Tag Archives: Michael Pollan

The Importance of Crop Diversity

Modern crop and livestock varieties are often bred for their yield, disease resistance, uniformity, and ability to withstand shipment. Our large-scale food system needs a productive, pest-resistant, shippable crop to feed a huge and widespread population. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with seeking out these traits and I can understand their importance. However, I think we run into problems when our desire for uniformity and durability forces us to compromise diversity and nutrition.

Let me share a story from the Florida tomato industry to explain myself. As surprising and seemingly random as it is, Florida indeed produces 40-45% of this country’s tomatoes. In 2005, the Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation crossed a French heirloom tomato with a more conventional, disease-resistant Florida tomato. The resulting variety was flavorful and hardy but ugly and wrinkled compared to the industry standard: a smooth, round (and flavorless) tomato. Leader of the company Joe Procacci named his new tomato the UglyRipe and its sales grew steadily once it hit the market. People really liked UglyRipes and were willing to pay a premium for their superior vine-ripened flavor. (The majority of other conventionally grown tomatoes are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas.) Indeed the tomato’s sales began to compete with those of the traditional varieties (Florida rounds, as they are called) grown by the majority of other farmers in the state.

Procacci’s UglyRipe tomato in all of its ugly glory (from Tomato Casual)

Enter the Florida Tomato Committee whose members are made up of Procacci’s competitors, other Florida tomato growers. This committee decides the exact standard of size and shape (down to the millimeter) that any tomato leaving the state must meet. Even though UglyRipes were permitted to sell for a few years as an “experimental crop,” the tomatoes didn’t meet the committee standard and were no longer allowed to be sold. Joe Procacci was forced to throw away 700 acres worth of UglyRipes and lost $3 million. Luckily, with much fighting, Procacci won exemption from the standards. But as you can see, there is something seriously wrong with a food system in which standardization and the norm can beat out a product which is better for the consumers. The idea of growing a few select varieties and excluding others for the mere sake of uniformity is clearly flawed. But the system of regulations that has grown around this idea ––the system in which the Florida Tomato Committee exists–– is even more flawed.

Yes, those are unripe tomatoes and not Granny Smith apples (from the LA Times).

As you can see, US farmers grow only the tiniest fraction of available crop varieties on a large scale. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) estimates that 97% of the cultivars grown in 1903 are now extinct, largely because of our tendency to seek out and breed those few one-crop-fits-all varieties and forget about the others. As scientist and founder of RAFI Cary Fowler puts it, we can see the thousands of crop varieties as a “genetic resource” for future generations. It is important to preserve these varieties even if they aren’t uniform or don’t seem to be of use at this point. Though one crop variety may seem to work well for a number of solid scientific reasons (like common GE corn variety 34B98 and its outstanding yields), we never know what valuable traits other varieties could offer.

In the future, these varieties may add resiliency to our food system if a new pest appears and a long-existent variety proves to be resistant to it. With this in mind, critics of monoculture argue that growing a single crop over large areas increases vulnerability to factors such as disease and changing climate. The Irish potato famine is an interesting case study to examine when considering this criticism. In the 1840s, most poor Irish farmers were growing only a few potato varieties and were very dependent on them as a source of nutrition and livestock feed. For these reasons, a new disease called late blight was able to decimate their crop and threaten their livelihood. Across the world in Peru, where potato cultivation likely began and 2,800 potato varieties still exist, many late blight resistant cultivars have been found. Though the causes and results of the Irish famine are of course diverse and complex, maybe the famine wouldn’t have been so extreme if farmers were growing several potato varieties and some were resistant to late blight. Also, it would have helped to grow a wider range of crops and therefore have more diverse sources of nutrition.

In a way, our current dependence on corn as livestock feed mirrors the Irish dependence on potatoes pre-famine: corn accounts for 95% of the grains we grow for livestock feed and a few genetically-modified varieties currently dominate our fields. So are our rows of corn plants sitting ducks for any new disease? Not at all. In many important ways, our current agricultural system is completely different from that of 19th century Ireland. Modern agricultural knowledge, techniques, and technology (e.g. pesticides and fertilizers) separate us from an agricultural disaster of that kind. As we now know, any pesticides (even organic ones that were around at the time of the Irish famine) can kill late blight and therefore could’ve helped prevent the disaster.

