As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~Joan Gussow

What do you think about Michael Pollan?

I subscribe to the Association for the Study of Food and Society listserv. This week, one of the subscribers shared (what has become, in my world) a very controversial article written by one of Michael Pollan‘s critics.

Full disclosure: I am a Pollan fan. I think he has done a tremendous job of bringing food to the forefront of how we look at everything from health to environment to culture to society and to economics. He’s done so primarily through his bestselling books, Botany of Desire, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules.

Here is the article in original form; I also copied and pasted, below:

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Michael Pollan’s Misguided Food Nostalgia by Louise Fresco

Michael Pollan is the sympathetic but misleading guru of all those who would like to save the world by eating well. In his best-selling “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the follow-up “In Defense of Food,” he criticizes large-scale, fossil-fuel-based agriculture, the food industry and the nutrition science that collectively have led us to stray from the path of our great-grandmothers. We eat the wrong things, become obese and destroy the environment. Many have embraced his mantra, so simply stated in his best-selling book “In Defense of Food”: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It seems so commonsensical that one could not disagree.

But is it right to abandon’s skepticism when it comes to Pollan?

Eat food. What else, would you ask? Pollan seems to suggest that people eat things that do not qualify as food. Of course, he means “processed” foods and snacks, which he abhors. There are indeed some horrible concoctions of sugar and fat on the market, but not all food processing is bad or deprives food of its nutrition. On the contrary. Modern food processing has enormously improved the quality and the safety of our food: We benefit from fewer contaminations, fewer bacteriological infections, better taste, better nutritional quality, and so on. Today’s canned and frozen foods are infinitely healthier than in the past; canned tomatoes are even to be preferred, because nutrients are more easily absorbed in cooked tomatoes. Processing food also means that it can be shipped around the world, offering poor countries an opportunity to be food exporters, and poor farmers an income — and making everybody’s diet more diverse than ever before in human history. Yes, this comes at a cost, and we should remain conscious of the fact that eating strawberries in the middle of the winter is exceptional and should be treated as a special event, not as a matter of course.

Not too much. This depends. Moderation is healthy when an individual’s diet is balanced. But if it is not, moderation can lead to nutritional disorders. Children on a moderate diet of carbohydrates (bread, tortillas or rice) will not become overweight but may lack some of the minerals and vitamins for healthy development.

Pollan suggests that “more is less,” a slogan that may be adequate for the U.S., but one that ignores the realities in the developing world. Over 900 million do not have enough to eat and about double that number suffer from chronic micronutrient shortages. It is essential to make North Americans and Europeans understand that food production worldwide must increase dramatically to feed an additional 2.5 to 3 billion people (depending on projections) by 2050 and to allow those who do not eat enough today, to catch up. There is only one way to produce food for the future: to increase the productivity of land, labor and water (more crop per drop) by using the best available modern technology. Not by reverting to traditional, labor- and time-consuming methods that yield too little. There are just not enough people around to work the land, not in North America, not elsewhere. And unfortunately, young people, everywhere, do not take pride in being farmers anymore.

Mostly plants. Indeed, most people know that eating plants is less taxing to the environment than eating meat. But it is not that simple. In many parts of the world, such as Mongolia or the Argentine Pampas, the land is mainly suitable for grazing, so there is no alternative to producing meat. Also, meat is often a byproduct of milk production: no milk without male calves who go on to be slaughtered. Meat also provides protein and iron in a form that is more easily absorbed by humans and is a unique source of vitamin B12. A diet with milk products and fish but no meat can be perfectly healthy. But children benefit tremendously from small quantities of meat. And remember, fish is as problematic as meat when it comes to its effects on the environment. Wild fish stocks are being depleted at alarming speeds and fish farming is a major source of chemical and genetic pollution.

Michael Pollan deserves credit for having put food on the political agenda, where it belongs. His intentions are no doubt honest, although his scientific statements are often simplistic. For example, he asserts that we have replaced sun-based agriculture with fossil-fuel-based agriculture. But, of course, all agriculture is sun-based.

