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Pollan's Folly in a Nutshell: "Food Inc.," "Fresh" and Beyond

by: Brad Wilson

Wed Jan 13, 2010 at 11:38:33 AM PST


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I've been working at some reviews of food books and films.  The other day, while working though Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, I think I finally figured out just where Michael Pollan ends up in his analysis of the Commodity Title of the Farm Bill.  

I'm picking on Pollan here (ie. folly) in the spirit of Noam Chomsky, who often chooses the strongest opponent or argument to debunk.  Pollan clearly is doing a lot of things right.  That's a given for me which I rarely expand upon.  He almost gets this issue right.  Bottom line?  Pollan just ends up siding with Cargill and ADM (see quote below, and then my analysis) as a sort of default policy position.  He leads most others in the food movement, bringing a huge load of folks way up, almost to the peak of the mountain, . . . but then he fails to take the final step and, like Sisyphus, it all goes rolling back down to the valley and down into the depths of the dark canyon (as in food movement, mainline church, progressive positions on the 2008 farm bill) of inadvertent support for multi billions for the giant agribusiness beneficiaries.

Now, Pollan can often be quoted against himself.  The Omnivore's Dilemma is a 450 page book in which he talks briefly about the farm bill here and there, and here and there, and here and there.  He'll talk one way for a while and then say, well, actually that's not really true the way it sounds.  That's usually good.  These are dilemmas that are either reconciled fairly well (as I'm arguing here and elsewhere) or that digress into negantropic vicious circles, as in the 1996, 2002 and 2008 farm bills, or that do the latter in a "green" way, as also in those farm bills.

Actually I spoke to Pollan about this very matter when he was in Iowa City a year or two ago and I thought he was on board.  I must have been wrong, according to the evidence, (the quotes,) I've presented below.

Brad Wilson :: Pollan's Folly in a Nutshell: "Food Inc.," "Fresh" and Beyond
Pollan's Stand, in His Own Words

My eureka moment came after reading this:  "America embraced a cheap food farm policy and began dismantling forty years of programs designed to prevent overproduction."  (p. 103, The Omnivore's Dilemma).

I think.  Ok, combine it with this and then that's what gave me the "aha:"

"Simply eliminating support for farmers won't solve these problems; overproduction has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies. It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how ....  But the guiding principle behind an eater's farm bill could not be more straightforward: it's one that changes the rules of the game so as to promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and above its quantity.... One of these years, the eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and we will have the political debate over food policy we need and deserve." Michael Pollan, "The Way We Live Now," http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04...

There!  See!  Yes, that's it!  Well, no, what I really mean also includes these other quotes

Quotes Where Pollan Sums up His Views, in a Nutshell.

"Very simply, we subsidize high fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots." Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, end of chapter 5, p. 108.

"We've skewed our food system to the bad calories, and it's not an accident.  I mean the reason those calories are cheaper is that those are the ones that are heavily subsidized.  And this is directly tied to the kind of agriculture that we're practicing, and the kind of farm policies that we have.  All of those snack food calories are the ones that come from the commodity crops, from the wheat, from the corn, and from the soybeans.  By making those calories really cheap, that's one of the reasons that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level...."  Michael Pollan in the documentary film Food Inc.

"... We need to basically level the playing field.  Right now we're heavily subsidizing  every calorie of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil, which are the building blocks of processed food and the least healthy foods we're eating, and we're not doing anything to subsidize and support the growing of healthy fresh produce."  
Michael Pollan in the Documentary Movie Fresh

"We cut subsidy checks directly to farmers for every bushel of corn they can grow.  That seems like a good deal for farmers, but in fact it isn't. Who it's a good thing for are the buyers of cheap corn, the food processors.  ADM and Cargill are very important players ... they have enormous power in agriculture because they're selling farmers seed, they're selling farmers the fertilizer, they're selling farmers pesticide.  After farmers have grown the corn and the soy, they're buying it from them at the elevator, and then turning around and processing it into the high fructose corn syrup ... and they've got feedlots...."
Michael Pollan in the Documentary Movie Fresh

("But how do you change it,...?" John Stewart)  "There are   a whole lot of things they can do.  I mean one is right now we subsidize the least healthy calories in the supermarket.  We subsidize high fructose corn syrup with our farm bill.  We subsidize hydrogenated soy oil, and we don't have to do that. We should figure out ways to encourage the production of real food, of fruits and vegetables." Michael Pollan, The Daily Show, 1/4/10, http://www.hulu.com/watch/1185...

There are many more such examples on YouTube and in Pollan's writings, and beyond that, all across the food movement, (often far worse).  The films The Future of Food and Fed Up contain very similar quotations (I've mislaid my copy of Corn King, but it makes the mistakes the same mistakes I'll deconstruct below.  When I find my copy I'll add quotes from it here as a comment.

