Politics & Policy

Michael Pollan and His Faddish Foodie Followers, Ten Years After The Omnivore’s Dilemma

(Woraphon Banchobdi/Dreamstime)
‘Ethical eating’ has taken the food world by storm, but the farms that produce most of our food have changed very little. Thank goodness.

Penguin Books is releasing a special tenth-anniversary edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, with a new foreword by the author. The target market for this release must be post-Millennials — most of the Millennials who matriculated in the past decade spent the summer before college reading the book. Ten years on, it is hard to think of a book that has influenced the public conversation on food more, and Pollan in his foreword is too modest about the impact of his masterpiece.

As a farmer, I’ve participated in this discussion, in the same way a pig participates in a pig roast, though I should be clear that the pig roast is a metaphor, because no dedicated disciple of Pollan would ever attend such an event — unless the pig had a backstory complete with pastures, bucolic nature, local origins, and a life worthy of E. B. White’s Wilbur. In the wake of Pollan’s blockbuster success, the main course on the food movement’s menu has become the “industrial” farmer, a farmer like me, who specializes in only a couple of crops or animals and uses the latest technology to grow his wares economically. Although identified with the political Left, the movement Pollan inspired is profoundly conservative, if one defines conservatism as a nostalgia for a romanticized past that existed only in children’s storybooks and in the reminiscences of forgetful farm wives.

Pollan today is happy that he’s helped move “the question at the heart of [his] book” to the “heart of our culture.” He’s happy that there are more and more farmers’ markets and more gardens at elementary schools, and that people are consuming less soda. He’s proud of the fact that “the food industry is rushing to reformulate hundreds of products to remove high-fructose corn syrup and other processed-food ingredients that consumers have made clear they will no longer tolerate.” Not only that, but “sales of organic food have more than doubled since 2006, from $16.7 million in 2006 to more than $40 billion today.”

That’s quite an accomplishment for a journalist whose only experience in agriculture is the four years he spent writing the book. Clearly, as Pollan notes, the public was already questioning the food system as it existed in 2006. But as I sit here on my front porch, surrounded by the kind of “monoculture” that food activists detest, I’m struck by how little has changed in the process by which genetically modified seed hits heavily fertilized soil. We’re still raising corn and soybeans, even more than we did in 2006. In fact, in 2016, farmers planted 94 million acres of corn in the United States (as Pollan himself notes), up from the 78 million we planted in 2006. Soybean planting has increased from 64 million acres to more than 80 million acres.

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Anybody who has followed the food movement over the last decade knows that corn is the serpent in the garden, the root of all evil, the original sin of industrialized agriculture. The writers and intellectuals who have changed the way we think about food and farming have seen the corn plant colonize, as they put it, an additional 25,000 square miles, an area almost the size of West Virginia. That’s got to hurt, if you like to eat artisanal kale in overpriced restaurants in Berkeley.

As a practical matter, agriculture has remained much the same because we farmers do what we do for good reasons. We use chemical fertilizers because people have to eat, and we can’t produce enough food without the help of commercial nitrogen fertilizer. We use chemical compounds to control weeds and insects because it’s the only way to do that without handing a hoe to millions of Americans every summer. We change corn into human food through animals (we eat the animals that eat the corn) and in food-processing factories that use corn products, because when it comes to changing changing sunshine to calories, corn is the most efficient plant known to man.

Organic agriculture uses more land and requires more tillage to control the weeds. Both lead to increased erosion.

Farmers also continue to use the same methods they used pre-Pollan, because creating a more “ethical” food system has environmental costs. Organic agriculture uses more land and requires more tillage to control the weeds. Both lead to increased erosion. Article after article warns against the carbon cost of eating meat, but cattle raised in the feedlots that so offend Pollan actually release less carbon per hamburger than does the grass-fed beef he prefers. The food movement’s solution is to eat less meat. Perhaps this is a choice that rich consumers in the developed countries will make, but will the latest edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma be printed in Mandarin and Cantonese? And if it is, will the concerns of a journalism professor carry much weight with the rising classes in China or India? If the new middle classes there continue to increase their consumption of meat, the environment will be better off with the intensive animal agriculture that so distresses our bicoastal foodies.

The food movement has been successful at changing the way we eat on the margins, but it’s not clear that those changes have had a wider reach. Pollan hates high-fructose corn syrup, though its chemical makeup and nutritional effect are essentially the same as those of any other kind of sugar. This is not to argue that we don’t eat too much sugar, because we do. It’s just that the kind of sugar we eat isn’t terribly important. Perhaps the word “corn” in the name explains it?

RELATED: Big Organic’s Losing Battle

We’re seeing the same anti-technology and anti-science paranoia play out in the rest of the sugar market. Hershey and other major candy makers refuse to use sugar from sugar beets because beets are genetically modified. Genetic modification is a particular bête noire of the food movement, even though the technology has received the safety stamp of approval from dozens of regulatory agencies and scientific panels. Because the genetically engineered parts of the plant are removed in processing, the chemical makeup of sugar from non-GMO sugarcane is exactly the same as sugar from GMO sugar beets. But the environmental costs of raising sugarcane can be much higher than beet production; the cane fields must be burnt, and water from cane fields flows into sensitive environmental areas. Obesity and its associated diseases are a continuing problem, but candy eaters win a moral get-out-of-jail-free card — and perhaps enjoy another candy bar — when they avoid GMOs. The candy makers’ reliance on sugarcane has increased the risk to the Everglades, but by golly, they’re protecting us from an environmentally friendly technology that has safely appeared in billions of meals over the past two decades.

