Pollan, if he wanted to impress me, started this one from a deficit. By the time I got to page five, I was already prepared to dismiss his major theses: I didn't think "we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine our dinner menu;" I was (and remain) dubious about evolutionary biological justifications for diet; and what's more, Pollan has already annoyed me once with his shallow approach to food science.
I'll give him his best success first--the food source detective bit was pretty good. It turns out I appreciated greatly his explorations down the industrial food chain. I mean, I knew it had a lot of corn in it, but I wasn't quite cognizant that it had that much corn in it, didn't really grasp the pure foundational basis that a single plant culture had on the agrigultural economy. Not only does it feed cattle and become flakes, but it's the number one sweetener, thickener, and all-around plant component in foods. Pollan does an excellent job of presenting this at a macro level.* Corn overproduction is subsidized: the result is low prices (encouraging more yield), and cheap commodity corn for the industrial users. The excess pushes for new markets, and the latest is ethanol for auto fuel. It's hell on the growers (the biology of hybrids being that they produce plantable seeds in small yield and with productivity improvements tied into expensive new technology), but great for the segments of the economy that use the commodity. Even growing and burning ethanol might be a reasonable approach if we weren't pumping oil into the field to get it.
Pollan moves on to consider organic farming (these days meaning without pesticide and with limited external nitrogen sources) as well as some more sustainable grass-based farming models. The farming practices he highlights at the Polyface farm in the Shenendoah valley are, to be honest, ecologically brilliant, utilizing animal and plant symbiosis carefully, and recognizing seasonal cycles, to create a sustainable food-producing five hundred acres, even if it takes a great deal of attention. But when he starts talking grass, Pollan shows the first hints of the evolutionary romanticizing that he'll struggle with at book length. Is the agrarian pastoral the real ideal of nature? That depends a lot on where you are. Western Virginia** is one thing. New England is another. The Amazon (grass-fed, at the expense of the trees) another still.
One reason that corn has made it so big in this society--in addition to the energy density--is that it's easily storable and transportable. Do we have enough space for an arable 50 acres per person in this country? Probably not, and there's a logic at this population excess centralize people and to maximize output of farms. Now it could be more community based, and it damn well should be much more sustainable. What prevents this? Subsidies of centralized agriculture, of highways, and cheap oil. Policies matter.
I've developed over the years an allergy to science-critical non-scientists. There's a fine line between questioning motives and means, of questioning philosophy, but in order to question results, to doubt the process itself, some sufficient minimum of understanding is necessary.*** Local farming and biological congruence are perfectly good heuristics, but Pollan is constantly tempted to treat them as dogma. "Science" is his frequent enemy, those nasty chemical engineers. Like any politician or miracle-believer, however, he'll throw his deepest rhetorical support behind scientific studies that support his views. He'll gladly pick and choose those lucky few early ecological types that struck it with prescience while criticizing every chemist alive for the state of the art in 1945. It's bloody annoying. (The saints at Polyface, I'll add, are still practicing empiricism.)
One symptom of that sort of writing is a heavy reliance of psychological generalizations and treating them as empirical fact, but except for some prosaic countryside meanderings, Pollan succeeds pretty well at navigating the psychological territory (with some exceptions: his clueless surprise that hunting could be a visceral was annoying). The last third of the book is devoted to exploring the natural and modern relationship between humans and nature, from which we must unavoidably consume. He avoids the traps of anthropomorphosis of animals, and paints a reasonable-sounding ethical dodge for eating animals as part of a certain evolutionary symbiosis. That's evolutionary anthropology at its most dubious (or maybe at its most basic), but I found myself accepting it.
* As an aside, I'll try to remember to keep an eye for more information about the Ever-Normal Granary plan: it seems a reasonable, sustainable, hedge against market fluctuations, but I'm not sure it would work without adjustment against large-scale macroeconomic trends.
** I lived in the DC area for awhile, so I can call it that.
*** For example, don't say things like "a form of butane" when describing the horrors of t-butyl hydroquinone. Within pages, he's extolling polyquinones as glorious antioxidants, but simpler ones, hydroquinone say, are nasty. (I think alkylated phenols are a lot worse, but you know, the point is that these distinctions matter.)
Author: Michael Pollan
Title: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Genre: non-fiction, food
Saturday, March 17, 2007