New Post on Dangerous Intersection

I’ve put up a new post on Dangerous Intersection, a review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Polly

    Pretty interesting book. I read it as a follow up to “Fast Food Nation.” Now, they’re both sorta merged in my memory.

    I noticed the grass in front lawns for 2 weeks after I read it ’cause of Salatin’s emphasis on grass even to the point of calling himself a “grass farmer” rather than a pig farmer, cow farmer, etc.

    The corn explosion and the problem of what to do with it is typical of large-scale production. A surfeit is produced and somehow they find a way to get consumers to take it all in.

    Pollan traces the effects of whisky in the early 19th century. It became too cheap because of overproduction. Mass drunkenness ensued.

    Today, there’s a parallel in obesity rates that results from cheap (in every sense of the word) food. From an unnatural diet for the cows that screws up the balance of Omega-3 and omega-6 in the meat to the drugs that have to be pumped into them and consequently into us to get their digestive systems to handle food it was never meant to, we are eating very unhealthy food.

    Pretty good book. I recommend it especially because of Polyface farms for a look at what COULD be an alternative to factory food.

    But, for overall consciousness raising, Eric Schlosser’s book was even better. His focus on animal and worker welfare added some missing dimensions. Too much of OD sounded like it was coming from a bona fide “foodie.”

  • Justin

    Have you ever seen the documentary King Corn? It discusses much of the same issues, including the effects of the corn crop on our nation’s health. When I read your review on Dangerous Intersection, this documentary was what immediately popped into mind.

  • Fargus

    I’ve been working my way through this book slowly, and it’s radically altered the way I eat and the way I think about food. I’ve now been a vegetarian for about five months, and though I’m not a crusader who thinks everyone should do as I do, I really wish everyone would read what Pollan has to say.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    A fantastic book with broad implications. And when you consider biofuels and not just diet, the case becomes even stronger.

  • Entomologista

    Obviously, I’m an entomologist. I work on crop pests, but I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about agriculture, or pretend to have all the answers to very complex problems. Michael Pollan, however, thinks he has all the answers. He is not a scientist in an agricultural field. In fact, he doesn’t work in agriculture at all. Some of his arguments are valid, others are not. For example, agricultural subsidies should probably be examined and re-worked, but that is not an area I am an expert in. The way he presents agriculture – as though it’s either healthy, wonderful organic farm or evil murderous corporate factory farms – is wrong. All kinds of farming methods are employed on all kinds of farms. There are regulations as to which types of pesticides and cultivars are allowed on organic farms, but non-organic farmers are certainly not prohibited from using “organic” methods. Additionally, many people are not aware that one of the reasons organic produce costs so much is that it costs more to produce and/or does not produce as much. During a time when people cannot afford to eat, lowering the productivity of farms and increasing the price of food is a terrible idea.

    Another major problem with the “slow food” movement is that women are largely the ones who sacrifice their time to produce this food. By and large, women still do the majority of household chores, including cooking. Maybe slow food is a good idea if you’re not the one slaving away in the kitchen and the garden for hours on end.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Additionally, many people are not aware that one of the reasons organic produce costs so much is that it costs more to produce and/or does not produce as much.

    I disagree that organic farming costs more than industrial farming. I think it would be more accurate to say that organic farming passes along a greater share of its costs to the consumer, whereas the costs of industrial farming are dissipated in subsidies, pollution, and other externalities. Organic farming doesn’t have the economies of scale that industrial farming does, but it’s more sustainable, which is guaranteed to make it less costly in the long run.

  • Chet

    I disagree that organic farming costs more than industrial farming.

    Then you would be woefully mistaken, Ebon. Organic farming techniques simply aren’t as effective – this is universally understood by agronomists. Organic farming means that for every two tomatoes you ship to market, the consumer has to pay for three – the extra tomato being the one that was eaten by pests on the vine, or simply wasn’t produced at all due to insufficient soil nutrients.

    That doesn’t even begin to reflect the potential health risks from organic fertilizers and potentially toxic organic varietals. (Organic varietals often have such high levels of natural pesticides that humans have become sick from ingesting or even handling them.)

    Organic farming won’t ever take the place of conventional modern agriculture; it has too many insurmountable pitfalls. That’s not to say, though, that some organic techniques can’t be transplanted (if you will) into the conventional farming world, to ease the environmental impact of our food.

  • Alex Weaver

    [Citation needed]

  • bestonnet

    Ebonmuse:

    I disagree that organic farming costs more than industrial farming.

    Then you are wrong.

    Ebonmuse:

    Organic farming doesn’t have the economies of scale that industrial farming does,

    And it never will, the methods that are allowed to be used and still qualify for the ‘organic’ label simply can not be scaled up to feed the entire population of our planet (i.e. we’re going have to use modern technology including synthetic fertilisers and GMOs if we merely want to feed everyone on the planet (and we have to get those technologies to everyone)).

    See http://www.agroservicesinternational.com/Articles/Organic%20hoax.pdf [PDF] for some information about what exactly constitutes ‘organic’ farming and why it’s just as much crap as Christianity.

    Basically it mostly comes down to ‘organic’ farming being faith based, not evidence based (which conventional farming for the most part is). The other part of it is a way to capture consumer surplus from those gullible enough to believe that ‘organic’ farming is better and rich enough to afford to pay for it.

