The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan is an alluring writer.  He's not a scold.  His writing is quiet and humble and lacks the arrogant confidence of most activists pushing his agenda.

The bulk of "The Omnivore's Dllemma" tells the story of three different modern ways of making food:  1) What is referred to as "industrial," and is best thought of as the consistent application of science and efficient specialization to agriculture, 2) what I'll call "Industrial organic," which also strives for efficient specialization while avoiding some chosen aspects of conventional agriculture which are believed to be toxic for the environment, and 3) essentially "nostalgia" farming (my term, not Pollan's), which tries as hard as possible to source inputs directly from the land on the farm, and is basically what most of us think of when we think of a "family farm."

Joel Salatin, a nostalgia farmer (and a libertarian, bless his heart) is the hero of the story, and many inspiring paragraphs are devoted to the sophisticated understanding of a seemingly infinite variety of details associated with making his farm work, from (hyper) local watershed management to optimal chicken coop construction and deployment strategies (it's regularly moved from spot to spot to take advantage of natural fertilizer).  

By comparison, the Iowa corn farmer is presented as needing to know little more than how to drive a combine and plug his iPod into his climate controlled cab, a circumstance occasionally rued by the farmers themselves.  

Of course, by being so specialized, the Iowa corn farmer can manage to grow a lot more corn than could ever be managed by nostalgia farmers, even if he doesn't get to raise his own chickens.  

This points to a bit of a blind spot in the book.  By stressing the impressive range of knowledge Salatin brings to bear on his farm, as compared with the seemingly meager array of skills needed to farm corn in the corn belt, Pollan subtly downplays the vast array of skills brought to bear in the entire "industrial" farming complex.  

As an journalistic exercise, Pollan purchased part of a cow to watch as it worked its way through the industrial system, moving from place to place to better address its needs at various stages of its life-cycle, and occasionally leaving questionable environmental messes along the way (it's telling that the benefits of specialization would make it worthwhile for cattle ranchers to abandon manure, in earlier years valuable as fertilizer, in toxic pools).  It's a decidedly unromantic life for the cow, perhaps, even, one that the government should forcibly modify, but it's also a life that illustrates the value of specialization and gains from trade.  Moving cattle isn't cheap.  Profit seeking businesses aren't going to do it unless there are good reasons.

The book would have been well served if Pollan made an effort to calculate how many Joel Salatins would be needed, at his level of productivity, to feed seven billion people.  I don't know the answer to that question, but I bet it would have tamped down the romance a bit.

Pollan is well known for being perhaps the uber-critic of "Big Corn," having found that essentially everything Americans eat appear to have some corn product in it.  This is supposedly because of the malevolent influence of processed food manufacturers who push for crop subsidies which are heavily weighted to corn production.  His argument is pretty compelling, although I suspect that more of the recent innovation in the use of corn would survive sans corn subsidy than the fashionable anti-corn crusaders would expect or like.  Still, I'd be happy to join forces with them in fashioning a more rational agriculture policy (meaning, something approximating none at all).  The big worry is that the sausage-factory of Congress will keep the corn subsidies and add on new policies pushing broccoli, or snap peas, or beets, or what have you, rather than letting consumers make their own non-nudged choices.  

That would probably be worse than the current system, and one wonders whether Pollan, anyway, is equipped to grapple with these issues.  Consider the following:

"Perhaps it is no accident that sentimental communism founders precisely on the issue of food.  The Soviets sacrificed millions of small farms and farmers to the dream of a collectivized industrial agriculture that never managed to do what a food system has to do:  feed the nation.  By the time of its collapse, more that half of the food consumed in the Soviet Union was being produced by small farmers and home gardeners operating without official sanction, on private plots, tucked away in the overlooked corners and cracks of the crumbling Soviet monolith.  George Naylor, speaking from deep within the American monolith, might be onto something when, during our conversation about industrial agriculture, he likened the rise of alternative food chains in America to '...the last days of Soviet agriculture.  The centralized food system wasn't serving the people's needs, so they went around it.  The rise of farmer's markets and CSAs is sending the same signal today.'  Of course, the problems of our food system are very different--if anything, it produces too much food, not too little, or too much of the wrong food.  But there's no question that it is failing many consumers and producers, which is why they are finding creative ways around it."  

Interesting comparison.  Naylor and, I assume, Pollan, miss the key point in the difference between Soviet and American agriculture:  Soviet private plots were an attack on the system.  They ran completely counter to what socialist collectivism was all about.  In a free market system, like we kinda have in the US, people abandoning Safeway for farmers markets and CSAs when they decide that the latter do a better job than the former is the system.  When someone comes up with a better process, people are allowed to use it, the wails of the spurned incumbents be damned.  

And then there's this piece of bizarre pseudo-science:

"We don't have the scientific tools to measure or even account for these fungi's unusual powers.  (Andrew) Weil speculates that their energies derive from the moon rather than the sun, that mushrooms contain, instead of calories of solar origin, prodigious amounts of lunar energy."
"Who's to say the day won't come when science will be able to measure the fungi's exotic energies, perhaps even calculate our minimum daily requirement of lunar calories?"

Oh Michael!  I thought you were speaking to the reality-based community.