Reviews


Many of us feel that organic is better, local even more so, and the two together unbeatable. But why?

A new movie, Food Inc., looks at the “dark” side of industrial food production, highlighting the nutritional and ecological effects of eating highly processed, inhumanely slaughtered, and otherwise unsustainably produced food.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I hope it will receive some play in Lexington (come on Kentucky Theater!). Previews have already generated a lot of buzz, including this response by Rebecca Ruiz, a health writer for Forbes.

I have to admit, I am conflicted. As Ruiz points out, activists who sing the praises of small scale, locally produced food often don’t discuss the thornier issues surrounding hunger, access, and cost.

These facts are undeniable: small scale food is healthier, but more expensive; organic crop yields are often lower (perhaps “normal” is the correct word), though prospects for long-term ecological sustainability are greater.

Many questions remain: Are those of us clamoring for locally produced food really just advocating for a privileged food class? How would the world shift food production from large to small scale and achieve this without starving millions of people? Is small scale, local agriculture a realistic model given the realities of ecological changes and increasing world populations?

Though Ruiz’s critique is serious and well-reasoned, she conflates a number of topics into one topic, while simultaneously buying into some common misconceptions. When she says, “Skeptics point out that by and large, the healthiest food is not cheapest, nor is it available in every market,” she is raising a good point, one that I’ve raised myself. When she criticizes locavores as being naive, she does so at risk of sounding like a hypocrite.

Let’s not confuse the issue of cost and access, which seems to be an American concern, with the issue of eradicating hunger, which seems to be something else entirely.

Sure, as Americans, we have access to an abundance of cheaply made food, much of it produced using industrial farming techniques. But what kind of food is it? The next time you’re at the grocery, take a moment to break the store down by types of food. You have a relatively small produce section; you have an aisle of dairy and one of meats; you have an aisle of canned produce; you have a section of pastas, flour, and other grain products. The rest of the store is mostly made up of pre-packaged, prepared foods that are full of artificial everything, extra sodium, and more sugar/corn syrup than our great grandparents probably ate in their entire lives. Is it just a coincidence that the most processed foods are the cheapest, or that rates of obesity and poverty often overlap?

So is the issue food scarcity? Or is the issue, perhaps, using the food resources we have, no matter how they’re produced, to make better quality food?

Access to affordable, healthy food is one issue, though one that I believe is only tangentially connected to the larger issue of feeding the world’s population.

To that end, Ruiz offers a slight defense of Monsanto and their ilk by saying that industrial farming techniques have been developed as they have in order to feed as many people as possible. And these techniques have fed a lot of people. However, here Ruiz is being slightly less naive than the food activists she set out to critique.

If you really believe that Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont helped develop these farming methods out of the kindness of their hearts and in order to feed the world’s hungry, I will buy you a new tractor. If Monsanto really cared about the world’s farmers, would they breed corn that has a kill gene in it (which prevents the seed from sprouting the next year, in effect making the plant a one-and-done), or sue farmers who try to save seed from plants originally purchased from Monsanto?

Admittedly, I haven’t researched the investments of Monsanto, Cargill, or DuPont, so I’m not entirely sure what all they own. But I would wager a bet that these same companies pushing enhanced/modified seeds also sell the weed killers, pesticides, and petroleum based fertilizers necessary for this type of farming. These are businesses. Their business is to make money, and making money is never about long term sustainability/success.

But what about the recent success of grain farming in Africa using these seeds and techniques? Well, as every good drug dealer knows, first you subsidize the product, then once the customer is hooked, you charge them full price. As the Punjab region of India has shown, relying on these techniques may increase production in the short term, though the success comes at an astronomical price.

Still, Ruiz and others who share her concerns can’t be entirely discounted. The real challenge in all of this is in changing how we perceive food. Cheetos are not food, nor are Cool Ranch Extreme Fiesta Salsa Doritos.

