Author Michael Pollan is no stranger to controversy. He has broadened the discussion of what we eat, where and how it is grown, big vs. small, organic farming vs. conventional. When he speaks some in the audience will love him, some will not.
Advocates of large scale agriculture see Pollan as the enemy, they believe he stands against everything they see as the future of agriculture. Pollan however is not an absolutist, his basic premise is that people need to think more about their food; where it was grown, how it was grown, was the farmer paid fairly, is it good for you?
Pollan wants people to think about cooking, about food freshness and flavor, about the dinner table as more than a “filling station”.
Knowing your food is not a radical concept, and it should not be a frightening concept. Knowledge is power, the more we know, the better choices we can make.
Farmers should have nothing to hide, and those most upset with Pollan’s theories on eating, tout their large scale farming methods as being models of efficiency, environmental protection, animal welfare and safe food.
Still, they fear his thoughts being mainstream. Granted, Pollan is not a farmer, and does not know all the intricacies of farming; he does not claim to. However, those who denounce him do not know the intricacies of the local, regional and organic farming he advocates.
So, why are they afraid of what he has to say? Pollan admits there is no one right way to farm, there is no one system that will work for all farmers. He maintains that all farmers need to make a living yet be mindful of how they farm, how they raise their animals and how they maintain the environment. If Pollan has an argument with agriculture, it is not with farmers, it is with agribusiness.
Author Wendell Berry notes that “Agribusiness is immensely more profitable than agriculture”. Any farmer knows that the corporate owners of seed, chemicals, fertilizer and the buyers of grain, livestock and milk always seem to make a profit; farmers do not.
Over the past 60 years farmers have seen competition in the market place steadily disappear as corporate mergers concentrated all aspects of agriculture into the hands of a few multinational corporations.
Their profit comes at the expense of the farmer, the farm worker, consumer safety and the environment.
While farmers defend themselves against what they see as an attack by Pollan, they are really defending agribusiness. When they say they love their Roundup Ready corn, the hormones and the chemicals they are promoting the corporations that always make a profit whether the farmers win or lose.
When farmers disparage small-scale ecological agriculture because it “will never feed the world” they conveniently forget that conventional agriculture has not fed the world either, despite 60 years of promises to do so. They also ignore the findings of IAASTD that indicate the old paradigm of industrial agriculture is a thing of the past.
The industrial model sources food from the world, pits farmer against farmer in a race to the bottom. Globalized commodities converted into processed nutritionally empty foods, make corporations rich, Americans obese, and developing countries destitute .
Pollan just wants farmers and consumers to think. Agribusiness is rich and persuasive, they own both ends of the market place and they want to keep it that way. When people think about what they eat and what they grow, chances are, eventually, they will make the right choice.
JIM GOODMAN is a farmer from Wonewoc WI and an IATP Food and Society Fellow.