The Problem With Pollan[ism]; Or, Why Simplistic Thinking Won’t Solve the “Food Crisis,” Part 5 of 5

Part OnePart Two —- Part Three —- Part Four —- Part Five

Part of the problem is that intentionally or otherwise, the dialogue about the “food problem” is being driven by people who are, if I may be blunt, a bit clueless.

If Michael Pollan actually tried to grow, process, and harvest his own food, he sure wouldn’t have time to write books and essays that analyze the crisis of American food. (Of, he could do it for a year as an experiment and then write a book about it, except that Barbara Kingsolver already did that. Note that both she and Pollan are part of the monied leisure class and have the wherewithal do try such an experiment.)

And I don’t say that to be snarky. There’s simply no way can someone crank out a book AND practice self-sufficiency. Thoreau’s mother and sister brought food out to the pond and took his dirty laundry into town where, no doubt, a servant washed it.

So what’s my point? I appreciate Pollan’s efforts to draw attention to the “food problem” in the U.S. I appreciate and admire all the young people who are spending so much time touting “local” foods, farmers’ markets, locavorish behavior, etc.

But I think all of them, including Pollan, are oversimplifying both the problems and the solutions. Worse, I see in them a kind of class-blindness, or (and I hate to use this word) elitism, that will alienate large chunks of the population and/or cause many people to tune out those who are trying to articulate a substantive critique about the complex problems of growing, producing, and eating food in a post-industrial society.

The rest of us live out here in the real world, where fashionable food isn’t at the top of the list of our daily priorities.

Is there a problem in American eating culture? Yes. When people regard Twinkies as real food, there’s a problem. I’m not sure what will solve the problem — but nattering at people about gardening and cooking ain’t gonna do it. Mind you, I certainly don’t have the “solution.”

Frankly, I’m not even sure what the problem is. Indeed, part of the problem is that the “problem” itself has been couched in absurdly simplistic terms — “Industrial farming is evil!” “Fast food is evil!” “Processed foods are evil!” Simple black-white statements like that lead to simple solutions (“Everyone plant a garden!”) that aren’t solutions at all.

Result? The truly complex issues related to food are being obscured by knee-jerk simplistic thinking. And when adults reduce both problems and solutions to simplistic equations, people who might otherwise disagree in a civil manner become antagonistic. They tend to shout at each other rather than discuss; to talk past rather than to each other.

(A good example is the debate over abortion. Early on, both sides grossly simplified a complex issue, and that issue quickly became an emotional all-or-nothing free-for-all.)

So, again, I don’t have solutions. Haven’t articulated a coherent statement about the problem. But I know that we need fewer starry-eyed essays about cooking and gardening, less knee-jerking and daydreaming, and more substantive critical thinking. In between, of course, figuring out what’s for dinner tonight.

12 thoughts on “The Problem With Pollan[ism]; Or, Why Simplistic Thinking Won’t Solve the “Food Crisis,” Part 5 of 5

  1. Reading this series and all the articles you linked to (I believe between parts 4 and 5) is SUCH a relief. I’m another person who believes in a lot of what Pollan has to say but finds his tone somewhat….off-putting. When, exactly, does real life factor in to food decisions in his world? Thanks for writing this and making me feel less alone in my cranky foodieness.

  2. Melanie, I LOVED your book GIRL SLEUTH. Andrea gave me a copy (I hasten to add that I then bought two to give as gifts) and I devoured it. And I’ve never read (to my recollection) any Nancy Drew books! Absolutely first rate research and writing.

  3. Maureen – terrific series of posts. I missed the Pollan piece in the NYT last week that kicked off so much of this discussion. I’m off to read it now. I understand from that other fellow’s blog the piece was wrapped around the discussion of the Julia/Julie movie.Can I admit that I loved that book and have no intention of seeing the movie. Movies never match what I see in my own head when I read!I’ve been growing lettuce and beans this summer. Let’s be kind and say they have been successful – but hardly a sustainable effort. There isn’t much romance in all the digging, weeding, watering and fussing with the garden. Growing your own food for “real” survival would be WORK. Imagine the heartbreaks of a bad season or animals eating your crop. What if you fail in putting up the food and it spoils. Imagine never having an orange again… I won’t, we can’t grow them here.Be well, nice work.