One solution would be to use the food we produce to better ends. Another solution might be to reduce the number of animals raised for meat. I’m not saying to eradicate meat consumption entirely — I enjoy a nice steak, piece of sausage, or chicken thigh as much as the next person. But Americans (and now, following suit, most of the world) eat entirely too much meat. Meat production requires large amounts of grain and other staple crops that could be used to feed a larger portion of the world’s populace. Meat on the scale that we produce/eat it is unsustainable.

As the National Geographic article (linked above) points out, industrial “green” farming techniques are only moderately more successful than organic/sustainable techniques. The larger question is whether we can encourage the paradigm shift necessary to radically change the scale and sustainability of world agriculture while still providing enough food to the world’s population? If environmental pressures continue to mount, we may be forced to answer this question far sooner than we have anticipated.

What does the word “organic” mean? That probably depends on who you are and what you want out of your food. For Makenna Goodman, organic should be a wholistic term that refers not just to a lack of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, but also to a humane treatment of the animals we eat and the soil that nourishes us. In her essay, she points out one of the dirty little secrets of the organic label — often times it’s just a label, and doesn’t necessarily reflect all the conditions surrounding food production.

But, as often happens when one among the ranks dissents, an attack is quickly issued. And, as happens all too often, the counter-attack misses the point of the argument. Farmers, or CE-Yos (as he brands himself), like Gary Hirshberg aren’t getting it.

Makenna Goodman isn’t calling for people to quit purchasing organic. She’s a farmer herself. What she is saying is that people need to show some initiative, discernment, and intelligence before blindly accepting the organic label. At the end of the day, it’s just a label, a marketing ploy to sell you something at a certain price.

What counter-critics like Hirshberg should address is the utter un-affordability of organic food. Let’s be realistic. A family with three or more members on a limited budget cannot afford to feed itself solely on organic food or food purchased from the local farmer’s market.

I would love to do that, but I can’t. Instead, I have to make intelligent choices about my organic and conventional purchases. Potatoes, celery, strawberries — these are among the items that I will only buy organic. If a chicken is hormone and anti-biotic free, but was raised conventionally? Well, a $5 or $6 chicken is a hell of a lot cheaper than the $13–$15 dollars you will pay for organic. And that organic label still doesn’t mean that the animal was treated any more humanely than it was on the Tyson farm.

If organic, as Hirshberg asserts, is truly healthier (and I don’t doubt that), then isn’t this a healthcare issue? And can we not see that this issue reflects the larger dilemma in America, where you get the healthcare that you can afford, not that you deserve?

If the organic movement is to have any impact beyond catering to the elite, it’s going to have to do two things:  address the prohibitive costs of organic food and take seriously the legitimate critiques of farmers like Makenna Goodman.

The Botany of Desire: a Plant’s Eye View of the World

Michael Pollan, Random House Publishing

 

The premise of Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire, is remarkably simple — plants and people have co-evolved, often to the benefit of both. Or, as Pollan writes, we have “ventured into the garden for the purpose of marrying powerful human drives to the equally powerful drives of plants.”

To illustrate, Pollan explores four plants and the human desires they fulfill: apples=sweetness; tulips=beauty; marijuana=intoxication; potato=control. In the process, he explores the state of agriculture past and present, the contradictory human impulses for Apollonian and Dionysian orders, and some rather frightening trends in the garden and on the farm.

It should be noted — Pollan is a New Yorker-esque writer (the chapter on potatoes was originally published in the New Yorker). He writes quick-paced, witty, urbane prose, prose that entertains, but also tends to veer far off the track. Where this otherwise excellent book falls short are those passages where Pollan explores ideas only thinly connected to his original thesis and that are lite on science.

But do not be discouraged. Though TBOD isn’t heavy on the technical, Pollan’s grasp of the science involved is more than sufficient and his ability to explain that science is strong. The chapters on apples and potatoes, the best two in the book, succinctly distill such complex scientific issues as the need for genetic diversity and wildness, monoculture and the human desire for it, and the intricate differences, both psychological and practical, between industrial and organic farming. These chapters also strike the right balance between the personal and political, the cultural, the scientific, and the historic.

