began increasing in 2007 and 2008, including the study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations announcing that 50 million additional people are now hungry because of increasing food prices. Only “industrial farming” can possibly meet the demands of an increasing population and increased demand for food as a result of growing incomes.
A few things. It would be more accurate to say that politicians and policy-makers benefit from consumers who have cheap food. It would also be more accurate to say that consumers who have not thought about the economic or health implications of their food purchases prefer food that costs less.

Finally, and most importantly, read here, here, and here. Claims that increasing yield-per-acre will solve world hunger are just too far from the truth to be useful to your argument against people acting in accordance with Pollan's prescriptions.

The second story in a budding series of "Please don't let this man talk to people who might not want to eat food that's been fed more anti-biotics than a Marne platoon deploying in sub-Saharan Africa" told the tale of David Wood, the Chairman of Harris Ranch Beef. Mr. Wood is contemplating withdrawing his pledge of $150,000 and his company's pledge of $500,000 for a new agricultural lab at his alma mater because they invited Michael Pollan to speak, by himself, at the school. Quel horreur? He gets to talk without a muzzle or a factory-farm-owning-alumnus-paid-for-and-approved-other-side-of-the-argument-presenting partner?
Pollan, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, is an advocate for healthy, environmentally conscious methods of farming and production — including feeding cattle with grass, reducing the use of petroleum on farms and decreasing pollution.

Wood, a Cal Poly alumnus who described himself as a “significant donor,” sent a letter to Cal Poly President Warren Baker in late September expressing his displeasure with Pollan’s scheduled talk.
Your protestations, Mr. Wood, sound hollow from here. Of course you'll hit back with "That description of Pollan leaves out the economic impact of his pie-in-the-sky ideas about farming on the hard-working men and women who struggle every day to put food on your table." Yeah, I hear you, and there is an economic impact on anyone who agrees with what Pollan's writing. But you also ought to consider that Beef being 'what's for dinner' for the past 50 years has contributed, at least in part, to this:
Obesity causes more than 100,000 cases of cancer in the United States each year — and the number will likely rise as Americans get fatter, researchers said on Thursday.

Having too much body fat causes nearly half the cases of endometrial cancer — a type of cancer of the uterus — and a third of esophageal cancer cases, the American Institute for Cancer Research said.
For me, it's the economic reality that I have family history of heart disease and diabetes and that I can spend more now on food that hasn't been altered in ways that make my life more likely to include cholesterol-lowering pills and shots of insulin...or I can spend more on health insurance and medical bills for the later third of my life.

I have to say, for the most part, I will be paying more now because it just makes sense to me.

Academic integrity does not mean that there is a zero-sum game in 'opinions on stage at one time.' It means the academic institution is a place in which learning is cherished, and in which all ideas are permitted to be expressed. That does not mean that it is a place in which you should feel good about throwing your weight to insure students can't hear one perspective without immediately having the opposing viewpoint in the moment. If you respect your alma matter, you'd respect their ability to have an open discussion rather than threatening the future students who will now not have the lab they need to learn.

Credit where it is due and a quick call to have your own discussion about this somewhere. The good folks at Serious Eats pointed me to the articles I've been parsing and rebutting here, though I'll also say I recently finished both "Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food," so it's been on my mind.
What This All Means

Instead of debating the issues of academic freedom at Cal Poly and Washington State University and whether Pollan will ever be buddy-buddy with industrial corn and soy farmers, let's focus on the dialogue here.

It means that what started as a small movement of people, often characterized as "impractical elitists," has become important enough to garner widespread attention. Before, the state of our food system was considered the norm and those who wanted to change it were buttonholed as ideological or out-of-touch. Now that ag-corporations are sitting up, taking notice, and feeling the need to put pressure on universities, we should all take that as a sign that this movement is going somewhere.
I hope that conversation does happen. And based solely on my authority as a consumer, I hope more and more people reach the same conclusion I reached.

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