As a 2009 study of Peruvian farmers shows, the adoption of a disease-resistant potato variety can increase yields, as well as reduce the use of pesticides and therefore their cost to farmers and the environment. Clearly, the use and preservation of diverse crop varieties could build resilience in our food system and help us decrease the use of chemical inputs. However, our current crop varieties and approach to farming make for a food system that is in no way “vulnerable,” despite their lack of diversity.

Monocultures are ubiquitous now as our food system has moved away from subsistence farming toward commodity crops. These large monocultures can be pollutive and in my opinion unsustainable. I think that diversifying crops and varieties could help to do the same job as modern chemical inputs and reduce their use while preserving this important “genetic resource.” As we saw with the UglyRipes though, this change must be preceded by a change in our policy and mindset toward unconventional varieties, especially if we want the change to occur on the large scale farms that make up the majority of our food production. Who knows, maybe the Procaccis have shown that trying out a new variety can even have economic benefits which appeal to the more self-interested corporations out there? Others are hopefully soon to catch on.



Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan











Innovative Agricultural Methods Mimic Nature

Nowadays I think a lot of our food choices are defined by labels: is this apple certified organic? Was this chicken “free-range” and “humanely-raised” on a family-owned farm? Though labels are definitely helpful and important, in this post I want to point out that truly good farming might defy a label or a certain list of requirements. It is an entire holistic approach. And often the correct approach takes after nature in some way. This approach is effective because nature’s cycles are efficient, sustainable, and waste-free, which is exactly what we are looking for in farming. One example is Permaculture, which you can read about in my earlier post. Not only are these methods fascinating, I think they have a lot of potential for growth if applied to our current conventional agriculture model. One such method is management intensive grazing.

Management intensive grazing or MIG is the name for a variety of methods of rotating livestock on separate patches of grass (also known as paddocks). This might sound kind of boring but I promise it’s pretty cool! Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms famously implements MIG with his cattle. In this method, different paddocks are sectioned off by electric fencing so that cows only graze in one area for a certain number of days at a time. Cattle rotate between paddocks at a precisely calculated time based on the number of animals and size of the paddocks among other things. It may not seem incredibly innovative or complex, but there is a lot of science behind the technique. It offers many benefits to the land and animals.

In letting cows find their own food, fertilize the ground with their waste, and roam around with lots of room, farmers avoid costs and inputs like feed, fertilizer, and antibiotics. These benefits are similar to those of regular old grazing, but because the system is controlled and managed so precisely, the benefits are maximized to get the most out of a given area of land.

Grass-fed beef is often hailed as a sustainable alternative to more conventionally grown beef, but critics point out its huge space requirements.  They claim that it would be impossible to feed the US on grass-fed beef because it would take too much space, about 35,000 square miles or 10% of US land according to one estimate. However, this estimate does not take into account the space-efficiency of MIG. With MIG, Joel Salatin can raise 85 cows on 100 acres, which is about 1.2 acres per cow, much better than the 2.5 acres per cow that the above figure was based on.

How can we fit more cows on the land by just moving them around? In rotating cattle through different paddocks, the animals are forced to eat grasses that might not be their favorite. They therefore get the most food out of a given area. Usually a cow eats the young, fresh grass closest to its comfy spot in the shade and ignores much of the rest. In a conventional system, each cow may need a few acres of land but it doesn’t eat all of the grass on those few acres, only 30-40% according to this paper. Though I can’t provide an exact number, I’m sure the figure is much higher on intensively grazed land.

Since the farmer is making the cows move around and eat differently, MIG might seem to go against the natural behavior and diet of the cows. Yet the cows’ diversified diet and increased movement is surely beneficial to them. And when MIG and other agricultural systems copy nature, they can’t do so exactly and completely because farmers are still aiming for production and practicality. In nature every loop feeds back into itself, but on our farms we take out the finished product to eat or use. That finished product is the goal of the endeavor so we can’t forget about it in the quest to mimic nature.