The highlights of TBOD were the interesting historical tidbits, such as this one on the origin of the witch’s broomstick:

Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells”…Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms, and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oilbased “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.

Or this one, which reminds us that political savvy isn’t new to politicians and leaders:

Eventually the potato’s undeniable advantages over grain would convert all of northern Europe, but outside Ireland the process was never anything less than a struggle. In Germany, Frederick the Great had to force peasants to plant potatoes; so did Catherine the Great in Russia. Louis XVI took a subtler tack, reasoning that if he could just lend the humble spud a measure of royal prestige, peasants would experiment with it and discover its virtues. So Marie Antoinette took to wearing potato flowers in her hair, and Louis hatched an ingenious promotional scheme. He ordered a field of potatoes planted on the royal grounds and then posted his most elite guard to protect the crop during the day. He sent the guards home at midnight, however, and in due course the local peasants, suddenly convinced of the crop’s value, made off in the night with the royal tubers.

The chapters on tulips and marijuana fell far short of the perfect balance struck in the first and last chapters. Pollan’s description of tulipomania, a frenzy which gripped Holland in the 1600’s, is interesting, but doesn’t quite capture the moment as well as other accounts.

And so much has already been written about marijuana and the U.S. drug war that presenting a new perspective on this plant is nearly impossible. Sadly, rather than focus his discussion on the often ingenious techniques present day pot farmers use to manipulate the plant for their own desires, Pollan instead chooses to spend more time investigating psychological states created by the plant. Stoned writing is stoned writing, whether it is highly intellectual or just plain high.

But these are relatively minor complaints. If for no other reason, you should read this book for the first and fourth chapters. They are so well written, and the information they relay so important, that they will cause you to pause and consider your own place in the food chain and how your desires have helped create many plants as we know them today.

Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades: the Complete Guide to Organic Gardening

Steve Solomon, Sasquatch Books

When the last wave of the home food production and local foods movement has crested, Steve Solomon’s name is one that should be remembered. Part entrepreneur (he started the Territorial Seed Company in 1979), part educator (he used to teach master gardening classes at the University of Oregon), and part writer (he was written at least six titles), Steve Solomon is the best kind of gardening guru you could hope to find.

And Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades is the closest thing to a gardening bible I have found. A neighbor in Eugene first recommended it to me as he watched me struggle to get my timing  in the garden down. For those who do not live along the I-5 corridor, the micro-climate west of the Cascade Mountains provides for distinct opportunities and challenges. The weather is generally mild enough that you can grow vegetables all year long, though the summers are so mild that hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, and corn require different strategies than they would elsewhere. The winter’s rains also tend to leach the soil of vital minerals and nutrients, making the need for winter coverings all the more necessary.

GVWC addresses these and many other peculiarities of gardening in this specific region. Even if you don’t live west of the Cascades, this book still has a lot of straight advice for growing vegetables. Solomon’s tone is one of the seasoned veteran offering tips for those just coming to the art. As a beginner, I especially appreciated that he was writing for my knowledge level and skill set. As something of a veteran now, I return to this book year after year for the plain-spoken advice and insight he provides into vegetables and maximizing the conditions for their growth.

Probably the best thing I can say about this book and about Solomon is that he is wise, not given to rash advice or ill-conceived notions of gardening, and that he walks an important middle ground, one that is somewhere between organic and conventional and that might best be described as “sustainable” (if that word still has any meaning). Previous versions of GVWC (it is now in its 6th edition) used to be subtitled “the Complete Guide to Natural Gardening,” and I am not sure if the change in title reflects a change in content, or if it reflects an attempt to align the book with the trend toward all-things-organic. I rather hope it is the latter. 

One thing I have always admired about this book is Solomon’s no-nonsense approach to gardening. He isn’t what I would call a trendy gardener. He isn’t selling you a new method or radical approach to growing vegetables. He isn’t selling you anything but useful information.

Though the title and some of the content suggest that GVWC is a regional book, most of what you will find here is universal in nature.

Highly recommended. A green thumb’s up!