Thus is the opening line in the introduction to, and the gist of, Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food.
Pollan has a gift for taking simple concepts and expand them into the “Big Picture”. Many are surely aware of his previous book Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he presented the reader with a simple question: “What should we have for dinner?” Following three food chains – hunter-gatherer, organic, and industrial – Pollan explored not only the environmental, but the health and national security risks of how we commonly answer that simple question.
Pollan continues in his theme “what to eat” in his latest book, suggesting, in part, that much of what we eat isn’t really food at all, but “food-like substances” of which the louder the health claim associated with it, the more wary we should be as to its actual healthiness.
Sustainable food production is certainly not a new concept to readers of this blog. Pollan is an eloquent and articulate proponent of a sensible outlook on food and agriculture, and other popular books, such as Fast Food Nation, also take a critical look at our food culture. (Pollan has a suggested reading list available on “sustainable eating” in pdf format)
In a recent article published in the New York Times Magazine last month Pollan warns of the danger of proffering certain terms so much as to render their continued use less and less potent – terms such as “sustainable” – even while the concept itself remains vitally important.
Sustainable agriculture is an idea few, if any, would publicly advocate against, but Pollan suggests that when pesticide makers and genetic engineers “cloak themselves in the term” we may very well have “succeeded in defining sustainability down…”
Bees and Pigs
In the article he cites two glaring examples of our need to “reattach” the idea of sustainable farming and agriculture to its true meaning, as Pollan states it, “a process that can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends”.
First is the practice of factory farming and the alarming spread of the antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus bacteria (which Pollan notes is now killing more Americans than the AIDS virus). And then there is the poor honeybee; overworked, stressed, transported across the globe, and missing.
We’ve become very insulated from the realities of our food choices in this country and how it is the food we eat ends up on our plates. We talk much about “healthy diet” even as obesity is epidemic and Jenny Craig becomes a household name. “Eating healthy” requires programs, special diets, nutritionists, concerted effort and, apparently, is often to little or no avail. Something is amiss.
With all the well-meaning – and truly vital - discussion of sustainability, I’m glad there are voices like Pollan’s reminding us that sometimes it all starts with a simple question: “What should we have for dinner?”
Back in March I had the privilege of attending a discussion with Michael Pollan sponsored by the Trust for Public Land. Pollan is a great storyteller even as he tackles the difficult and oft-times discouraging issues of food production and diet in our country.
He is on tour promoting In Defense of Food, and I recommend taking the time to go hear him speak. For those local to the Bay Area, he will be appearing at Grace Cathedral on Sunday January 20th and at Borders Book and Music on February 4th. A full list of his upcoming speaking engagements across the country is available here.
Further Reading – Sustainable Food Production and Agriculture
The Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders
Sustainable Food Production – Developing the Principles
Organic Farming Research Foundation
Michael Pollan’s introduction to In Defense of Food
Tom Schueneman writes on environmental issues at GlobalWarmingisReal.com and Hugg.ca. He also publishes the History Blog Project which includes MarkTwainBlog.org, ThomasPaineBlog.org, and AlbertEinsteinBlog.org