He sometimes errs on the side of demagogy. Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. My great-grandmothers probably wouldn’t have recognized kiwi, tofu, broccoli or tilapia. And if you happen to be Chinese, your great-grandmother did not know bread or pizza, neither did Indian great-grandmothers know barbecue. We should cherish the fact that today’s cuisine is a wonderful mixture of local tradition and ethnic importation, scientific innovation and widespread availability of food from all over the world. Our great-grandmothers cooked food for hours, losing many of the nutrients; we steam it, or put it in a microwave, or grill it in a fraction of the time.

Our collective food story is not a tale of decline, but of remarkable improvements. We are much healthier, not sicker. We are eating much better than our great-grandmothers. We are infinitely better at controlling the risks of food production. The proof lies in our increased life expectancies and the doubling of world population in the last 50 years. Of course, we still make mistakes, but we are learning. Large-scale pollution through agrochemicals is becoming a thing of the past. Rates of deforestation, too, are finally coming down. Our great-grandmothers would be delighted to know how much progress we have made and how easy it is to achieve a varied diet. They would be excited about the future, so much less tedious than their lives, and they would not recognize Pollan’s misguided nostalgia.


Louise O. Fresco is a university professor in Amsterdam, where she writes a syndicated newspaper column and serves as an adviser to the Dutch government on socio-economic policy, science and sustainability. She was previously an assistant director general at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and her entire career reflects a strong commitment to international development, agriculture and food. In addition to serving on several boards, she is currently on the council of advisors of the World Food Prize. In May 2010 she became a member of the independent review committee of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the InterAcademy Council. She has also published extensively, including three novels.

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What’s fun about being part of a listserv is that there is real dialogue (ok, virtual dialogue).  I so wanted to write a rebuttle both at the bottom of the article (where many have) but really I wanted to write a response and send it back through the listserv. I didn’t for time sake and because I am new to the listserv and am still learning its particular ethics. Holding my tongue, however, is very unlike me, if you know me at all 😉 Thus, I thought I would share a few of the responses with which my sentiments matched most:

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(1)

Sorry to bang the drum on this topic more, but the real problem with Fresko’s analysis is that she is comparing apples and oranges. Pollan is writing about and for a US (developed world) audience with significant dietary/health problems related to too many calories from meat and fat and other attendant industrial food system items. He never argues that his ideas are appropriate in areas of the world where they eat ‘mostly plants’ already.

This statement by Fresko, for instance, has nothing to do with Pollan’s arguments: “Not too much. This depends. Moderation is healthy when an individual’s diet is balanced. But if it is not, moderation can lead to nutritional disorders. Children on a moderate diet of carbohydrates (bread, tortillas or rice) will not become overweight but may lack some of the minerals and vitamins for healthy development.”

Children on a diet of only those substances will have dietary deficiencies. But children in Mexico are not fed only bread, tortillas or rice, they are fed other things with them IF THEIR PARENTS CAN AFFORD TO BUY OTHER FOOD ITEMS. Moderation has nothing to do with want. She is using the word ‘moderation’ as a scare tactic, conflated with ‘deprivation’. Moderation means something very different than deprivation, especially in a first world context, the one that Pollan writes of and for.

Fresko has been shilling for food industries as an ‘outside academic’ for a number of years now – once again, no problem with her perspective, she’s entitled to it.

But she is not entitled to pose as a disinterested academic when she is being paid by the food industry nor is she entitled to use VERY faulty and solipsistic logic to ‘prove’ her points and negate and obscure other people’s work.

Like most writers and thinkers, Pollan has some good ideas, and some not-so-good ideas. The not-so-good ones don’t negate the good ones, they simply call for responsible and complex analysis.

Janet Chrzan, Ph.D.

