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The Omnivore's Dilemma

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June 2008 Archives

I've seen ads for a new Food Network program called something like, "How'd that get to my plate?" That's what Michael Pollan does throughout The Omnivore's Dilemma. I wonder if they got the idea from him? If you are reading at the same pace as Rob, you may have arrived at Chapter 7, where Pollan describes the meal that has come to him, maybe in a Styrofoam box, after tracing its path through the industrial food chain.

As a plant biologist, I was interested in the more historical story, presented in Chapter 1, of corn's domestication from the wild grass teosinte to a crop that would make it's way to modern plates. Teosinte still grows in the wild in Mexico, so modern biologists have been able to compare it to the elite cultivars of modern corn to reconstruct the genetic changes that happened over millennia (1). There were many changes in the grass' development: from a leafy, branched stem to a single stalk, from a file of a few seeds that shatters to an enlarged ear that retains the seeds, and from an undigestible seed to an important source of nutrition. This transformation apparently happened during the Neolithic due simple plant breeding by native Americans. One may wonder how they could have the foresight to establish a breeding program to make the many necessary changes to make corn edible. Amazingly, it turns out that a relatively small number of genes control these and other traits, so that only a few important mutations were needed to transform teosinte into something we would rerecognize. Of course, in modern times, breeders have continued to ‘improve' corn by enhancing productivity and disease resistance, by working towards more efficient use of nutrients, and by introduction of engineered traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

For biologists, summer not only brings a chance to eat fresh, local foods. It's also the season of professional meetings. I just returned from a meeting of the Canadian Society of Plant Physiologists, where a biologist from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation talked about the strategies the foundation will take to help end hunger in Africa. The Green Revolution that so improved access to nutrition in Mexico, India and elsewhere in the 20th century pretty much missed Africa, so the Gates Foundation has made a new partnership for an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (2). Like the old adage that starts, "If you give a man a fish, he will eat today...," their strategy for developing self-sufficiency involves enhancing local food production to move beyond subsistence. In addition to aiding small farmers, mostly women, in new practices, the AGRA efforts will breed new crops that are drought resistant and well adapted to local conditions. They are concentrating on just a few crops: cassava, chickpeas, wheat, and.... corn.

Pollan presents corn as somewhat of a malevolent plant monster that has manipulated humans. It is the bad guy in the story of section I of the book. He is a persuasive writer, but what's your viewpoint? Is the relationship between humans and corn a symbiosis gone awry? Or is corn a versatile resource that can do our bidding, from food to feed to raw material for fuel and renewable materials? Or something else?

(1) A good reference for those who want to get an introduction to the genetics of corn domestication is: Doebley, J.F., Gaut, B.S., and Smith, B.D. (2006) The Molecular Genetics of Crop Domesticaton. Cell 127: 1309 - 1321.

(2) See http://www.gatesfoundation.org/GlobalDevelopment/ for a description of the Gates Foundation's efforts to improve agriculture in Africa, with a link to the Alliange for a Green Revolution in Africa.

I re-read Chapters 4 through 7 of The Omnivore's Dilemma this week. Along with the content of these chapters, I'm struck by Michael Pollan's skill as a writer. The "participant observer" techniques he uses are remarkably effective. If you read his more recent book, In Defense of Food, I'm guessing you'll miss these entertaining first-person accounts.

I have just a couple of questions to share this week.

In the following passage from Chapter 4 (pp. 82-83), Pollan introduces the economic concept of an "externality."

"The $1.60 a day I'm paying for three meals a day here is a bargain only by the narrowest of calculations. It doesn't take into account, for example, the cost to the public health of antibiotic resistance or food poisoning by E. coli O157:H7. It doesn't take into account the cost to taxpayers of the farm subsidies that keep Poky's raw materials cheap. And it certainly doesn't take into account all the many environmental costs incurred by cheap corn."