In subsistence farming, a family can effectively become part of the farm food chain because it produces only to feed itself. The loop is contained. But otherwise, and especially if a farmer is growing food for hundreds of people, the farm or pasture differs inherently from its wild counterpart because it extracts and distributes that finished product. The farmer must tweak nature to find a balanced technique that produces for us and still keeps the land and creatures healthy.

The use of cows’ waste to fertilize the land helps illustrate this balance. In a conventional feedlot, cows are so concentrated that their waste becomes a pollutive problem. But what can be toxic in such large amounts is healthy in more moderated amounts. Cowpies are a natural fertilizer for the grass and help return nutrients to the land. On conventionally grazed land, the cows’ waste is enough to benefit the land but not overwhelm it. And in MIG, with more cows per acre (known as a higher stocking rate), the cows’ waste is more concentrated to optimally fertilize the land. Whereas the conventional feedlot sacrifices the health of the environment to achieve its finished product most cheaply, MIG balances the need for productivity with a need to keep the land healthy.

MIG mimics nature in that it is designed to take advantage of the fascinating and surprisingly complex relationship between grazing animals and grass. This process starts when the cow takes a bite of grass. The grass plant likes to keep an equal balance of leaves and roots so it will shed some of its roots to make up for the lost leaves. In turn these roots decay into fertile soil, and provide room for air, water, and a variety of creatures which are all beneficial to the land. We wouldn’t see these benefits had the cow not eaten that bit of grass. The grass (and the land) are actually better off with the cow around. Yet this process would end if the cow were to come back, take another bite, and prevent the grass’s re-growth. Thus the cow must be moved to another paddock in order for the grass to recover, just as a field may lie fallow to replenish its soil’s nutrients.

MIG also increases the diversity of grass species in a field. Cows may eat and cut down taller grasses and in the process make room for shorter varieties. But the cow must be moved off the paddock before they can decimate any one species (as may happen on conventionally grazed land). This precise system helps to create a balance of several different species, each important to the function and fertility of the land. With this balance, we can maximize the land’s use of sun and water. For example, drought-resistant species can thrive in drier times and seasonal varieties can ebb and flow during different parts of the year so that the field’s grasses are making the most of the present conditions and resources. Keeping every patch of ground always covered in grass prevents weed growth and erosion to maintain a long-lasting fertile topsoil.

As Michael Pollan puts it in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “the grazing of ruminants, when managed properly, actually builds new soil from the bottom up.” Though many studies show that mismanaged grazing can severely damage land, we can see that grazing indeed has a positive effect on the soil if managed properly. I find it fascinating that the most efficient and sustainable way to graze land includes the use of electric fences when the free-for-all roaming of cows may seem more natural. We might not picture tons of electric fences when we think of happy cows out on pasture, but in this case a technology so seemingly unnatural is indeed our best tool to keep nature healthy. Go MIG!

I was originally planning on talking about a number of other techniques like aquaponics and conservation tillage, but there is so much to talk about with MIG that I got a bit carried away. I’ll continue to talk about innovative farming techniques in another post. Thanks for listening to me talk about cows eating grass for so long. Below are my sources for this post:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan








The Potential of Golden Rice

First off, I realize I haven’t posted in a while but I have been working on this post for a long time and it got pretty long so please don’t be scared off by that. I promise it’s thorough! And now, for the information, thoughts, all that good stuff:

Golden rice is a variety of rice rich in beta-carotene (also written as β-carotene), a substance which the human body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A is an important vitamin and helps with vision and immune function among other things. Beta-carotene gives carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes their orange color and is responsible for the color and name of golden rice.

A side-by-side comparison of golden rice and a more typical rice variety.

A side-by-side comparison of golden rice and a more typical rice variety. (Picture from this Forbes article)

A single bowl of golden rice provides 60% of a child’s daily vitamin A needs. The rice could potentially help children in developing countries where vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and increased vulnerability to a number of diseases. Since many of these developing countries are in Asia where rice is often a staple, golden rice could be substituted for less nutritional rice to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency. According to a 2011 study, supplementing vitamin A can reduce child mortality of all causes by 24%. And golden rice can play a key part in alleviating vitamin A deficiency in the future.

