An article by Lansing City Pulse reporter Andy Balaskovitz makes the case that author Michael Pollan will need special protection when he speaks at Wharton Center tomorrow because he “rail[s] against industrialized agriculture.” To which, I would reply, “If only.”
In books such as Omnivore’s Dilemma & Food Rules, as well as numerous essays in the New York Times, Pollan offers modest solutions to the problems with our current food system. He and a slew of other writers such Novella (Farm City) Carpenter and Barbara (Animal Vegetable Miracle) Kingsolver have been educating people that we are what we eat, and that our food may not be as healthy for us and for our planet as we thought. In his new book, Pollan urges us to pay more for fresh local food, but eat less of it and eat mostly plants.
Is this really enough to spark an armed revolution?
Many people love Pollan and his sensible approach. So why is he making traditional aggies so angry that he needs plain-clothes security officers around him wherever he speaks?
The reality, of course, is that our food system is a fragile disaster-waiting-to-happen, and those who benefit from things as they are feel threatened. Even a moderate like Pollan makes them over-react, which is often a good reason to look more closely. And what we find when we remove our nostalgic blinkers is that friendly old Farmer MacDonald’s farm-and-food system has given way to:
- Factory farms where animals are crammed together so tightly that many are fed antibiotics, reducing the likelihood those precious drugs will still be effective when we need them.
- Topsoils drenched in chemicals that may not be as safe as we have been told.
- Increasingly expensive GMO seeds that require fossil-fuel-based inputs that will soon be priced out of reach if the theory of peak oil proves true.
- Food growing stale as it is shipped to us from countries with little or no environmental or labor protections, gobbling up our dwindling oil reserves on the way.
- Cities with no grocery stores, where youngsters survive but don’t thrive on chips and soda.
- A food safety system pushed to the breaking point, as incidents of food-borne illness reach frightening levels. (Are you old enough to remember when lettuce, spinach and tomatoes were safe?)
- A society where a third of children age 2 through 19 are overweight or obese.
So Pollan will collect his $25,000 check for speaking at Michigan State, after appearing “for free” at community fund-raisers at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor tonight. (Those who attend the event, however, must pay either $500 a head for the private reception or $150 for just the book signing.)
Is this well-meaning but polite approach sufficient to sound the alarm about the very real dangers we face?
Though his book “The Black Swan” is about economics and not food, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb warns us to expect the unexpected calamity – that just because today is safe, that should not lull you into thinking tomorrow will be as well.
To illustrate his point, Taleb asks us to ponder the Thanksgiving turkey. From the turkey’s point of view, his masters and the system they have created are benevolent. Every day, they give him food and water and keep him from getting too hot or too cold. But then comes Thanksgiving, and those same masters chop off his head. Perhaps in that fleeting second before the blade comes down, the turkey can ponder whether he has been a bit short-sighted to rely on the reassuring daily data prior to the Black Swan event.
Now let’s roll out a scenario where we play the role of the turkeys. An impatient Israel bombs Iran. In response, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad persuades the mullahs to scuttle a few tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, effectively shutting off much of the oil supply to the West. Global oil prices skyrocket overnight. The truckers who move our food across country cannot absorb the price jolt, so supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as canned and frozen food, stop moving. As the shelves at grocery stores empty out, people begin to panic.
If this happens in the dead of winter, what would you and your neighbors do?
In light of this scenario, Michael Pollan’s positive-but-perhaps-short-sighted prescription seems like the contemporary equivalent of munching on organic arugula while Rome burns.
A few years ago, the mayor of a bedroom community outside Lansing told me that he realized how fragile our civilization is when he went to a Meijer store during the blackout of August 2003. The loss of electricity meant that most people who rely on well-water soon found that their taps had run dry.
The mayor told me about watching a hapless young clerk try to enforce the rule that people could only buy two pallets of bottled water. “Tempers were fraying, and I could see the young guy was about to be overwhelmed,” he told me. “I was really thankful that the power came on or I would hate to think what might have happened.”
Fast forward to today when we have paranoid Tea Party folks glorifying our Second-Amendment-right-to-carry. And all of us have good reason to worry about government helping us through a crisis, with the memories of Katrina still fresh. Are we one emergency away from literally not knowing where our next meal is coming from?
(If you want to read more of my dystopian view of the future, click here for my manifesto on Progressive Survivalism.)
Yet the fragility of our food systems is not really a Black Swan event. Those are defined as incidents that catch us completely by surprise. The profound problems with our food system are no surprise to people who have been paying attention. Added to the list above is the reality that climate change and the pressures of population are dramatically reducing the amount of water available to fruit and vegetable producers in California, where half of our fruits and veggies come from, a food disaster in slow motion.
Noam Chomsky proposes that the real role of government is to keep power and wealth in the hands of those who already have it. So we have Farm Bureau insurance company lobbyists orchestrating a frenzied over-reaction to Governor Jennifer Granholm modest proposal that Michiganders go meatless for just one day. You would have thought she had announced a repeat of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, methinks they doth protest too much.
Care about global warming? There is good reason to believe that becoming vegetarian might do more to end global warming than if we all started driving a Prius. Yet going meatless, even for one day, is perceived as wildly radical.
Instead of arguing that a single meatless day would put Michigan farmers out of work, why doesn’t Farm Bureau support changes in the Farm Bill that would allow Michigan “commodity” growers (those who raise corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains) the right to grow fresh veggies for us without losing their federal subsidies? That would make it easier for farmers to diversify without risking ruin.
Defending the status quo is a booming industry. Public relations gurus such as Richard Berman churn out propaganda such as recent ad and web campaign to smear the U.S. Humane Society. He and his astroturf (corporate-funded as opposed to grassroots) Center for Consumer Freedom also collected large checks from agribusiness to reassure parents that allowing their kids to drink sodas with high-fructose corn syrup is just fine.
However, recent research at Rutgers shows that rats fed high-fructose corn syrup gained more weight than those fed cane sugar. But, sadly, there are far fewer places that can pay someone to create an ad campaign to spread messages that convey the truth.
So I am happy that Knight Chair Michael Pollan is coming to MSU to spread his messages about the importance of supporting local food and the need to re-solarize our farms. But I am less than delighted that instead of visiting a community garden project in Lansing or an urban farm in Detroit, he will spend tonight hobnobbing with Zingerman’s Ari Weinzweig, author of a “Guide to Better Bacon” and purveyor of $7-a-loaf bread.
Yes, Zingerman’s breads are delicious. So maybe it’ a class thing with me, but if we have any hope of preventing Farmageddon, I would not put my money on Michael Pollan and the Ann Arbor foodies to have all the answers.
The corn prices are wildly out of date, but the basics remain the same.