Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Editor’s note: In our “What We’re Reading” series, team members profile books, blogs, and other media that have contributed to our planning of the upcoming exhibition.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Thorndike Press, 2006
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist Michael Pollan examines the meaning of food in today’s society. He looks at three food sources: industrial, pastoral, and hunter/gatherer. The industrial section primarily examines corn and predicts disaster—he claims genetic monoculture is prone to mass disease and dependent on corn being used for much more than food (from Xanthun gum to corn-bred cows). The pastoral section dumps on the rise of mass scale organic farming and promotes grass farming—a form of sustainable agriculture where a farmer raises grass that feeds cows, chickens, and pigs whose manure feeds the grass. Joel Salatin, who owns Polyface Farms in Staunton, Virginia, is his poster child of success. The enthusiastic hunter/gather portion of the book will probably, how should I say, appeal more to NRA members than PETA followers.
Pollan’s immensely popular book has done much to promote the slow food movement and feed current day anti-commercial farming sentiment. As I develop the agriculture story in American Enterprise, this book will do much to help me understand the attitudes and expectations of a significant percentage of the general public. Whether the arguments of the book are correct is, in some respects, unimportant. Instead, understanding that Pollan’s perspective is a factor in the public debate is key.
While a great read, the book is not particularly rigorous and is hardly fair and balanced. Pollan tends to simplify and reduce the story to right or wrong. In reality the gray area is huge and frankly very interesting. Some of the most evangelical environmentalists that I have met are no-till farmers. They believe in the power of worms, fight to eliminate soil erosion, and are willing to trade maximizing productivity in order to follow their approach. The problem for people like Pollan is that no-till farming is dependent on herbicides–that’s how they control the weeds without plowing the fields.
Pollan’s rants on genetically modified crops are equally problematic. In fact farmers have been “messing with nature” for thousands of years with varying results. Cary Fowler, an environmental scientist, relates a surprising and complicated story about biodiversity in his book, Unnatural Selection. According to Fowler, industrialized nations sent out seed explorers in the 19th century for strategic economic reasons and, in the 20th century, agricultural businesses figured out how to make money off of hybrid plants. Henry Wallace’s Copper Cross corn was a revolutionary breakthrough but it was mechanically hybridized not genetically modified. Of course, everything new is not necessarily good. In The Last Harvest, the journalist Paul Raeburn explains the dangers of GMOs yet shows that when problems occur the world does not necessarily come to an end. For instance, he describes the case of Pioneer 3394, a fabulous corn seed that everybody started using in the early 1990s. Though popular, the seed had an Achilles heel; it was susceptible to Gray Leaf Spot. When the disease threatened the crop in 1995, farmers quickly changed to another seed. Of course, my favorite story about “messing with nature” is one that my brother, an entomologist, likes to tell. In the 1860s, a well-intentioned Leopold Trouvelot introduced gypsy moths into the United States in an effort to improve silk production. The bugs got away and Americans have been battling gypsy moths ever since.
Unfortunately, Pollan does not spend a great deal of time discussing these complicated issues in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Even so, the book has connected with the general public and has done much to shape popular concern about commercial farming.
What is your take on Michael Pollan’s depiction of commercial farming?