Pollan Protests in Wisconsin

Apparently, this is going to be a particularly good year for Michael Pollan, at least in terms of book sales, as both Washington State University, and University of Wisconsin-Madison have chosen his books for their Freshman Common Reading programs. I don’t know what the freshman class at UW-Madison looks like this year, but at WSU that equates to around 3300 copies of the book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, just for Freshman. The Bookie was also offering 20% off list to anybody else who wanted to buy the book (Students/Faculty/Staff/Parents/Alumni/etc) so all told, I really have no idea how many copies of the book are now floating around the WSU campus, but it’s not insignificant.

And, it almost didn’t happen.

Due to financial shortfalls here in Washington, the University felt it was going to have to completely cut the Common Reading program, largely because the program has historically involved an author visit, but the school couldn’t afford it. There were rumours that the real reason for the cut was pressure from Agribusiness, which I’ve never seen any real credible proof of, though certainly Pollan’s book is critical of the sort of agriculture common in the Palouse (re: monoculture), an agriculture which WSU has been instrumental in creating through years of wheat genetics and hybridization. Universitry of Wisconsin-Madison, who chose Pollan’s later In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, is no doubt just as tied to Agribusiness as Washington State.

[Bill Marler], whom I’ve wrote about before, decided to provide a donation to WSU to keep Pollan on the agenda, and the Common Reading program has been moving forward, with a planned visit from Pollan on January 13th of 2010. Having read both of Omnivore and Defense, I’m looking forward to the visits, though I suspect that WSU’s experience with Pollan’s visit will be no less controversial than his visit to Madison.

Civil Eats has already broke this story down, and I’m planning on simply adding to what Paula Crossfield has had to say on the issue, though perhaps not as kindly as she has been.

First, the Defense of Farmers group. Anyone who claims that Pollan is anti-Farmer is a fucking idiot. In both Ominvore and Defense, Pollan routinely says that the small amount American’s spend, and expect to spend, on food is downright ridiculous. Currently, it’s about 10% of our disposable income. Prior to 1933, that figure was closer to 25%, per the Salem-News article linked above.

And what’s allowed for that? Mechanization. Hybridization. Specialization. The hallmarks of modern agribusiness, and they’ve done a fantastic job in churning out massive numbers of calories. However, the food that’s resulted, is quite easily shown to be not as good for us. We have the highest instances of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a whole host of other problems than we ever have had historically (but the problems in the health care industry are totally the insurance companies, right?). These problems are effecting more people every year. And younger people. In the last thirty years, incidence of Diabetes among people under the age of forty has gone up a full percentage point, nearly three times. Among older people (45+), it’s at least doubled. And when you look at Type 2 Diabetes, the type most often linked to weight and nutrition, it’s figured that over 13% of African Americans, 9% of Latino Americans, and 8% of Caucasian Americans suffer from Type 2 Diabetes.

And why would the numbers be more prevalent among racial minorities? Generally these people are poorer than Caucasian Americans (this is a generalization, and one I don’t intend to discuss the reasons for here. It’s an injustice, a pretty disgusting one, but it’s also a completely different discussion). And heavily processed foods tend to be cheaper, so they tend to be consumed more by poorer people. If agribusiness were to be restructured along the lines presented in Pollan’s book (which is basically impossible, and possibly improbable), then these people would be getting more fresh fruits and vegetables, and less corn-derived food products. And, yes, they’d be paying more for it. Which might not be a bad thing. More money on food, less on Cable TV and other non-necessities.

And, there would be more jobs for farmers. Higher prices paid to farmers (particularly if Farmer’s Markets can become more prevalent). It might actually be possible for a farmer in the corn belt, or the heart of the dairy belt, to survive without government subsidy. And to make more money than they do now. And, we’ll be taking better care of the soil, and ourselves. No more hypoxic algae blooms. No more nitrate contamination of drinking water (There is no corroborating evidence of the so-called ‘blue baby syndrome’, but artificially high nitrate levels have been shown to negatively impact water life). And most likely, a decrease in the incidence of obesity and it’s host of related health problems that have begun to plague the developing world.

But we live in a post-consumer economy. It’s hard to sell people on the idea that we need, in the words of Arthur Sinclair to “get a lot of white collars dirty.” We need more farmers, and we need people who are willing to spend more money on food. And those two goals…might be tough to reach. Still, neither of those goals are anti-farmer. In fact, they’re far more pro-farmer than any agricultural policy than we’ve seen in a long time. They’re ideas that seek to make sure that Farmer’s can actually afford a living wage, and not be dependent on government subsidies, because the current food system is a boon to Monsanto, Tyson, and other large-scale agribusiness. Not to the American farmer.

The second point I’d like to address, are comments by John Lucey, Madison professor and food scientist, who was quoted by the AP as complaining about how Pollan says Food Science has merely broken foods down to nutrients, and completely missed the point of the work in the strides that food science has made in food preservation, food safety, and meal prepration time. Now, Food Safety is kind of a joke. Just read Bill Marler’s Blog, we have one of the most unsafe food systems in the world, and most of it is because of the work of modern food science, which has created this single supplier system we have. A food safety problem at a single plant, can make people sick nationwide, something that was never possible before the shelf stabilization and preservation additives that Dr. Lucey is claiming are so great. Which is to say nothing of the other risks such additives occasionally supply.

A lot of these problems are not the blame of food scientists. And not all additives have been linked to potential health risks due to overexposure (and it’s really easy to be overexposed to food chemicals these days). However, food science has not proven to be a panacea, and while there has been good things to come from it, it hasn’t made us any safer than we used to be. If anything, food science has caused most people to lose any sort of cultural knowledge of food, instead trusting it to the supermarket and the labels therein, which is the real crime in Pollan’s eyes.