At first golden rice sounds like an amazing solution to a number of problems, but unfortunately it isn’t that simple. Here comes the controversial part: golden rice is genetically modified. Scientists had to manipulate the genome of the rice plant to make it produce beta-carotene in its grains. (You can earn more about genetically modified organisms and my thoughts on them in my earlier post.) It is the genetic modification of golden rice that led a group of protesters to destroy a test plot of the rice in the Philippines earlier this month.

Though I disagree with the protester’s actions and reasoning, the event did have one positive outcome. It got people thinking and talking about golden rice in all its controversy. And people like Michael Pollan had a lot to say. Most of the scientific community strongly support golden rice. On the other hand, environmental groups like Greenpeace fight violently against the development of golden rice largely because of their dogmatic opposition to all GMOs. That said, I think they do bring up some good points that should be addressed.

First of all, is this solution effective and efficient? It’s true that golden rice doesn’t address the root problem that contributes to malnutrition in developing countries: poverty. But poverty is a complicated problem rooted in deep-seated political and societal factors. Long-term solutions to poverty are therefore complicated and require huge gradual changes. In the meanwhile though, I think that golden rice provides effective short-term aid, especially compared with other potential solutions.

Currently, some programs give vitamin A supplements (called mega doses) to children in developing countries twice yearly. Though this only costs $1 per child per year, there are several millions of children who need this help and it is a recurring cost. As economist/scientist Alexander Stein points out, many logistical problems arise when we consider the “lack of qualified medical personnel” in these countries and that “children in remote rural areas or in urban slums may not be reached and older children and adults are not covered at all.”

Golden rice on the other hand would be given to farmers for free. After that single first handout, the crop would likely spread naturally as the farmer replants the seeds the next season and distributes the rice and seeds to others. The technology gets to many people with little recurrent costs.

Some may make the argument that golden rice is just a marketing tool, something to help the PR of big businesses like Syngenta (the company that initially contributed intellectual property to the development of golden rice royalty free). It looks good to consumers that these companies seem to be working on such a admirable humanitarian cause. I agree that these companies may play the “we’re helping all the poor kids” card too often. However, the humanitarian intentions and origins of the golden rice project are undeniable. Golden rice was developed by two professors, the Swiss Ingo Potrykus and German Peter Beyer, not by any agribusiness giant with a stake in the American seed industry. The original idea for the plant came from a discussion in 1984 at the International Rice Research Institute (or IRRI), the NGO that is currently testing plots of golden rice.

The project has been in the works for 20 years or so. As Greenpeace estimates, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on golden rice, much of which game from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many people and organizations like Greenpeace often doubt golden rice because of how long it has taken to develop. However, the project might be coming along faster if it weren’t from the harmful opposition of groups like Greenpeace itself.

Also, it is easy to understand why the process would take this much time and money. A lot needs to happen between the moment the idea is introduced and the moment people can start growing and eating the crop. It took about 10 years to find the right gene to trigger beta-carotene production in rice and to figure out how to implant this gene into the rice genome. In 2005, Syngenta introduced golden rice 2, with a higher amount of beta-carotene than the first prototype. After this, studies and tests must be done to see if the genetic engineering caused other changes in the plant’s nutrition, growth, or disease-susceptibility among other things. Lastly the palatability and effectiveness of golden rice as a vitamin A supplement must be tested. And it has been tested, with positive results.

One 2012 study on 68 children showed that “β-carotene in [golden rice] is as effective as pure β-carotene in oil and better than that in spinach at providing vitamin A to children” (Tang et al.). The children’s blood was tested to deduce the level of vitamin A  present after eating spinach, golden rice, or pure beta-carotene in oil. There are debates about the validity of this study because the children tested weren’t vitamin A deficient as the target population is. That said, I still find this early study promising as it provides evidence that humans can metabolize the beta-carotene in golden rice.

