Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Reading Omnivore's Dilemma

The Roman writer Livy warned in 14 A.D. that a society is in danger when its chefs are aggrandized and of course that's exactly describes America today, whether you're speaking of Paul Prudhomme, Alice Waters, Edible Seattle, or Ronald McDonald--everywhere you look, somebody is telling you why their food is so good. Well, "good" is of course a word with many subtle meanings. But that's exactly the dilemma we face as omnivore's, and Michael Pollan writes about it well in this book, which turns out to be one of the top 10 recommended by the New York Times for 2006.

If you don't have time to read the book: read his summary here, this excerpt, or a later essay in which he gives his bottom-line advice: Eat Food, not too much, mostly plants .
After surveying the way food is produced in America, from the mechanized large-scale agriculture of Iowa (which he hates) to the often deceptive marketing of Whole Foods (better, but still suspect), he concludes that small farmers, like Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia, are the only true way to grow and eat food. He recommends as a place to find good local farms (and there are of course many in the Seattle area)
Here are some of my top-of-mind thoughts:

  • Seasonality is critical: to really eat well you'll need to give up on year-round tomatoes and lettuce. Eat beef and pork in the Fall and Winter, and chicken the rest of the year.

  • Hey! he quotes Steven Pinker: "disgust is intuitive microbiology" (p.292)

  • Whole Foods and other mass organic producers aren't necessarily any "kinder" to animals or easier on the environment. The requirements of their large distribution channels force them into compromises that aren't that different from what goes on at Safeway or even McDonalds.

  • Introduces the word "holon", from Arthur Koestler's Ghost in the Machine as an alternative way to describe "organic" farming, a term he claims has been so manipulated these days as to have lost much of its original meaning.

  • Pollan does a great job dissecting and then refuting the claims by Animal Liberation and others that somehow meat-eating is immoral. My favorite: these people are simply pushing their own human-centric viewpoint onto animals, to whom nature already has been symbiotic relationships that often require killing for sustainable existence.

  • But ultimately I am skeptical of most of Pollan's arguments in favor of organic and so-called "sustainable" farming.

    First, I'm sympathetic to the arguments he quotes from Steven Blank, the economist and author of End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, which argues that from an economy-of-scale and division-of-labor efficiency standpoint, everyone on earth would be better off if Americans left food production to places that have a comparative production advantage over us. If you really care about the world's poor (both here and abroad), you need as much food as possible -- and mass-production is the only way to do that. It's simply not possible to feed 300 million Americans on 50-mile-local food. 

    Pollan thinks it's good to "Keep your money in the community", or "only trust food from a farmer you can look in the eye". The trouble with these arguments is they're self-contradictory and ultimately have no end. Why is it okay to eat food grown less than 50 miles away, but not 100 or 1000? Maybe I should limit myself just to farmers on Mercer Island? Or for that matter, my own back yard? Pollan himself allows (p. 263) that you can eat non-local goods like chocolate and coffee because people have been trading for thousands of years. Well that's the point: Trade is a good thing, and it is wonderful that today we live in a world that is peaceful enough that we can buy from low-cost and efficient producers anywhere in the world. 

    There is one extremely good argument for buying locally-produced food, and it's the real reason on Mercer Island I subscribe to Smith Brothers Farms for my milk, and Pioneer Organics for vegetables: it tastes better! Plus, they deliver it to my door! I don't begrudge those who, simply for efficiency reasons , prefer to spend their money and time on more convenient ways of eating (whether at Whole Foods, Safeway, or McDonalds). It takes effort to eat well, and some (most?) people just don't want the trouble. 

    I get the sense that Pollan and many of the back-to-nature people think economists' obsession with efficiency results in short-term decisions and that if only we could "educate" more people (what are we doing to our environment?! To our children!?), that everyone would revolt if they really understood where that hamburger came from. Well, I say why bother. Once you really taste the produce of a farmer's market, you won't want to go back.

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