Michael Pollan came on stage carrying bags of processed foods. He proceeded to pull out “edible food products” and do a little stand up comedy about all the corny ingredients in them, and how creative the food manufacturing industry is getting to keep coming up with new products that we then think we need to eat.
Donielle and I could almost see him, see?
It was pretty exciting being back at my old alma mater, in a beautiful theater where I watched Footloose and Phantom of the Opera with my husband while we were dating, watching one man lecture for an hour and a half about food. I settled in with my pen (What? No keyboard? My hands wanted to revolt!) and proceeded to furiously take 8 dense pages of notes.
Pollan started out with that food, picking on the monoculture of corn, the impossible-to-pronounce ingredients and the ludicrous nature of cereal being sold in straws in the first place. Classic Michael Pollan, if you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Since Michigan State is a big agriculture school, he also placed himself firmly on the side of farmers by answering the question explicitly: “Am I a friend or foe of agriculture?” He said, “America’s farmers hold the key to solving two of the most critical problems – the healthcare crisis and the global environment, both of which are food problems.” It is his hope that MSU will design agriculture to solve these problems – to restore food to a guarantor of health.
Pollan went on to define some terms:
- American paradox: that we obsess about food constantly, but have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world.
- orthorexics: an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating
- nutritionism: a problematic ideology of food…nutritionism says that:
- the key to understanding any food is the nutrients it contains. Foods are the sum of nutrient parts.
- because nutrients are invisible and slightly mysterious, our relationship with food must be mediated by experts.
- it divides the world into good and evil nutrients.
My smug smile over being on the same side as Michael Pollan as he railed against Splenda with fiber was starting to slide, and I squirmed in my seat. I never expected to hear Pollan describe me and my food philosophy, at least not until he started talking about the good guys.
Have I been duped by nutritionism? Do I look at food as a vehicle for nutrients?
Well. Hard to lie here, since all my nutrient talk is in text, on the Internet, for everyone to see. I was uncomfortably surprised.
I’ve been reading Kristen Michaelis’s real food nutrition textbook for homeschool students (or adults, quite honestly), and she starts right out citing Pollan’s “nutritionism” and touting the value of the whole food, not the nutrients contained therein. (It’s a refreshing departure from classic science and nutrition texts that rely on the Food Pyramid alone. If you’re homeschooling bright middle schoolers or high school students, you may want to take a look.)
Pollan consistently gives a good reminder, to trust in the value of whole foods, eat like your grandmother ate and stop counting each nutrient all by itself. I’m still going to eat my yogurt because it has probiotics, though! (Maybe my discomfort is why I picked on him last time I wrote about him.)
Michael Pollan had five more pages of quality stuff to say, and someday I’ll share the middle of the talk with you, too. For today’s Go Local! Challenge purposes, though, I want to skip to the Q&A part of the evening.
I was just giddy when the moderator asked my question for Michael Pollan to answer. I knew it was a doozy!
“Is it possible to feed the world on a grassfed, Salatin-style paradigm? Can factory farms make improvements to be more eco-friendly? Is there a middle ground?”
For your contemplation this weekend, here is Pollan’s response, slightly paraphrased because I don’t know shorthand:
I don’t know if sustainable agriculture can feed the world, but I do know conventional agriculture hasn’t done it yet. It is a myth that Joel Salatin is less productive than conventional agriculture. His 100 acres of grass and 400 acres of unfarmable land generate so much food from solar-driven energy. The amount of food is astounding: 50,000 dozen eggs, for starters.
The hard part isn’t making small farms productive, it’s that farming is hard labor. One farmer has 140-150 people to feed.
The challenge is to figure out how sustainable agriculture can feed the world. It’s not a choice – we will run out of fossil fuel – it’s by default unsustainable and can’t last.
What do you think? Is big agriculture as it’s practiced today by definition unsustainable? If so, what’s the solution?
Catch up on the Go Local! Challenge here.
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