  4. Dawn, always so lovely to hear from you. (I missed What’s It Wednesday when you were on hiatus.)Ha! Yes, gardening. Such fun, eh? And, yeah, who wants to give up citrus, fresh cherries in the summer, etc.? Not me!

  5. Nicely put, Maureen. Answers are not easy to come by, and the ‘corporations are evil and greedy’ meme is much too tidy.

    “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – Mencken

  6. I agree that knee-jerk reactions are never good, but I feel you’ve misrepresented Pollan’s work. Pollan’s books have been so influential because they are the opposite of what you claim they are. I don’t know if you’ve read them, but he never frames the argument in “good” versus “evil” terms. He proposes that farms become smaller operations and sell locally, using natural, sustainable (and in the long run surprisingly efficient) farming practices, and he never once claims that each individual should grow all their own food.

    And by the way, Thoreau, in fact, did live off of the food in his garden and his own labor, which he occasionally traded for meat from his neighbor. He received pies occasionally from his mother, but rarely; and he mentions his contact with his family in the book, but most people think it’s big news.

    • This series of posts dates back to 2009, and was a response to an ARTICLE Pollan wrote for the NYT about cooking. No, I’ve not read the new book, and make no claims to have done so — because this post references an article of his, not his new book.

      Nor do I think I’ve misrepresented the article I’m commenting on OR the larger “food crusade” as it was unfolding back in 2009.

      As for his books, I’ve read BOTANY OF DESIRE and OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA. Loved the first, was dismayed by inaccuracies in the second. But no one’s perfect, right?

      And I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about why P’s books are so popular. (He’s a terrific writer; he’s riding a wave; he presents complex issues in ways that a large cross-section of the public can understand. Nuthin’ wrong with that!)

      And THANK YOU for taking time to comment. I appreciate it.

      • Okay, I didn’t realize that your post was a response to an article of his, so that makes more sense. And I agree that Pollan can be starry-eyed at times, but the arguments in Omnivore’s Dilemma are certainly substantive especially his argument that monoculture has tricked the omnivore into thinking that she’s eating a variety of foods but is essentially eating only corn and soy. I’d say that Pollan’s project of exposing the shady food industry for it’s (dangerous) faking of food is a step toward a real solution. But anyway, sorry for the tone in my first comment…The Internet has a strange effect on me–talk about knee-jerk reactions 🙂

      • Oh, hey. No problem! I think we disagree about the larger issues — but disagreement makes the world go ’round, right? And again, what matters is that you care enough about SOMETHING to comment on it. I’d rather that than worldwide apathy, if you know what I mean.

  7. I just chanced by this series of posts and wanted to say that I really appreciate it. I’ve read a few of Pollan’s books and I like them. Your posts, as well as those of Adam Merberg’s have helped me develop a better understanding of the food system.

    I do have an issue with this post, though:

    “I appreciate and admire all the young people who are spending so much time touting “local” foods, farmers’ markets, locavorish behavior, etc.
    But I think all of them, including Pollan, are oversimplifying both the problems and the solutions.”

    How exactly does supporting locavorism translate into oversimplification? And why am I an elitist just because I think it is important to support local farmers? Have I argued that those shopping from Wal-mart are somehow committing a crime?

    Is it not possible to encourage both support of farmer’s markets as well as a deeper and more substantive conversation about food in a ‘post-industrial’ society? (Quotation marks because I don’t know enough to be confident about claiming that this is, after all, a post-industrialist society.)

    I think you’re setting up a straw man here. Most people I know who support local food systems aren’t naive enough to believe that switching retailers (for example) constitutes a ‘solution’. In fact I personally don’t believe there IS such a thing as a ‘solution’ – it’s all just a work in progress.

    My comment applies to this broader series too.

