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.


Randy said...

Check out the findings of the United Nations in their greenhouse gas hunt. The following article refers to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (a division of the UN), which, in summary, says that confinement livestock are the leading cause of man made greenhouse gas emissions.

An excerpt from an article about the report is below. This is from the FAO website (link below):

Which causes more greenhouse gas emissions, rearing cattle or driving cars?


According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.


The full report can be found here.

I haven't read it all, but I know that it states that cover cropping and pasture based livestock are the critical solutions to the issue.

Now, it is not Joel's intent to sell Virgina beef to New Yorkers (I think that's where Pollan's from, no?), but you're right, Mr. Salatin does encourage "direct from the farm" marketing, whether on-farm or at a flea/farmer's market. The UN says that's still better than McDonalds (or "McFeedlots")

Thanks for the post! :)

shannon said...

Hey Erik,

Last year my husband and I started getting a vegetable delivery service and it actually kept track of the distance our produce had traveled before arriving on our doorstep. Each week, the distance was over 1,000 miles. We canceled the service and started using our local farmer's market. It's true that the farmers drive about 40 minutes to get to our local market, but it's a heck of a lot closer than 1,000 miles away and we can walk to the farmer's market.

Shannon (from Olean!)

Anonymous said...

i believe you totally missed the point. salatin is arguing that food should be grow and consumed locally. of course he and you should know it is ludicrous to drive 2,000 miles for a chicken.

Erik_Simpson said...

I didn't miss that point, Anonymous: the book didn't make it. Pollan's reaction is to make the drive, without any hint that doing so is ludicrous. (By all means, quote me his misgivings if I missed them.) And the tension between transportation efficiency and local growth is becoming more and more widely noted, now by people much more authoritative than I.