Home > data science, math education, musing > Update on organic food

Update on organic food

August 19, 2012

So I’m back from some town in North Ontario (please watch this video to get an idea). I spent four days on a tiny little island on Lake Huron with my family and some wonderful friends, swimming, boating, picnicking, and reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan whenever I could.

It was a really beautiful place but really far away, especially since my husband jumped gleefully into the water from a high rock with his glasses on so I had to drive all the way back without help. But what I wanted to mention to you is that, happily, I managed to finish the whole book – a victory considering the distractions.

I was told to read the book by a bunch of people who read my previous post on organic food and why I don’t totally get it: see the post here and be sure to read the comments.

One thing I have to give Pollan, he has written a book that lots of people read. I took notes on his approach and style because I want to write a book myself. And it’s not that I read statistics on the book sales – I know people read the book because, even though I hadn’t, lots of facts and passages were eerily familiar to me, which means people I know have quoted the book to me. That’s serious!

In other words, there’s been feedback from this book to the culture and how we think about organic food vs. industrial farming. I can’t very well argue that I already knew most of the stuff in the book, even though I did, because I probably only know it because he wrote the book on it and it’s become part of our cultural understanding.

I terms of the content, first, I’ll complain, then I’ll compliment.

Complaint #1: the guy is a major food snob (one might even say douche). He spends like four months putting together a single “hunting and gathering” meal with the help of his friends the Chez Panisse chefs. It’s kind of like a “lives of the rich and famous” episode in that section of the book, which is to say voyeuristic, painfully smug, and self-absorbed. It’s hard to find this guy wise when he’s being so precious.

Complaint #2: a related issue, which is that he never does the math on whether a given lifestyle is actually accessible for the average person. He mentions that the locally grown food is more expensive, but he also suggests that poor people now spend less of their income on food than they used to, implying that maybe they have extra cash on hand to buy local free-range chickens, not to mention that they’d need the time and a car and gas to drive to the local farms to buy this stuff (which somehow doesn’t seem to figure into his carbon footprint calculation of that lifestyle). I don’t think there’s all that much extra time and money on people’s hands these days, considering how many people are now living on food stamps (I will grant that he wrote this book before the credit crisis so he didn’t anticipate that).

Complaint #3: he doesn’t actually give a suggestion for what to do about this to the average person. In the end this book creates a way for well-to-do people to feel smug about their food choices but doesn’t forge a path otherwise, besides a vague idea that not eating processed food would be good. I know I’m asking a lot, but specific and achievable suggestions would have been nice. Here’s where my readers can say I missed something – please comment!

Compliment #1: he really educates the reader on how much the government farm subsidies distort the market, especially for corn, and how the real winners are the huge businesses like ConAgra and Monsanto, not the farmers themselves.

Compliment #2: he also explains the nastiness of processed food and large-scale cow, pig, and chicken farms. Yuck.

Compliment #3: My favorite part is that he describes the underlying model of the food industry as overly simplistic. He points out that, by just focusing on the chemicals like nitrogen and carbon in the soil, we have ignored all sorts of other important things that are also important to a thriving ecosystem. So, he explains, simply adding nitrogen to the soil in the form of fertilizer doesn’t actually solve the problem of growing things quickly. Well, it does do that, but it introduces other problems like pollution.

This is a general problem with models: they almost by definition simplify the world, but if they are successful, they get hugely scaled, and then the things they ignore, and the problems that arise from that ignorance, are amplified. There’s a feedback loop filled with increasingly devastating externalities. In the case of farming, the externalities take the form of pollution, unsustainable use of petrochemicals, sick cows and chickens, and nasty food-like items made from corn by-products.

Another example is teacher value-added models: the model is bad, it is becoming massively scaled, and the externalities are potentially disastrous (teaching to the test, the best teachers leaving the system, enormous amount of time and money spent on the test industry, etc.).

But that begs the question, what should we do about it? Should we well-to-do people object to the existence of the model and send our kids to the private schools where the teachers aren’t subject to that model? Or should we acknowledge it exists, it isn’t going away, and it needs to be improved?

It’s a similar question for the food system and the farming model: do we save ourselves and our family, because we can, or do we confront the industry and force them to improve their models?

I say we do both! Let’s not ignore our obligation to agitate for better farming practices for the enormous industry that already exists and isn’t going away. I don’t think the appropriate way to behave is to hole up with your immediate family and make sure your kids are eating wholesome food. That’s too small and insular! It’s important to think of ways to fight back against the system itself if we believe it’s corrupt and is ruining our environment.

For me that means being part of Occupy, joining movements and organization fighting against lobbyist power (here’s one that fights against BigFood lobbyists), and broadly educating people about statistics and mathematical modeling so that modeling flaws and externalities are understood, discussed, and minimized.

  1. Adam Merberg
    August 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Regarding the fertilizer issue (Compliment #3) there’s an underlying physical issue which Pollan either doesn’t understand or doesn’t explain very well at all. He writes, “The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an eco-system that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun.”

    I understand how a food system can draw energy from the sun. There’s a lot of solar energy to be used. But fertility? Fertility is matter, including elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other elements. Other than nitrogen, if you remove these elements from a plot of land (when crops are harvested), you have to replace them, and you don’t just find these elements in sunlight. That’s just the law of conservation of mass. It’s true that fertility is more complex than nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but I don’t think anybody denies that plants need these elements, and the laws of chemistry obviously still apply.

    Nitrogen is a bit of a special case because it can be converted from the elemental form (which makes up most of the atmosphere) to the biologically useful form by nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots of legumes. That process is powered by solar energy, but it doesn’t seem to be what Pollan is talking about.

    Consider Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, the book’s model for sustainable agriculture. Pollan writes, “The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season.” Incredibly, in the very next sentence, he goes on to write, “Apart from some greensand (a mineral supplement to replace calcium lost in the meadows), chicken feed is the only important input Joel buys, and the sole off-farm source of fertility.”

    Pollan recognizes the chicken feed as a source of fertility, but he misses the point that the nitrogen in the chicken feces is actually just coming from the feed. He is disastrously wrong when he claims that Polyface is “completely self-sufficient in nitrogen.” Polyface just imports its nitrogen in the form of feed grains, rather than using industrial fertilizers directly.

    It seems to me that Pollan believes that the chickens are actually making nitrogen. The reality is that it still has to come from somewhere. So I can’t help but wonder if the reductionism of N-P-K is much harder to avoid than he wants us to believe.


  2. Mike Licht
    August 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Your last link is to a website that’s not too informative. I prefer the blog at Food Democracy Now. Dave Murphy keeps it up to date.



  3. Dan L
    August 19, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    In fairness to Pollan, the book is not really a “call to arms,” so it’s hard to fault him for not presenting an action plan. I read it assuming it would be a polemic, but he is not really trying convince as much as educate (though it is clear were he stands on many issues). The title of the book is very appropriate: We have a wealth of choices about what to eat at every meal, and the book is really about explaining what’s lying behind those choices. He has another book called Food Rules (that I’ve never read) which is more about telling you what to eat once you’ve decided you want to follow his lead.

    I agree that the hunting-gathering part is precious, but it’s still interesting. I really liked the section on vegetarianism.

    Do you still think organic food is bullshit?


  4. August 20, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Regarding complaint #2: I walk to my local farmers’ market, where i find delicious organic and “transitional” produce for significantly less than the local supermarkets.


  5. Robin Uberbacher
    August 23, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Ditto to what Matte said above. Even the local grocery stores have a good supply of organic food now. They’re learning, however slowly.


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