Saturday, March 17, 2007

Foodie Central III: Review of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Grade: B
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.)

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Artemesia said...


I read Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire-
and find him aptly named (Pollan). This is a tour of pollinization and cross pollinization of the genus apple, weed..cannabis,sugar and any candy for the spirit you can think of! History,politics..tomatoes,potatoes,all the what, from and whens..Without being a Crusader but by being interesting and informative, I think his writing is a public service!
Thanks for your review. This new book seems interesting..

fluffy black puppies said...

50? we're down to 1 and counting...

i did find one graph on the web showing that 100 or so years ago we had 100 acres arable land per capita, but i refuse, absolutely refuse, to link to anything pimentel [i'm not even going to check to see if i've misspelled his name].

efutkaew: even the the footprint knew

Keifus said...

Hi Artemesia, I had mixed feelings about the guy, to be honest. I liked his journalist's approach, most of the time, and his goal of following the food chain down was a neat one. So okay, a decent journalist and it informed the book well, but I gritted my teeth at some of his selective science criticism (most of the notes I wrote down were mild outrage in this regard). I've got my biases too, I guess.

Fluffy: I don't know who pimentel is, but in deference, I won't even google him. I pretty much pulled that number straight out of my ass.
(knowing footprints: spooooky.)


twiffer said...

evolutionary symbiosis? in regards to eating other animals? i call bullshit. not that i have any problems with eating meat (if you kill it, i'll likely eat it). but symbiosis indicates that both creatures benefit. i'm unsure what benefit a species gets from being prey. perhaps he's thinking of population control and weeding out of the sick and old, etc. but to call that symbiosis is a very, very, very big stretch. and still an inaccurate and imprecise use of the word.

i hate things like that. we've already lost the meaning of "unique", let us not further degrade our language. writers should know better.

Keifus said...

Pollan takes the argument that species like cows and chickens (and even moreso, maize) have been bred such that they are unsuitable for life in the wild, without the efforts of humans. To the extent that they would even exist in the wild, being prey suits the creatures' nature. (Which is no argument for cruelty, mind you. What's best? Good life, quick death, I guess.) In other words, there would be no domestic cows and chickens as species if we didn't grow and eat the damn things. He even makes a weak case for the evolutionary. According to some studies he chooses to believe, buffalo lost their broad, sweeping horns in response to human (Indian) presence that pushed them into herds.

(Pigs, however, evidently go feral much more easily. Orwell would be proud.)

But I have to say that I was wondering if someone more interested in the evolutionary biology would be as irritated at that discussion as I was at his shoddy criticism of the chemistry.