Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A small observation about Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

I'm well behind the rest of the eggheaded world in reading The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. I recommend it highly for reasons that are now widely known: it's an entertaining and memorable introduction to many varieties of food production. I'm delighted to understand the many inflections of the "organic" label, for example, and to know the etymologies of "corned beef" (salt used to be among the many grains known broadly as "corn") and "corn-hole" (actually, I'm not as delighted to know this one, but I'll never forget it).

But here's a moment from the book that has bothered me since I read it a few weeks ago. A hero of Pollan's story is Joel Salatin, who operates a 550-acre anti-industrial farm in Swoope, Virginia. Salatin's regionalism forms the foil to conventional farming practices in the book. Here is the passage I have in mind:

Before we got off the phone, I asked Salatin if he could ship me one of his chickens and maybe a steak, too. He said that he couldn't do that. I figured he meant he wasn't set up for shipping, so offered him my FedEx account number.

"No, I don't think you understand. I don't believe it's sustainable--or 'organic,' if you will--to FedEx meat all around the country. I'm sorry, but I can't do it."

This man was serious.

"Just because we
can ship organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley, or organic cut flowers from Peru, doesn't mean we should do it, not if we're really serious about energy and seasonality and bioregionalism. I'm afraid if you want to buy one of our chickens, you're going to have to drive down here to Swoope and pick it up."

Which is eventually what I did.

Think about that, reader. Joel "really serious about energy" Salatin has an alternative to conventional methods of specialty food delivery: individual customers can drive to his farm to pick up one chicken!

I am trying to come up with a more madly wasteful means of delivering food than this one. Renting a coal-powered locomotive to haul a pork chop from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, perhaps?

This may seem the picking of a nit, but I think the passage indicates an important blind spot in Pollan's argument and in much similar rhetoric: the "really serious about energy" folks sometimes talk about mass transit for people and foods in opposite ways. In the same way that relatively wealthy liberals who drive Camrys (we own two) feel superior to SUV owners, even if the Camry people drive 30,000 miles a year because they have jobs in two different cities and shop at Costco in a third (ask me how I know), Pollan fails to note the ways in which his values contradict each other. Whether we like it or not, the availability of Mexican asparagus in Iowa for two bucks a pound is a sign of astonishing energy efficiency in the means of delivery.

Which is more damaging: buying lunch at our local McDonald's or driving our Camry 55 miles to buy the ingredients of lunch from a farmer who herself drove 20 miles to a farmer's market? I suspect the latter, by a large margin, but I don't presume to know the answer. When Joel Salatin tells Michael Pollan to drive to his farm for a chicken, I wish Pollan would at least ask some questions.