    While I think you’re making really good criticisms, I think you have unintentionally weakened your own argument by misrepresenting Pollan’s arguments. I don’t think he expects everyone to give up the rest of their lives and start farming, nor does completely ignore the issues around cooking that you have highlighted. I think that for the most part, he’s encouraging people to think more carefully about food and to start cooking – and those are positions that I think you hold as well.

    It just comes across as disrespectful when you write as if others are somehow unbalanced and irrational.

    Hope you understand where I’m coming from, and I look forward to reading your book if possible!

    • Hi, N: (And I gather your name is Nabeel?) Thank you for this delightfully thoughtful response. (And sorry took me so long to get to your comment: my family is here visiting this week and I’m otherwise occupied).

      First: some background: You may have noticed that I wrote this in 2009. At the time, I was only about halfway through writing my new book about meat (it’s now finished and comes out in November). And I’d be the first to agree that this is a simplistic response to something I didn’t know enough about at the time.) I wrote it in response to Pollan’s cooking essay in the NYT.

      I would agree that Pollan himself has sharpened his view since 2009 (in his own new book about cooking).

      But since 2009, I’ve also refined my own view. And I agree 100% w/you that “fixing” food (assuming it needs fixing) is indeed a work in progress and that there isn’t a single “solution” (if only because first we’d have to figure out what the problem is.)

      In 2009, I was thinking about how many people urged eating locally as THE SOLUTION to a complicated problem. And the problem is so much more complex than I realized back in ’09. So:

      Eating locally is dandy. So are all these young people heading off to the countryside to work as farmers. That’s all great! So is encouraging people to cook (as I noted in the blog series and on other occasions here at the blog, I cook 99% of the meals eaten in my household. I’m all for cooking. And for eating sensibly.)

      BUT: and there’s always a but — I still would argue that too many Americans are over-simplifying both evils, such as they are, and solutions. Those who favor eating locally, for example, often (not always) also argue in favor of pasture-raised livestock, and small, local farms, and for organic production.

      That’s all great, but it’s impractical when it comes to feeding an urban nation. (And again, I’m focusing on the US, not the rest of the world). Over the past century, American farming has become ever more efficient so that a tiny number of farmers could effectively feed a majority of city dwellers and feed them at a) low cost to those urbanites; and b) at a profit to the farmers. (Because one problem with ag in an industrial society is that satisfying price-conscious consumers means that farmers often fail to make a profit).

      The core of that equation is the city dweller, the urban majority. There simply isn’t anyway to PRACTICALLY feed an urban majority using small, local farms, local producer, etc. Those things can supplement a food system, but they can’t possible replace the one we have.

      But there are other practicalities: many people who support eating locally also wanted pasture-raised animals. Where is that land to come from? One reason farmers use CAFOS in the US is because land costs are so high (confinement maximizes scarce land and labor). Why so high? Because ag must compete with urban development for that land. Competition drives up price.

      Put another way, in order to switch from CAFO to pasture, someone has to give up land — we’d likely have to raze entire neighborhoods, shopping areas, etc. AND then there’s the issue of labor: local, small-scale farming is relatively labor inefficient. I’m not volunteering to return to the countryside to grow food.

      And one reason I can sit here at my desk and make this argument (again, such as it is) is because I DON’T have to spend my days growing and processing food. Someone else does that for me. Super-efficient agriculture frees up intellectual capital for many rather than for just a few.

      So: yes, I overstated the argument back in 2009. Although so, I might add, do others. Pollan’s argument is more nuanced, but as his views spread through larger groups of people, oversimplification becomes inevitable so that the result is that entirely too many people are advocating for overly simplified solutions.

      I say: let’s step back and have a more nuanced discussion. (Which is what I’m hoping my book will facilitate.)

      Anyway. More of a response than you actually wanted, and one zipped off in between chasing my 4-year-old grandson around the house…. I’ve written more about these topics. If you have time, take a look at a short piece I wrote about the proposed sale of Smithfield foods.

      Again, many many thanks for taking time to read and comment. I appreciate it more than you may realize!


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