An externality is a cost imposed upon or a benefit provided for others that is not priced in the marketplace. What effect would "internalizing" the cost of antibiotic resistence have on feedlot operations? Realistically, what kind of policy could be used to internalize this externality?

In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 6, Pollan describes the "national drinking binge" in the early nineteenth century that some have attributed to surplus corn production. He then goes on to say that, "The Alcoholic Republic has long since given way to the Republic of Fat." He attributes the obesity epidemic to our glut of corn. With the rapid rise of biofuel production, which is actually very similar to the process of making whiskey, the price of corn has risen rapidly and concerns have grown about conflicts between land use for food and for fuel. Could this dramatic change reverse the rise of obesity? Whether your response is "yes" or "no" how can we accurately trace the impacts of biofuels production through the complex "food system" we currently have.

Finally, I hope you're enjoying the fresh foods of early summer as much as I am. We've been eating lettuce from our garden almost every night, and we had fresh strawberries from the farmers' market for breakfast this morning. If the warm weather continues as expected, we'll be picking raspberries soon.

"What should we have for dinner?" This is the opening line of The Omnivore's Dilemma, the book we'll be discussing together over the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to reading the book along with you and to being part of an online conversation about the far-reaching implications of our food choices.

This week I read the Introduction and Chapters 1 through 3. The following are some thoughts and questions that are intended to be discussion starters. Please feel free to share your thoughts on any of the issues I raise or on anything else related to the book.

As you read the introduction to the book — titled "Our National Eating Disorder" — think about how quickly the focus of attention changes as we collectively think about food. This book was published in 2006, and most of it was written the year or two before that. Hot topics for discussion today — e.g., food versus fuel, carbon footprints, and food miles — don't even appear in the index. Yet many of the fundamental questions Pollan poses are timeless. What questions are most important for you as we begin this exploration of food choices?

I am fascinated by Pollan's description of the history of corn in Chapter 1. Back in the 1970's, I spent an afternoon on Roswell Garst's farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa. Garst, along with Henry Wallace (who later became Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt) were early commercializers of hybrid corn and founded Pioneer Hi-Bred. The fact that farmers can't save hybrid corn seeds for planting the next crop made their business possible. At the end of Chapter 1 Pollan notes that "Hybrid corn now offered its breeders what no other plant at that time could: the biological equivalent of a patent." Why does society grant patents? What benefits do we get from the protection of intellectual property? What costs do we incur?

In Chapter 2, the description of George Naylor's farm is full of irony and conflict. The central conflict is between productivity and cost. For example, Pollan says, "Measured in terms of output per worker, American farmers like Naylor are the most productive humans who have ever lived. Yet George Naylor is all but going broke....(p. 34) " What factors contribute to this seeming contradiction? What surprised you about the description of challenges farmers face? Do you think George Naylor is a "typical" farmer?

In a very short time, we have gone from the "plague of cheap corn" that Pollan describes in Chapter 2 to record high prices for corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. George Naylor started farming in the early 1970's, at the time of our last great price run-up. How is the current situation like — or different from — that which Pollan describes in the section of Chapter 2 titled "The Sage of Purdue"?

The evolution of the logistical system that Pollan describes in Chapter 3 has been driven by a desire to minimize the cost of moving corn from thousands of farms to a myriad of users. What benefits do we derive from this system? What costs does it impose on us?

I'll close by returning to the basic question of what's for dinner. Last night we had braised grass-fed beef that we bought online from Whole Farm Coop in Long Prairie (www.wholefarmcoop.com), rice that was probably grown in California by farmers who participate in U.S. commodity programs, asparagus that came to our supermarket from Washington state (local asparagus is just showing up in farmers markets), and a salad made from lettuce raised in our garden. Along with this we enjoyed a bottle of wine from the Cahors region in France — a place my wife and I will visit this fall. Our meal had ingredients from each of the three food chains Pollan following in this book: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. For us, that's probably the norm. What did you have for dinner last night?