Poking a Sharp Stick at the Farm

As green-clad protesters filled the streets of New York City in protest of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech before the United Nations, a different set of Greens is planning to gather in Madison, Wisconsin this evening. They are farmers, and their grievance, they say, is that they have been misrepresented in Michael Pollan’s books.

Pollan’s book on diet, food science, and agriculture, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, was selected by the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the text for their first annual Go Big Read common book program. In this and his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan takes a long, hard look at the food system here in the United States, and the industries that have shaped the ways we eat. The book has been handed out free to the incoming freshmen class, and professors are using it in their classes.

Not everyone is pleased with Pollan’s description of our agricultural & dietary landscape. A similar university endeavor, the Wisconsin State University Common Reading Program, alegedly met with resistance from agribusiness and / or funding problems, and their plans to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma were scaled down until foodborne illness litigator Bill Marler offered to fund the program out of his own pocket, in the interests of intellectual freedom & healthy public debate at his alma mater. Marler’s intent was to show that the motivation for backing off from Pollan’s book was financial, not political, and he is happy to report that this seems indeed to be the case. The episode highlights, however, the importance of the issues at hand, and how easily we feel threatened when we dare to face important things in public.

Here in Wisconsin, where Pollan will be speaking tonight, a group of farmers calling themselves “In Defense of Farmers” is “organizing a show of solidarity and have invited all farmers, students, agriculture professionals and ‘people who are thankful for our safe abundant food supply’ to attend the event and wear the color green.” The group says that while it “supports and believes in the University of Wisconsin, the choice of this book and the unintended endorsement of Pollan and his views simply cannot go unanswered.” Meanwhile, Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council accused the University of “poking a sharp stick in the eyes of major constituencies,” by promoting a book that “turns its back on scientific work [in modern agriculture & food science] diligently carried out over time” at UW-Madison; and UW-Madison nutritionists are debating whether Pollan’s claims & recommendations are overblown & confused or helpful to eaters trying to make healthy food choices.

Here’s Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Bill Bruins:

The average American is disconnected from the food they eat every day. That is one of the few statements from Michael Pollan that doesn’t give me heartburn.

I hope readers will realize that Wisconsin’s diversity of farms look nothing like the picture Pollan paints of modern agriculture…. Today’s farmer feeds 143 other people, while caring for their animals and being a good steward of the land, water and air. Despite providing affordable, nutritious food, farmers face attacks from the media, courts and government. To defend themselves they must explain not just what they do, but why they do it. That gets harder when the Pollans of the world see an evil empire behind every item in your refrigerator.

Not to be a spoiler, but the big lie in Pollan’s book is exposed near its end. If we all just ate and grew food as he advocates, then eating would be a more enjoyable experience. It’s a simplistic, preachy and unscientific answer to an issue that is immensely complex. Simply put, Pollan’s plan would starve much of the world and require the rest to spend more time and money in pursuit of food. In a book littered with unsupportable claims, its conclusion is downright disturbing and immoral.

And on Wisconsin Public Radio, Laura Daniels phoned in from Cobb, WI, during Joy Cardin’s interview with Pollan to call him to task for slandering her family farm:

As a farmer, I’m excited that people want to understand where their food comes from – we feel the disconnect, too….Where I don’t see my farm reflected in your pages is where you say we are dependent upon chemicals & antibiotics & hormones, carcinogens & pesticides & pharmaceuticals & industrial waste to grow food. And this is very emotional for me because I really believe those are not the things that I’m dependent on. I’m dependent on the rain, the sunshine, and good grass, and healthy crops, and my wonderful employees, and the incredible water resources I have here in Wisconsin; and I’m so very careful to protect all of those things that I depend on.

I just don’t feel like my farm is captured in your pages, and I wish it was, because I think I’m doing a good job of feeding people. And I wish that you could help tell our story, too, all the family farmers who are working hard out here, but who really do rely on some technology to produce more food with less input. And so I wonder what you’d say about that Michael?

~(Joy Cardin show #090923C starting at about 17:30)

I was not terribly satisfied with Pollan’s answer, which seemed to miss the point that he was not — but should be — paying attention to farmers like her, who are not at the extremes (big industrial vs. “beyond organic”) of agricultural production, and who “make good decisions” for their own land that don’t lead them completely one way or the other. “When most farming is in the middle,” says Daniels, “I don’t think that’s a fair view to present to the public.”

So what’s going on here? Is Pollan a Luddite elitist, with dangerously delusional ideas that would starve the world? Or is he a revolutionary who will provoke us to demand better, more sustainable ways of living from the economic powers that be? Could he, in fact, be both?

Pollan claims (and I think that he’s right in this) that at least some of this criticism is unwarranted. He says he does not idealize one sort of farm, but would like us to explore many different ways of supplying ourselves with food, and that he understands there are already many people exploring many different potential solutions for sustainable agriculture, which he acknowledges is “immensely complex.” Whether that more nuanced way of thinking is actually present in his pages, well — we’ll find out as we read.

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