#share#The food movement also hates specialization and trade, even though they have contributed mightily to the improvement in our living standards over the past few centuries. Here, the fast-food chain Chipotle is an instructive case, with the added benefit, if you are a farmer, of the pleasures that come from schadenfreude. Chipotle’s advertising glorifies small and diversified farms, while their business model aims for rapid expansion combined with specialization in what the restaurants sell. Their company’s refusal to centralize the purchasing and processing of fresh ingredients has led to multiple breakdowns in food safety and to the much-publicized outbreaks of food-borne illness. Chipotle will learn from its mistakes, but every change the chain makes will be in the direction of more industrialization and more centralization — lessons the rest of the food industry learned a very long time ago.

Local purchases support local farmers but just as surely harm farmers somewhere else. We are all local where we live.

The emphasis on local food collides with reality as well. Pollan-ites would have us keep track of “food miles” in order to cut the energy use and carbon pollution associated with the meals on our plate. But only about a tenth of the total energy required for food production is transportation-related. When differences in soil and climate lead to huge differences in yields — oranges grow better in Florida than they do in Maine — then food will travel long distances in order to concentrate production where farms can use resources most efficiently. Local purchases support local farmers but just as surely harm farmers somewhere else. We are all local where we live. An emphasis on local production favors producers who live nearby, but it consigns farmers in the vast and sparsely populated middle part of the country to second-class status. Joel Salatin, thanks to Pollan, may well be the first celebrity farmer, but he’d command lower speaking fees if his farm was located in western Kansas rather than Virginia.

Criticism of our eating habits also focuses on the way food is advertised. Food scolds worry about the marketing of highly processed food to children, the marketing of convenience to busy housewives, the selling of pre-cooked and packaged foods instead of “real foods.” But listen to older generations talk about how food was prepared in days gone by, and convenience quickly becomes something other than shorthand for bad nutrition and inauthenticity. It’s safe to say that my late grandparents at the end of their long and hard-working lives did not miss cooking over a wood stove in the name of authenticity. My parents, well into their 80s, still keep a big garden, an oasis in Pollan’s corn-belt “food desert,” but they enjoy their microwave and their trips to Sam’s Club as well.

RELATED: What’s in a Name? Plenty, if It’s a ‘GMO’

This is not to say that farmers can brook no criticism. On the contrary, it’s good when those outside the industry force us to think through our practices and change those that disregard animal welfare or harm the environment. And studies have shown some improvement in Americans’ diets in the past decade: We’re eating more fruit, and the long increase in obesity has at least plateaued. But we have yet to see major changes in what people buy. Pollan celebrates the creation of an alternative food system, but it’s still vanishingly small. Organic food makes up barely 5 percent of the total food market, and consumers get considerably less than 5 percent of their food locally or from farmers’ markets.

There have been costs to the food movement as well. It has delayed and in some cases stopped the adoption of technologies that hold great promise for the future. In Pollan’s morality tale, farmers too often are painted as unwitting dupes of corporations or as unethical fraudsters. Too many consumers believe that we’ve arrived at the present system because of greed or outright abuse; they do not credit farmers’ knowledge of the environmental, physical, and economic conditions of farming. Foodies ignore as well the tremendous advances in health, longevity, riches, and food variety that have come from the century-long application of science to farming.

In Pollan’s morality tale, farmers too often are painted as unwitting dupes of corporations or as unethical fraudsters.

Pollan is impatient and doubts that we can build the perfect food system simply by changing minds. In the conclusion of his foreword, he reiterates his call for national food policies that will push the reluctant consumer toward ethical eating. Government, he urges, should police what we eat and how we grow our food. Of course, we’ll also need a national policy to buy food for all those people who can no longer afford it, because there’s been one other change in the food system in the past decade: The number of people who are “food insecure” has increased, and the number of Americans in the “very food insecure” category has grown from 4 percent of the population to 5.6 percent. That’s probably a result of lousy economic growth rather than changes in food production, but it’s certain that every change the food movement recommends will increase the price of food, which will be devastating to the poorest among us.

Pollan is famous for saying we should eat only food that our great-great-great-grandmother would recognize. The unstated corollary is that no farmer should use a farming technology that his great-great-great-grandfather wouldn’t recognize. Returning to the farming methods my grandfather used — hard, often mind-numbing physical labor — would definitely help fight obesity, because many Americans would go hungry and the rest of us would stay thin. Foodies might approve of that lifestyle, from a distance or while on vacation — or for a limited period, at the end of which they could publish, to great acclaim, an inspiring book about their experience. Most of the leading critics of our present agriculture are much better at spotting fashionable farm-to-table eating places than they are at pulling weeds, mucking out pig pens, or changing out combine parts on cold November days.

When it first hit the best-seller list in 2006, Pollan’s book was perfect for the times, laying out a series of challenges for the nation’s leading industry. He has changed how we think about food, increased scrutiny of those who provide that food, and spawned a growing and well-compensated cadre of chefs, documentary makers, food entrepreneurs, and other self-proclaimed food experts who are always ready with a quote or a Twitter hit about the dangers of modern food production. He hasn’t done much to change the way I farm, but he’s certainly changed the way farmers communicate with eaters.

Others will have to decide whether we’re better off for all of these changes. For farmers like me, the food movement has made life a little harder; it’s made me more conscious of how the decisions I make appear to others. I spend more time talking to people who are curious but uninformed about my industry. We now all talk like Pollan, but, a decade on, we still like a good hamburger or a perfectly prepared steak.


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