Eating local has influenced areas of my life beyond food. Take gifts. I’m not a fan of acquiring more stuff, especially if the stuff was made a million miles away. So my mom and I have a new tradition. We take each other out to see plays, hear music and participate in cultural events. This year for my birthday we heard Michael Pollan speak the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. Awesome gift, Mom.
Did you know you are 10 times more likely to have a conversation at a farmers’ market than you are at a grocery store? Or that Americans get 80% of their diet from 4 or 5 plants? By the way, if you guess that two of them are corn and soy, you’re right.
He also noted that we ship sugar cookies to the Danes and the Danes ship sugar cookies to us, and asked wouldn’t it be cheaper if we just swapped recipes?
He was funny, the talk was riveting, and here’s a recap of some of what he said (based on notes I wrote on my program in the dark with a faulty pen).
Pollan focused on some of the themes of his book, such as the critical importance of a sustainable food system and the relationship between the industrial food system and environmental pollution. He also discussed how our industrial food system is failing us and is not doing precisely what it should do: i.e., provide nutritious food. Kids in West Oakland, CA, near where he lives, are growing up on fast food and suffering from rickets. Yes, you read that right. Rickets.
He said that globalizers and economists tell us that it’s sentimental to protect local food systems. That the future is global and, like any other commodity, we need to produce food where it’s cheapest and sell it at a high price where it’s most dear. That to fight globalization is nostalgic and futile, and that our people should be doing something better than growing food (as if there was something more important). But of course, what is more sentimental and dream-like than to give up something that offers real benefits, cements relationships, and exists today, for only the promise of something better, with significant drawbacks, and, as yet, unrealized? Pollan asked us to consider the threat to our food security when we are dependant on foreign sources of food.
As many of you local foodies know, our current food system depends on ignorance: when people know how the hamburger is made, they lose their appetite for it. The wall surrounding the feedlot is critical to its operation, but we all know that walls don’t last.
For those of us trying to eat better, industrial organic has its issues as well. He also discussed how the “free range” grassy area of the Petaluma Poultry operation is a literary conceit for their packaging. Like our front yards, it’s a symbolic space.
Speaking of industrial organic, when he started researching the book, organic foods were less then 1% of supermarket revenue and are now 3% and climbing. That’s great. But of course, this raises serious questions about its sustainability (there’s that word again). Stonyfield Farm buys organic milk powder from New Zeland and fruits from China and Canada.
The goal isn't to eat perfectly every day (I agree, viz. my Newman Os chocolate cookies). It's to think about our food and make concious choices.
He also stressed the importance of the 2007 Farm Bill, which Julie Cummins and others have discussed on this site. Learn more (c’mon, what’s more exciting than farm subsidies) and pester your elected official not to trade away their votes. We didn’t get feedlots and cheap corn because of free market forces. We got them because of the Farm Bill.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma was chosen for this year’s UC Davis's community book project. During the past 6 months, people have been reading the book, discussing it in class, and attending a slew of local events exploring food system issues. They directly affect Davis. We have a Monsanto branch office (complete with test greenhouses) and professors promoting genetically engineered foods on one hand, and serious groups dedicated to composting, organic gardening, and supporting local businesses on the other. We’re also in the middle of some of the best farmland in California – farmland that is threatened even though Yolo County’s farmers derive a significant amount of revenue from direct marketing and community-supported agriculture programs.
In fact, UC Davis itself wants to turn a huge tract of land (which it acquired through eminent domain from a family farm) into housing. Oh, the irony.
Some good news. The woman who introduced him, the head of the Plant Genomics Program at UCD, told us that 10 minutes earlier, Pollan leaned that the NY Times chose The Omnivore’s Dilemma has one of the top 10 books of 2006. Congratulations and keep up the good work!