Michael Pollan, et al.

Growing up, the future was full of the miracle of scientifically cultivated food. All of our nutrients would come from engineered kelp or test-tube chicken. Food, regardless of how it tasted, would be filling, nutritious, and cheap. We humans would take the things that nature provided in abundance and improve them, perfecting those things to meet our specific needs.

Here in the future, things aren’t working out quite that way, it seems.

Michael Pollan is the author of a handful of books about food in the United States. You may have heard his pithy “food rules”?

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

There’s a short book you can buy, Food Rules, that explains and expands on these seven words. Pollan is one of the journalists, scientists, and activists concerned that the way of American eating is killing not merely people, but the planet. His food rules are a tool designed to help people navigate their way to eating in a manner that is better for everyone.

I’m reading another Pollan book at the moment, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. If you want to know why Pollan thinks U.S. factory agri-industry is bad for everyone, this is the book to read. I’m not going to summarize it here, y’all can go read it.

I keep going back and forth on whether I’m going to finish the book. My question is, what am I going to do with the information I will learn? Fifteen years ago, I read Animal Liberation, and stopped eating meat. I could not know the things that book told me, eat meat, and be the kind of person I wanted to be. Since un-knowing the information was not an option, I could stop eating meat or learn to be the kind of person who could participate in the factory-farming-system. I stopped eating meat.

So what am I going to do with the information in The Omnivore’s Dilemma? If the facts in that book create a similar cognitive dissonance, a similar fracture between practice and self-image, what am I going to do? Which part will give?

Likely, what will give is my current practices. And I will become the sort of person who shops locally-sourced organic produce at the co-op, or through a CSA. But … But shopping at Target is easy. And I can continue doing so just as long as I am ignorant. Can I keep doing so if I am deliberately, willfully, intentionally ignorant? Or do I need to finish this book in order to continue claiming the ethics I say I have? Is it enough to buy whole fruits and vegetables and do a lot of my own cooking? Or does my participation in the international GMO produce chain conflict with something I hold dear?

Well. I can tell you already, I’m going to finish the book. I can’t deliberately not know. If my household has a creed, part of that creed is Merlin’s speech from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

So, I can’t just … not know. And I am not sure what I will do when I finish.

7 Responses

  1. Don’t know if it helps but I finished the book feeling more hopeful than helpless. (it also strengthened my commitment to finding and eating sustainably raised meat, but I think we’ve had that discussion before.)

    What did bother me a bit was the unacknowlwdged privilege. Eating from sustainable sources remains something easiest for people with the money to do so.

  2. @JenN Hah, yes. For a counter, this blog post covers a few food privilege points —

    http://syrens.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/food-security-new-domesticity-and-relative-economic-privilege/

  3. A lot of localvore/orthorexic stuff can be summarized by ‘opt out of the institutionalized food distribution system.’ That’s possible for me, but would increase my food costs by anywhere from 200-400% above what we’re already doing, as well as cost me hours a week in increased food-prep time. I’d do more, but I just can’t afford it.

    When we moved to an apartment and lost the chest freezer (no room) we lost one of the best ways to deal with seasons on food (applies to meat as well as veggies). Due to upbringing issues, the “mostly plants” part of the Pollan proscription is the hardest part for me and I still have a decade or two to go in fixing it.

    I’ve read parts of Omnivore’s Dilemma. The person I live with grew up in a farming extended-family, and once a year they’d trek up to Uncle D’s farm, point at a cow, say “That one”, and a couple weeks later put the butchered bits into the basement chest freezer. That cow wasn’t raised on a feed-lot on the scale we have today, it was a ‘partial pasture’ setup as I remember, but was dead center for small-operator cattle farming of the era. Not at all organic, but you knew exactly what you were getting.

    Cost is a hard, hard hurdle to get over.

  4. @talkswithwind Yes. A huge part of Pollan’s book talks about how all the costs of agri-industry are hidden from the consumer, so it’s the cheapest thing in the store.

  5. One of the benefits of living in a rural area is that in-season produce, sustainable and ethically raised meat is highly accessible and no dearer (and often cheaper) than supermarket/industrial equivalents. The downside of course is that if it’s not raised/grown within 100km it’s vastly more expensive and I have to travel at least 60km to buy it! So I’m in rather a different position to most people and stopped being a vegetarian when I moved here.

  6. @lilacsigil Access does make a huge difference. I live in a major U.S. metropolitan area; everything I could want is shipped in. On the other hand, the growing season is very short! Five months of the year, everything is, perforce, shipped in ….

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