Michael Pollan Speech at WSU

Several weeks back, on January 13, Michael Pollan spoke at Washington State Univeristy as part of this years Common Reading program. Having read both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Eater’s Manifesto, I was excited to have the opportunity to listen to the man speak (though, like an idiot, I forgot to bring my physical copy of the Manifesto for signing). I’ve failed to write about this sooner, primarily because I haven’t taken the time, but I did post during the event to my twitter.

At it’s source, there wasn’t a whole lot of surprises in his talk to people who’ve read his work. He’s been beating the same drum for quite a while, that modern food production is simply unsustainable.

However, it was really interesting for him to be talking to a research institution with a rich history of agricultural research. He focused a lot on the role that an organization like WSU could play in reinventing agriculture, moving away from modern industrial practices to a method that is at the same time more traditional but also based on new, as yet undone, research into what makes the most effective post-Organic farming.

In the agri-system Pollan envisions the farmer becomes an intimately involved steward of the land, ensuring balance between plant and livestock raising. For instance, one Argentian farm he described had found that growing several years of nitrogen-fixing cover crops, and raising grazing stock on those fields, allowed several years of nitrogen-stripping crops (wheat and others) to be planted in a field without requiring any additional chemical support for the farm.

He spoke of an Urban Farm in Detroit that employs (with good wages) over a half-dozen people, and feeds many more, which is run mostly in greenhouses, using vermicomposting to heat their facilities. They are even able to raise fish and watercress in a symbiotic system that, according to Pollan, produces nearly zero waste (I’d have to see it to believe it, but it’s an interesting thought). That particular farm is also covered in the most recent Urban Farm magazine, which looks to be a promising publication.

Pollan spoke often about creating a ‘post-industrial’ form of agriculture based on this research, but I think that he might be downplaying the fundamental understanding of land management that almost all farmers had before the agri-revolution post-World War II. Still, codifying that understanding through the scientific process will be necessary to prove the viability of these methods.

Pollan did discuss this briefly, but I think it needs to be focused greater on the necessity of changing the overall structure of the Western Diet. We need more farmers. We need to spend more on our food. And we need to eat less meat. Meat production is always going to be more resource intensive than growing vegetables. Catherine and I have tried to have at least two meals a week vegetarian. It’s been working well, though I’m not terribly well versed in cooking without meat.

What Pollan didn’t focus on as much as I thought he should, was the message that our expectations about food are not reasonable. We can’t eat meat every day of the week. We can’t expect to get any produce at any time. It’s about expectation management, and I don’t think Pollan expressed that enough. He did talk about it a bit, but fundamentally, it’s the biggest problem, and the one that needs to be addressed to most.