The politics of food-1: The four food production systems

(This series of posts looks in detail at some of the fascinating aspects of food production identified by Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). All page numbers refer to that book, unless otherwise noted. Other related posts can be found here.)

The series of posts on the ethics of food was triggered by a remarkable book that I recently read that caused me to re-think the whole question of my relationship to the food that I eat. Food was not something that I had thought much of before. I am not a gourmet by any means, and food for me is an incidental item in my life, not one that looms large.

But Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) has made me see food in a whole new light and raised some interesting new issues that I had not considered deeply before. It made me realize that what I choose to buy and eat is, whether I like it or not, a deeply political act and that I should pay more attention to it. The book gives a fascinating account of the role of food with all its full political, economic, and moral complexity. The next series of posts will examine some of these issues.

Pollan examines four different food supply systems. The first is what he calls the industrial food chain, which is the source of most of the food that is available in the developed world. This food is produced by large factory farms and distributed nationwide (and even worldwide) and is based on an assembly-line model. It seeks to produce large quantities of food at minimum direct cost to the producer, and considerations of the negative impacts on the environment, the health of the consumer, and animal welfare are of minimal concern, except insofar as it affects the image of the company and the profitability of the enterprise. It encourages monoculture farming, where each farm specializes in a single crop or product, and keeps its animals in cramped conditions in large pens called feedlots.

Then we have the organic food chain. Although it is definitely an improvement on the industrial food chain, a major part of it can better be described as the industrial organic food chain, since it very much resembles the industrial food chain in many of its features. The organic food supply chain is dominated by large companies like Whole Foods that have adopted the assembly line model of its non-organic sibling. Its main improvement, and it is a big one, is the absence of pesticide use on its crops and not giving growth hormones or antibiotics to its animals.

A third system described by Pollan is based on the forager model, where one lives off the land, eating only those plants that can be found growing wild in nature, only the fish that one catches oneself, and only meat from wild animals that one personally kills. Of course, this lifestyle is not feasible for most of us (I personally would not last in the wild for more than a couple of days) and this part of the book seemed like a romantic conceit on the part of the author, trying to recreate the experience of our hunter-gatherer past. It is not a viable model nowadays and I will not discuss it further.

The last model is the sustainable farming model, These farms are carefully planned, mixed systems, which grow a variety of crops and animals, and can best be described as creating a closed system whereby the ‘waste’ products of the plants that are grown (the parts that humans don’t eat) are fed to animals and the ‘waste’ products of animals are fed into the soil as fertilizer, thus eliminating the waste problem and reducing the need for external inputs. (I will describe how this works in more detail later).

As a result, one has a cycle that very much resembles what occurs in nature. This contrasts with the largely monocultural industrial farm model (both organic and non-organic) where one has to obtain animal feed and fertilizer from outside to grow the food, and then find ways to dispose of the huge quantity of waste that is produced.

Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms . . . used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological lop – what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertilizer problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a waste problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all). (p. 67)

So given all these benefits, why are sustainable farming practices not more widespread?

POST SCRIPT: Sunday Morning Coming Down

The late, great Johnny Cash singing one of my favorite songs.


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