Department of Anthropology

University of Pennsylvania

(2)

My first impression was that she was deliberately weaving plausible half truths and muddying the issues and I wondered why. And then my friend said she worked for agribusiness and the food multinationals and the reasons became more apparent.

Before I go further I should say I have always been critical of agribusiness and the way it works against traditional farmers & foodstuffs (as well as quality artisinal food) and though not a member of Slowfood am in that general direction.

This said, an example of what she says, speaking of diet:

“Not too much [food]. This depends. Moderation is healthy when an individual’s diet is balanced. But if it is not, moderation can lead to nutritional disorders. Children on a moderate diet of carbohydrates (bread, tortillas or rice) will not become overweight but may lack some of the minerals and vitamins for healthy development.”

And the answer here if the diet is deficient in minerals and vitamins is?
To throw moderation to the wind and eat more carbs? No, the answer is to eat a more varied diet that has the micronutrients.

“Pollan suggests that “more is less,” a slogan that may be adequate for the U.S., but one that ignores the realities in the developing world. Over 900 million do not have enough to eat and about double that number suffer from chronic micronutrient shortages. It is essential to make North Americans and Europeans understand that food production worldwide must increase dramatically to feed an additional 2.5 to 3 billion people (depending on projections) by 2050 and to allow those who do not eat enough today, to catch up. There is only one way to produce food for the
future: to increase the productivity of land, labor and water (more crop per drop) by using the best available modern technology. Not by reverting to traditional, labor- and time-consuming methods that yield too little.
There are just not enough people around to work the land, not in North America, not elsewhere. And unfortunately, young people, everywhere, do not take pride in being farmers anymore.

To begin with, Pollan is addressing (from what I understand) the US and perhaps Europe, and never says that his thoughts should be applied to poorer countries. If this is true, she’s introducing a red herring. And in doing so mixes several things together that don’t really go together.

Chronic micronutrient shortages are not necessarily addressed by an increase in western-style intensive agriculture. Rather, by increasing the volume of micronutrient-rich foods, which are for the most part vegetables and fruit. And this needn’t be through wolesale adoption of modern technology and chemistry, which starts a vicious cycle in which fertilizers become necessary because of the damage done to the land.
Vandana Shiva speaks (very) eloquently about this, and says that the big problem with the traditional techniques (from the western industrial
standpoint) is that they don’t generate the income for agribusiness that the intensive farming does. As for there not being enough people to work the land, that is both true and not.

It’s true that farming is hard work. But if it can be made remunerative — something agribusiness and the food industry are doing their best to prevent by driving food prices down, while world governments watch from the sidelines — people will do it. And take pride in it. It simply must be worth their while, and give them a living wage. When a farmer figures he’s better off letting the fruit rot on the trees rather than harvest it (and this happens in many parts of Europe, where cheaper produce is brought in from abroad) something is very wrong and there’s little incentive for young people to farm or feel pride in farming. On the other hand, the winemakers I know in areas such as Langa (Barolo & Barbaresco) or Montalcino consider themselves farmers, and take great pride in what they do.

So, the bottom line is that I thought it was a shill piece before I knew who she works for, but wasn’t sure why she was doing it. Now I know.

Kyle Phillips
About Italian Cuisine
http://italianfood.about.com

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So why am I sharing this? Because I think it’s good food for thought–not all the food can go to our stomachs, some of  it has to go to our brains.

p.s. Vandana Shiva–one of my heroes in this world!

 

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3 responses

  1. I love to be a skeptic, particularly to my own political kind (fellow leftists), but this is silly. It is a total stretch and rewording of Pollan. He says “eat MOSTLY plants” not “ONLY” and she rebukes this as if he said no meat. Very irritating. I’m so tired of stupid people posing as smart ones in order to defend capitalism. Ugh.

    February 24, 2011 at 4:22 pm

  2. Linda Casnovsky

    I think she makes some valid points without bashing Pollen’s point of view.

    February 24, 2011 at 7:09 pm

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