From my view, the time that it is taking to fully test the crop counters some of Greenpeace’s arguments about the unintended consequences of genetic modification on the genome of the rice plant, the environment, and the health of the people eating the food. In a 2012 Greenpeace report, Though some of these are valid scientific concerns, I have faith that the people at IRRI are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the crop before distributing it (which will likely happen in the next two years).

One of Greenpeace’s concerns is that golden rice seed and pollen could contaminate the stock of traditional rice varieties in nearby fields. Rice is wind-pollinated so cross-pollination is common and as the Greenpeace report points out, there are already records of rice contamination (from non-GMO varieties). This contamination is a real possibility. For me though, the potential for good (relieving vitamin A deficiency across developing countries) outweighs the potential for bad (the possible contamination of the seed of traditional rice varieties).

Overall, despite some downsides of the crop, I support the continuing study and development of golden rice alongside author Michael Pollan, scientist/economist Alexander Stein, and environmental activist Mark Lynas.

If you agree with me about the potential of golden rice, I would urge you to sign this petition to show your support of the crop. Whichever side you’re on, make sure to check out my sources at the bottom for more information. 

I find golden rice fascinating because it represents for me the positive potential of GMOs when they are developed in the right hands for the right reasons. I maintain my position against other GMOs because the majority of these crops are completely different than golden rice in every way: they were created with different intentions by companies with notoriously bad business practices. The place these GM crops hold in America’s pesticide-ridden large-scale agriculture and the industry that backs it is virtually the opposite of the place that golden rice could hold for citizens and societies of developing countries. Instead of paying the greedy, monopolistic seed companies (who are often the same as the pesticide companies) year after year as some American farmers do, farmers in developing countries could save their golden rice seed for free and they wouldn’t be under the control of any corporation.

In fact, my main opposition to GMOs comes from how they are used currently, not the process of genetic modification itself. And I believe that golden rice is being used in a truly beneficial way. It’s not perfect nor is it going to solve the root problems that cause vitamin A deficiency, but I think it’s a great crop, a great idea, and a great start.

I know I bashed the big seed companies pretty hard earlier so once again I would encourage you to check out my earlier posts on GMOs as well as other sources of information and different perspectives before forming your own opinion on GMOs. The issue is so complex and it is always best to hear from both sides.


The Alexander Stein writing I mentioned:

The Greenpeace writing I mentioned:

Other favorite articles:


All my other sources:

New Page: Movies and Books

I spent a while creating a new page about the movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read about food and farming. Check them out in the MOVIES & BOOKS tab above. If you scroll down for a while, you’ll get to Just Food by James E. McWilliams which I mentioned in my earlier post on GMOs. I just finished this book today and I really recommend it. Even if I don’t agree with his conclusion on GMOs, McWilliams has done his research and has a lot of great information and ideas about the big controversies in farming.

And because you can never have enough pictures of chickens and garden veggies, I’ll include some photos of my garden right now as it’s starting to get going and my five beautiful chickens. (They’re even bigger than they were in the last pictures.)


Here's some rainbow chard to sautee tonight. Yummm

Here’s some rainbow chard I picked to sautee tonight. Yummm

Misty is enjoying some yummy grass. She lays little cream-colored eggs.

Misty is enjoying some yummy grass. She lays little cream-colored eggs.

The hens forage through the grass.

The hens forage through the grass.

Mandy likes perching on the bench.

Mandy likes perching on the bench.

The hens are eating their grain.

The hens are eating their grain.

Bubbles lays the dark chocolate brown eggs.

Bubbles lays the dark chocolate brown eggs.

Peach is drinking from the fountain. She lays the light green eggs.

Peach is drinking from the fountain. She lays the light green eggs.

The hens are digging around for bugs.

The hens are digging around for bugs.

These are a few of our raised beds.

These are a few of our raised beds.

The artichokes have gotten quite huge.

The artichokes have gotten huge.

Here's another lettuce variety.

Here’s another lettuce variety.

Here's one of the lettuce varieties.

Here’s one of the lettuce varieties.

