In search of Michael Pollan, a fresh tomato, and a good argument about food.
By Jamie Borgan
In a New Yorker cartoon from 2006, a man and a woman sit down for dinner at a restaurant. With her head upturned, the woman asks their waiter, “Which entrée raises the fewest ethical issues?”
The cartoon appeared the same year Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published, which I read at the same time I was working through the writings of LaDonna Redmond, a food activist out of Chicago who had transformed abandoned lots in the inner city into urban vegetable gardens.
One of Redmond’s oft-quoted lines is: “You could find drugs in my community, you could find a gun in my community, but you couldn’t find a tomato.” Her writing prompted me to think of food security not just as having enough to eat but as an issue involving complex layers of social and cultural fabric. Interwoven with historic socioeconomic and racial inequalities, the weight of these factors had resulted in obese children in Redmond’s neighborhood having heart attacks at age twelve.
Four years later, it still seems like we’re just beginning to unravel the complexity in the modern debate over food. Pollan acknowledged the thorny problem in his opening remarks at Washington State University’s Beasley Coliseum earlier this month, when he spoke as part of WSU’s Common Reading Program on January 13th.
Pollan’s critics contend that he’s sowing unfounded mischief by asserting that organic food is safer and more nutritious than conventionally mass produced crops and meats, while his followers view him as a straight-talking food guru whose advice and “food rules” make overt that which we’re all thinking anyway.
Given that WSU is a land grant school with a substantial, long-standing curriculum and extension service primarily aimed at supporting modern agri-business, it’s understandable that Pollan’s appearance in Pullman would elicit rumblings. He acknowledged the controversy in his gently wry manner. Before moving into the substantive part of his talk, he told the audience that he welcomes the controversy and is grateful for the opportunity to speak at universities like WSU.
His talk was vintage Pollan. With a plethora of convincing statistics, he deconstructed our industrialized food system, drawing parallels between our current environmental, energy, and health care crises and modern methods of growing and eating food. His presentation dives into the history of modern U.S. agricultural policy, including his quoting of former Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz’s mantra in the 1970s, urging farmers to “get big or get out” by planting commodity crops such as corn and soybean. A journalist by training, the University of California professor makes no claims to be an agronomist, nor a scientist, though his speech is impressively peppered with explanations of farming practices and discussions of plant life.
Pollan’s disposition is charmingly avuncular. He acknowledges the broader corporate and political implications to revolutionizing our food system, but does so with three action steps that, in light of the “buzz” his ideas generate, seem almost quaint: (a) grow your own food, (b) cook your own food, (c) eat the food you grow and cook with other people. The proposition that community revolves around a table of home grown and cooked food doesn’t sound revolutionary. On the contrary, it sounds like advice your great aunt might dispense as you leave home to live on your own for the first time.
Michael Pollan’s disposition is charmingly avuncular. He acknowledges the broader corporate and political implications to revolutionizing our food system, but does so with three action steps that, in light of the “buzz” his ideas generate, seem almost quaint: (a) grow your own food, (b) cook your own food, (c) eat the food you grow and cook with other people.
If there is anything subversive about Pollan’s arguments, perhaps it’s his suggestion that, just maybe, U.S. farmers are not meant to feed the world, but should, instead, encourage the world to learn to feed itself. That’s a fairly obvious threat to the curious blend of self-reliance, generosity, and egotism that is at the heart of the American mythos. On the other hand, there seems to be so much simplicity at the root of what he says that it’s hard (for me at least) to regard Pollan as a threatening radical.
Still it was clear, in Pullman that night, that not everybody is as relaxed about Pollan as I am. The last time I saw him speak was at the Bioneers conference last October, where food activists eager to embrace a “food revolution” leapt to their feet throughout his short presentation to applaud his calls to abandon the consumption of “edible food-like substances.” That level of enthusiasm was largely absent in Beasley. The only comment that brought with it an interruption of noticeable applause was Pollan’s declaration that the food system needs to be cleansed of sexism, with men and women gardening, farming, cooking, and eating together in equitable ways.
Pollan seemed not the least bit unsettled by the coolness of the audience and the underlying tension. After a short round of questions and answers, we left the stadium where we were immediately approached by a young woman wearing jeans and a “Cabela’s” hat outside the exit. She asked us if we wanted more information on beef and handed us two pamphlets from the Washington State Beef Commission.
The pamphlets contained a point-by-point analysis, framing Pollan’s suppositions as questions, i.e. “Is organic, locally produced or ‘slow’ food safer than ‘conventional’ food?” and disputing his conclusions. (In case you were wondering, the answer from the Washington State Beef Commission is “No.”) The pamphlet goes on to dispute a number of Pollan’s claims: that modern beef production contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions, that corn is not a natural diet for cows, that feedlots are bad for the environment and animals.
I was as surprised as I was quietly delighted by the directness of this dissent, more so because it offered a concrete rebuttal. Pollan’s arguments land easily on the ears of an urban dweller who can now walk across the street to buy a locally grown organic apple. But the broader implications of his work–advocating for change from farm to table in a way that challenges the last 50 years of policy and practice in how we grow and eat food–is a serious shove to the system. And, for those of us eager to see the argument joined, it only gets real when the system shoves right back.
A shining irony in the society-wide food fight that Pollan is instigating is that he plants himself on the side of the farmers. Indeed, his respect for farmers is patently clear and he sees the role of farmers in the current debate as integral to the salvation of the food system. That, alone, can leave you wondering just what the tension and the arguments are all about.
The broader implications of Pollan’s work–advocating for change from farm to table in a way that challenges the last 50 years of policy and practice in how we grow and eat food–is a serious shove to the system. And, for those of us eager to see the argument joined, it only gets real when the system shoves right back.
My sense is that the threat is at least one part ideological. Pollan’s notions of eschewing “conventional” food production methods smack some as gustatory colonialism. I heard this directly from friends I polled about a junk food tax earlier this year. A common response to my question of whether or not junk food should be taxed to account for its significant detrimental health effects was, “they can’t tell me how to eat.” The irony, from Pollan’s perspective, is that “they” have been telling us how to eat every time a farm bill rich in commodity crop subsidies is passed. The notion that we have evolved naturally to produce and eat high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils is under-thought at best and points to its own bit of ideological triumph on the part of processed food pushers.
The other threat that Pollan seems to embody is a much subtler criticism of our current economic “efficiency.” The amount of money that a modern American citizen spends on food has never been lower, while the number of calories consumed has never been higher. This seems like it should be the fist-pumping celebrated realization of Earl Butz’s dream. However, middle class urbanites are flocking to co-ops in droves to buy beef raised on grass and preserves made from locally raised fruits. Heck, they’ll even drive to the fields to pick the strawberries, cook them down, and proudly give away jars of their own homemade jam, come holiday season.
While some of this may come across as a specialized interest for the relatively affluent, the central idea behind our current food system (raise LOTS of CHEAP calories) has been called into question by Pollan’s popularity, the resurgence of home-canning, and the proliferation of farmer’s markets (Here I’m reminded of a more recent New Yorker cartoon, where a man walks into his apartment to find a farmer’s market set up in his living room…the caption reads “Oh no, not another farmer’s market!”)
Judging from Pollan’s WSU appearance, the food debate is really just getting started. As consumers continue to manifest an interest in not just product, but also process, our restless search for the fresh tomato will continue to uncover layers of social, political, and cultural complexity that are transforming eating into a values statement.