Ok, what's it?  Well, in each case, technically (and in the farm bill, the technicalities matter) he supports Cargill and ADM, Tyson and Smithfield, right down the line.  Technically.  I'm not saying he's doing it by intention or values.  He's certainly, obviously not doing it by rhetoric.  His rhetoric all goes the other way, against exploitation by agribusiness.  I understand that.

Deconstructing Pollan

Ok, what I see here first, (farther above, "Pollan ... in His Own Words") is that he knows that we once had policies (ie. to address overproduction) that were very different and that sort of worked (his interpretation) or maybe worked pretty well.  That was for another historical context.  Then we changed.

Ok, now I switch to the film  and other quotes ("Pollan ... Nutshell").  What's wrong is that we changed to subsidies for the bad stuff but not for the good stuff.  That's quite clear and it sounds very sensible.  It's just false.  The false part is not that we changed as he describes.  The false part is that subsidies for the bad stuff are what's wrong.  Wow, aren't I counter intuitive.  Such is the task of deconstructing Pollan (and the movement).

Pollan knows this, of course.  He says so (back up to "His Own Words"):  "Simply eliminating support for farmers won't solve these problems."  Correct.  He's taking that last step to the mountain peak .....

Ok, so what is the solution for today from this movement leader, from Omnivore's Dilemma, from 2,200 words in NYT magazine, from Food Inc., Fresh, Fed Up, Corn King and The Future of Food?  Add them all up.  What are all of the suggestions for addressing this central concern related to subsidies, this concern over "making those [bad] calories really cheap"?  

Well, Pollan says, ("in a Nutshell") it's caused by subsidies.  That's about all you get in ALL OF THESE FILMS ADDED TOGETHER (ie. beyond eating differently yourself, and that's not at all about specifically making the bad calories less cheap).  So get rid of them?  Well, to quote Pollan against Pollan, no, that "won't solve these problems."  

Ok, but surely there's more, right?  Yes, Pollan states, and I repeat the quote:  

"It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how ....  But the guiding principle ...  could not be more straightforward: it's one that changes the rules of the game so as to promote the quality ... above its quantity.... One of these years, the eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and we will have the political debate over food policy we need and deserve."  

Ok, discuss.

Ok, what did you see there?  1.  It's something not yet thought up and Pollan apparently doesn't know what it is.  2.  But we know what it should accomplish in very broad brush strokes.  3.  "Eaters" are the go to group to figure it out.  4.  At some unknown time in the future, "eaters" will start discussing it (like I just had you do?).  5.  (Implied)  Then,  someday, the eaters will, (hopefully?) figure it out and fix it.

Do You Get It?  Do You Get the Point?  

What point?  I'll tell you.  The Omnivore's Dilemma.  Wham!   Fed Up.  Wham!  The Future of Food.  Wham!  Corn King.  Wham!  Food Inc.  Wham!  Fresh!  Wham! New York Times Magazine.  Wham!  That is:  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  The Food Movement shocks the sleepwalkers awake and into action!

To, ... uh, ... uh, ... well, gee, maybe someday also discuss the solution, and, I don't know, maybe eaters will turn out to be the experts and figure out how to change, what?, farming, the farm system, to change AWAY from (insert here the problem, so well described (Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!  Wham!) and TOWARD Pollan's "guiding principle could not be more straightforward" (mumble, mumble, mumble).

I challenge readers of this to defend Pollan, the films, etc. on this, the biggest issue (problem without a solution) they correctly raise about the farm bill. Hey, in so many ways, they're terrific!

Finally

Ok, this simple diary ran longer than I expected.  But my policy is to never (make that NEVER) myself do what these films and Pollan and so many others do:  NEVER write anything without including the (missing/hidden/forgotten/unknown) solution.

1.  Hey, maybe farmers know something ordinary "eaters" don't.  2. Hey, how about the family farm movement, (ie. the National Family Farm Coalition, NFFC) they've fought on this specific issue for 90 years, since the farm crisis of the 1920s when they warned that the farm depression could spread to everyone.  (Start with George Peek and the Fight for Farm Parity, by Gilbert Fite.)  They were correct as everyone ignored the NFO, then the AAM, then the farmers alliances of the 1980s farm crisis:

"Do we want corporations completely in charge of our food system?"  Richard  Houser, representing the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, 1985, rebuttal to Phil Donahue, Cedar Rapids Iowa, 1985."

"But do you want food?  ... The farm crisis now may turn into a food crisis in the 1990s."  Carolyn Houser family farm activist, 1985, rebuttal to Phil Donahue, Cedar Rapids Iowa, 1985."

Finally, they were correct that the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" bill was really "Freedom to Fail," (as seen in the four successive emergency farm bills that were passed, 1998-2002).

NFFC's Food from Family Farms Act:  Commodity Title: (http://www.nffc.net/Learn/Fact%20Sheets/FFFA2007.pdf):

1. adequate price floors
2. adequate supply management
3. proper price ceiling
4. sufficient strategic reserves.

See more by clicking my name above, or by going to:  http://www.zcommunications.org...

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