This is a baby peanut plant that my biology teacher started from farmers market peanuts. I've never grown peanuts at all so I'm trying it out. I can't wait to see how it goes.

This is a baby peanut plant that my biology teacher started from farmers market peanuts. I’ve never grown peanuts at all so I’m trying it out. I can’t wait to see how it goes.

This is rainbow chard left over from the spring garden. Since it never really got that cold we have a ton of plants leftover from spring- kale, spinach, and onions among other stuff.

This is rainbow chard left over from the spring garden. Since it never really got that cold we have a ton of plants leftover from spring: kale, spinach, and onions among other stuff.

The babiest of baby apples are starting to appear.

The babiest of baby apples are starting to appear.

Beans are starting to grab onto the post and climb up. Baby pepper plants are there in the background.

Beans are starting to grab onto the post and climb up. Baby pepper plants are there in the background.

Strawberries are for me a summer classic.

Strawberries are for me quite the summer classic.

This is some Bloomsdale spinach left over from the spring garden.

This is some Bloomsdale spinach left over from the spring garden.

In one bed we have a mix of lettuces and some random kale and cabbage left over from the spring garden.

In one bed we have a mix of lettuces and some random kale and cabbage left over from the spring garden.

Here's a nearly ripe artichoke in the garden. This plant is young and just maturing so this is it's first flower. I'm excited to pick it, cook it up, and eat it.

Here’s a nearly ripe artichoke in the garden. This plant is young and just maturing so this is its first flower. I’m excited to pick it and cook it up.

This is one of Misty's eggs. Check out how orange that yoke is! Feeding her veggies gives the egg beta-carotene (which is responsible for the deep orange color and makes the eggs healthier than store-bought ones).

This is one of Misty’s eggs. Check out how orange that yoke is! Feeding her veggies gives the egg beta-carotene (which is responsible for the deep orange color and makes the eggs healthier than store-bought ones).

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the classic modern food and farming book, so I felt obligated to read it and I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I just finished it. In this book, Michael Pollan attempts to answer the question that we face as we are presented with more and more options at the grocery store: what should we eat? Meat or plants? Conventionally grown foods or local-organic ones? He investigates and travels to find the answers to these and many other questions.

Here is a video I would recommend that introduces the organization and ideas of the book. At the beginning of the book, Pollan hit me with so much information that I remember thinking, “Each one of these paragraphs could almost be expanded into a book of its own.” Pollan’s book and especially its first section will definitely show you and tell you things that you didn’t know were true. As the book progresses, it moves further from conventional industrial agriculture towards alternative ways of growing food and finally towards finding your own food. The book becomes more cultural and spiritual and less factual, which is a really interesting journey I think. Pollan becomes more and more connected to his diet as he starts to take initiative and learn more about his food. The book contains valuable wisdom and insights into food and our food system. Pollan cites many authorities that range from J.I. Rodale who coined the term “organic” to modern ethicist Peter Singer. It is clear that Pollan has done some reading and research.

Though Pollan never does give a simple answer to “What should we eat?,” his opinions become pretty clear. While I do highly recommend the book for its evaluation, analysis, and comparison of different food-production models, I warn the reader to be aware of Pollan’s bias. It took me a while to see, but I understood it more after reading some reviews of the book. At times Pollan’s opinions bring him to present ideas and information in a misleading or one-sided way.

For example, at the beginning of the book, as Pollan tries to follow a steer on its journey birth to slaughter to burger, he discusses the corn and grain based diet of beef cows towards the end of their lives. Pollan says that this diet “rarely lasts more than 150 days,” after mentioning earlier that the calf spent its first six months of life on pasture. You wouldn’t know it from what Pollan says, but 30-40% of American beef is 100% grass-fed during the cows’ entire lives. And in all actuality, there are many ranchers who feed their cattle on pasture for much longer than 6 months, often 18 months or more, before sending them off to the feedlot. And depending on who you ask or what feed lot you are at, the number of days a beef steer spends on a feedlot is usually closer to 100 days.

