Friday, January 25, 2008

Solving the omnivore's dilemma

I've been reading Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's about where food on the American table comes from, from gigantic industrial farms to local hunters and gatherers. Pollan argues, quite convincingly, that industrial agriculture is an ecological and nutritional disaster. It creates unstable monocultures, sustains them with huge quantities of chemicals, undermines other kinds of farming, and yet fails to pay a living wage to the people who practice it.

So far so good. Unfortunately, the book -- at least so far, I'm about halfway through -- is long on problems and short on solutions. It's all well and good to suggest that we should all eat locally and sustainably grown food, but Pollan also estimates that two-fifths of the world's current population would starve without synthetic fertilizers. Some argue that industrial agriculture makes the problem worse by crowding out local agriculture in the developing world, but Pollan completely ignores the question.

At the other end of the income scale, the United States and Europe have come to expect tomatoes in January and citrus in places where it could never grow naturally. Suggesting that large numbers of people will turn their backs on these luxuries seems ludicrously naive. Here in Seattle, some "community-supported" "local" farms include California citrus in their offerings, while others are very vague about which products they actually grow themselves. Clearly, their subscribers would rather fudge their definitions of "sustainable" and "locally grown" than do without.

I don't have answers either, I'm afraid, but then I don't tell people what they should eat. It would be nice to see someone like Pollan go beyond "agribusiness is bad" and suggest a scalable alternative.

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