Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading Michael Pollan


I more or less knew all this about industrial food, of course: the corn belt made into a vast featureless starch factory, the corn hybrids that won't “come true,” the steers early-weaned and force-fatted on the feedlots, the industrialization of the certified organics. I have a bit of history with all these things. My expensive education was paid for by a grandfather who was a pioneer in corn hybrids. (In selling them, that is, not in creating them. Slogan in the Depression: “DeKalb corn will lift your mortgage!”) One summer in the 70s I worked on farm which must already have been, had I known it, old-fashioned: they still had much of the ecosystem right there – pigs and chickens to manure the hay and alfalfa, hay and alfalfa to feed the cows through the winter. The old man there, who had never learned to read, had homesteaded the place some seventy years before. I worked in a food co-op around the same time, so I had a sense for what real food looked like. When I first set foot in places like “Whole Foods” my nose told me they weren't. Nothing stank. And everything so glossy and pretty! No. And I had a room mate to whom none of Michael Pollan's news would have been news at all: a grange activist, way ahead of the curve. I wonder what he's doing now?

Still. Food was always TBD. I was literary guy: my job was to master Old English prosody. I kept eating what I'd grown up eating, to wit, as Michael Pollan makes so brilliantly clear, vast piles of No. 2 corn in all its cleverly engineered variations and transmutations: feedlot beef and high fructose corn syrup, and all the bizarre range of fillers, emulsifiers, fixatives, preservatives. All based on plowing massive amounts of fixed-nitrogen into the soil.

I think I basically knew how much time and effort it would take to do food right, and just never had the oomph to face it. Oomph is a precious commodity, after all. You pick your battles. I'm not saying I was wrong. And I could just leave it, not trouble the last few decades of my life with it.

What gets me, though, is not the health implications. I'm still reasonably healthy at 54, and I don't see what rational person could not see that as having won the game already, whatever comes next. No, what gets me, oddly enough – because I'm a city boy through and through – is what monoculture does to the land. I've driven across this country several times. I know what industrialized agriculture has done to it, and I hate it. It seems to me that – to use a singularly inappropriate metaphor – we're eating our seed corn. Gorging and choking on it, actually. Global warming? Pfft. Oh, it's real enough, but its disasters are minor and manageable compared to what we're doing to our farmland, and to our farmers. My farmer up in Yelm, Washington may not have known how to read, but he knew how to make a fairly unpromising patch of rural ground produce chickens and pigs and cows, and go on producing them indefinitely. How many farmers still know how to do that? Not many.

Every time I spend a dollar, I'm voting for the kind of world I want. I've always known that, and in many things, for decades, I've steadfastly preferred the small, locally owned, and quirky enterprises over the large, corporate, and uniform ones. But I have been, all my life, supporting industrialized food. Not sure I can keep on doing that, now that Mr Pollan has really rubbed my nose in it.

3 comments:

Kathleen said...

I know what you mean. I loved this book, learned a lot, and have changed some practices (not all) since reading it, moving steadily toward habitually healthy and world-sustaining practices.

marly youmans said...

Did I leave you a Judith Belzer link of fb? I think so... If not, I will find some. She is just as interesting as he, I'm sure (though I know her and not him.)

rbarenblat said...

I think we all more or less know it, but we don't want to know it. Pollan can be obnoxious, but he's a good writer, and he's brought some incredibly valuable ideas into the public sphere.