I am not saying that I agree with all the practices of conventional beef production, I am just defending the facts. Pollan never lies, but he does leave some things out or chooses to focus on the worst of the industry. Though Pollan has many great and insightful things to say, my one problem is that at times he presents the issues in a way that seems kind of black and white, when things are in fact much more gray. At times he seems to blow things out of proportion, state his opinions like they are facts, or just go for shock value. I suppose that it is hard to avoid some degree of black-and-whiteness when writing from a very opinionated point of view, but it is nice to be aware of the point of view when reading the book. Now that I’ve said all of this, go out, buy the book, learn something new about our food system, and form your own opinion on it! And then read some other books on the food industry and compare their ideas to Pollan’s because The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t the only one out their.


Eating Oil, Eating Sunshine

Here is a fascinating presentation by Michael Pollan, journalist and professor at UC Berkeley. I know that the video is pretty long, but Pollan’s presentation doesn’t start until 23 minutes in and I really encourage you to watch the whole thing, even if it’s in chunks of 10 minutes at a time. Pollan gives an in-depth history of the food system in the last 70 or so years. I think this video is important to watch if you’ve ever wondered “How did we get to this point, when our agricultural system is so wasteful, pollutive, and unsustainable?” or “When did we go from small, self-supporting family farms to the huge, standardized, pesticide-ridden farms so common today?” Looking back helps explain our current situation by showing us how we got here. In investigating the choices and ideas that led us to our current food system, we have to ask: “Do these ideas still hold up and work well? Or did they ever?”

In Examining our past and understanding how we came to our current situation, we can think about how we want to move forward. We may praise pre-WWII agriculture because it was more environmentally efficient, taking its energy from the sun rather than petroleum. But does is this the exact way we want to proceed? We have to decide if it will work to revert to these old ways and if that way of farming makes sense for our modern times. Pre-WWII, when people were growing their own food, the diet was less diverse and the life expectancy shorter. My grandpa told me once that never even saw fruits like kiwis or banans for most of his life because everything that people ate was grown close to home. Nowadays, many people probably aren’t willing to give up the exotic fruits grown in Hawaii or the peppers from Mexico that they can get year round because of the warmer climate. How can we apply the pre-WWII model to our  situation and adapt it, tweak it to fit the current and predicted future conditions? Maybe it will work in some places, for some people, but we’ll need to incorporate more modern technology and knowledge. We can compare new methods in farming to the old ones and ask if it meets the same standards, even if the new techniques might seem completely different from the old ones. Maybe we just have to find the timeless core idea of that old farming, its strongest central value, and preserve that in all of our agricultural endeavors.

On a different note, our chickens have just started laying! They are so fresh and delicious. Right now, just three are laying so we’re getting light green, brown, and cream-colored eggs. But soon, as they all start laying, we’ll get white eggs and dark chocolate brown eggs too. It’s pretty exciting to go out and see the eggs and think about what we’ve given the hens so that they’ll give us their eggs in return.



King Corn

I heard about this documentary a while ago and just got around to watching it. (You can watch it on Hulu.) It follows two friends’ search to figure out why and how corn become such a giant part of our food system, such a common ingredient in foods at grocery stores. It’s hard to believe how ubiquitous corn is. In this movie, Michael Pollan tells us to consider a McDonald’s happy meal. What corn could there be in a burger, soda and fries? Surprisingly, there is almost a 100% chance that the beef was fed on a diet that consisted mainly of corn. The soda’s main ingredient and source of sweetness is high fructose corn syrup. The fries have probably been deep fried in corn oil. This is all the product of a massive increase in corn production over the last 30 years, after the government started promoting a “get big or get out” philosophy with commodity crops like corn. Across the country, people are planting more acres of corn, and producing more corn per acre. This corn isn’t even edible to humans before it’s processed into corn oil or high fructose corn syrup. We’re producing more corn than we know what to do with, so it ends up in giant granaries, its supply disproportional to demand. The government has to buy the corn from farmers and subsidize it to keep them in business. Farmers are motivated to increase their yield per acre, increasing supply and feeding this wasteful, costly cycle.

To investigate this phenomenon, friends Ian and Curtis buy an acre of farmland in Greene, Iowa. They grow their own corn crop, taking part in the process from planting to harvesting. On top of learning firsthand through farming, they talk to scientists, politicians, and local farmers. They try to trace their corn’s path to the supermarket. It proves impossible because they lose track of their individual harvest as soon as it is poured into the grain elevator, lost in a sea of Greene corn. In the end though, they learn about the system so that it becomes easy to predict the corn’s journey. It will go from farm to grain elevator through processors to become animal feed or high fructose corn syrup or corn oil. Ian and Curtis learn just how ridiculous this journey is.  The system sacrifices the health of American citizens, cattle, and the environment in its pursuit of economic stability. It’s not cheap in environmental costs nor is it sustainable. It’s hard to imagine how we could change a system with so much momentum and so many people behind it.

We want to counter this “get big or get out” philosophy. We need to give our support to farms that are built on sustainability, part of a more balanced system. Knowing that corn is in so many processed foods makes me want to eat fresh, whole foods even more. And as important as personal choice is, I think that this issue ultimately requires change within the government to be solved. The government is the force perpetuating the system, so the government must be the force to stop it. The more people that know about the issue, the more who will want to fight it and get things done. Our job is just to support what we think is right and spread the word until the controversy becomes so big that the government can’t ignore it.


How Change is Going to Come in the Food System

Here is an article by Michael Pollan off his site, which is worth checking out. http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/how-change-is-going-to-come-in-the-food-system/ Pollan has written numerous books on the food industry such as The Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemna, and Food Rules. He is a journalist, but his books cover a large range from reporting to philosophizing. He is essentially the writer on the modern food system.

His article is practical and examines how problems will be solved, rather than the problems themselves. The article expresses one of my beliefs, that the sustainability of modern farming is in the end a matter of simple self-preservation. There are many people who have a deep connection with the land and see this as a reason to keep it healthy. But there are many more that don’t put any energy into forming this connection. I think the government, with its concern for economic and social issues, falls into this category. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this prioritizing. People will find what is important to them and fight for it. The environment might not even be a factor in many decisions. But in the end, whether we feel a connection to it or not, we all rely on the environment for food, for livelihood. Whether it is important to you because of its beauty or because of the resources it can provide, the land and how we use it will define how long and how well we will live on this planet.

I realize I have zoomed out a lot from Pollan’s article. Coming back, we know that no matter how much we believe in this cause, the change we want will uproot an “entrenched power.” And as Pollan points out, we have to prove to these powerful people what they can stand to gain from change before anything will happen. We have to take a practical approach to our organization, making allies as we spread and showing people how it can benefit them personally. The best approach will be not only open-minded, but practical and interdisciplinary.

In the words of Prince Charles, “It is, I feel, our apparent reluctance to recognize the interrelated nature of the problems and therefore the solutions, that lies at the heart of our predicament and certainly on our ability to determine the future of food.”


Botany of Desire

I apologize for not having posted in a while. I am now pretty settled at Chewonki so I’ll be able to post once a week, probably about this time. One of my favorite classes here is called Literature and the Land. In this class, we read a variety of stories, poems, and essays which explore the relationship between humans and our environment. It has been interesting to spend time finding a definition for nature and decide what is included in the term nature. While exploring our concept of nature, we read an excerpt from Michael Pollan’s book Botany of DesireHere is a talk by Pollan which I found very thought-provoking and eye-opening. It is a pretty old book, but I like how it reverses the default human thought that we are in charge and can have control of nature. I think this change in thought can cause a great change in our actions and choices. I think Pollan’s exploration of human consciousness and its effect on our perspectives is important as he attempts to step outside this “disease of human self-importance.”

On a different note, we have a farm here at Chewonki which I’ve had the chance to work at. The farm produces vegetables, meat, wool, eggs, and milk. Once a week, we have a “farm talk” to learn about and discuss different aspects of agriculture as well as look at what happens on our farm and other farms. Every farm talk shows me something new, and farming is getting excited as we just got three beef cattle and triplet lambs were just born. I will definitely be posting soon about different things to do with the amazing farm here.