  • Alex Weaver

    So what do you suggest?

  • Chet

    Alex: generic engineering, a proven technology that reduces the need for dangerous pesticides and polluting fertilizers and has been in use for 10,000 years.

  • Alex Weaver

    I don’t have a problem with that in principle, but I’m concerned about proper oversight due to the potential health (mainly due to inserting genes from species A into species B sometimes resulting in the modified species B triggering allergies of those allergic to species A but reasonably expecting to be able to eat species B; I don’t know what other health concerns there are supposed to be, and have a hard time imagining any plausible ones), environmental effects (mainly the effects of feral cultivars on a given habitat, if pesticides and fertilizers are reduced), and the supervillainish tendency of GMO farmers to insist that the plants in other fields accidentally pollinated by their patented GMOs represent a violation of their intellectual property rights. What do you suggest as a remedy or safety net for these issues?

  • bestonnet

    Alex Weaver:

    mainly due to inserting genes from species A into species B sometimes resulting in the modified species B triggering allergies of those allergic to species A but reasonably expecting to be able to eat species B

    It’s a possibility if you are careless but it so far hasn’t happened in the real world (and you’d have a hard time getting something like that past a regulator).

    Of course these problems existed before rDNA technology with food processing equipment used to process food that contains nuts also used for other food, you’ve probably seen labels about “may contain traces of nuts” on food before.

    Alex Weaver:

    the supervillainish tendency of GMO farmers to insist that the plants in other fields accidentally pollinated by their patented GMOs represent a violation of their intellectual property rights.

    There are some real issues with regards to the legal status of ownership of GMO strains but farmers complaining about ‘intellectual property’ being violated is very unlikely when one considers that the farmers don’t have any of it. The case you are probably referring to involved Monsanto and a Canadian farmer who was selling Canola that contained some of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crop without having bought any from them, he had also been notified by Monsanto that they detected Roundup Ready in his crop before he planted the one they sued him over. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just trying to get some publicity for himself (if as he claimed, he had his own strain that he didn’t want contaminated, why would he deliberately plant what he had been warned was contaminated?). That wasn’t an accidental contamination case (though that may have been how the initial seeds arrived, that was not the issue).

    The good thing is that patents, unlike copyrights, still expire in a somewhat reasonable amount of time so if we wait long enough any given GMO will enter the public domain.

  • Alex Weaver

    BTW, this being an open thread and all, I have some questions for our host about blogging. The first one that comes to mind is, how do you normally approach a book review?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Organic farming means that for every two tomatoes you ship to market, the consumer has to pay for three – the extra tomato being the one that was eaten by pests on the vine, or simply wasn’t produced at all due to insufficient soil nutrients.

    That may well be true. But your method of calculating costs is short-sighted and omits several important factors, just as the standard economic accounting is and does. If industrial agriculture seems cheaper than organic, that’s only because these externalities are not included in the standard way of calculating prices. Are you taking into account:

    • Soil depletion caused by tilling and practicing monoculture without crop rotation
    • Aquifer depletion caused by irrigation
    • Watershed poisoning and aquatic dead zones caused by fertilizer runoff
    • The ever-greater costs of dosing the fields with pesticides to ward off pests that are continually evolving resistance
    • Global warming caused by the enormous fossil fuel inputs required by traditional agriculture
    • And – for that matter – the costs of the fossil fuel itself, which, being a nonrenewable fuel, is only going to increase in the long run

    These factors are not usually considered part of the cost of bringing a meal to your plate, but they are real costs nonetheless, and we’re all paying them. In the long run, if we continue farming the way we’ve been doing it, all these problems are only going to get worse and become more and more expensive to mitigate.

    BTW, this being an open thread and all, I have some questions for our host about blogging. The first one that comes to mind is, how do you normally approach a book review?

    I’ve always gone about it in the method that seems most straightforward to me – I try to give a brief summary of the book, long enough to do its argument justice, with special emphasis on any particularly interesting parts. I criticize any weaknesses that stood out, and then close with an overall assessment of what I thought and try to draw connections to similar material I’ve read elsewhere.

  • bestonnet

    Ebonmuse:

    Soil depletion caused by tilling and practicing monoculture without crop rotation

    The nutrients can be put back through the use of fertiliser (and no-till farming using GMO’s does show quite a bit of promise).

    Ebonmuse:

    The ever-greater costs of dosing the fields with pesticides to ward off pests that are continually evolving resistance

    If pests develop resistance you change the pesticides you’re using.

    Ebonmuse:

    Global warming caused by the enormous fossil fuel inputs required by traditional agriculture

    Which is only done because that’s the cheapest way at present, hydrogen for ammonia could come from spliting water or the sulphur-iodine process, it’s just that right now steam reforming of methane is the cheapest source, thus why we use steam reforming of methane instead of electrolysis.

    Fossil fuels used for operating the equipment could be replaced with synthetic fuels (hydrogen, synthetic hydrocarbons, etc), batteries or electricity and fossil fuels for transport could be replaced by electric trains and nuclear marine propulsion.

    Ebonmuse:

    And – for that matter – the costs of the fossil fuel itself, which, being a nonrenewable fuel, is only going to increase in the long run

    Which will provide some encouragement to find something else to replace it (though we have a lot more fossil fuels than many people realise, we’ll stop using them not because we run out, but because we dislike the environmental effects of fossil fuel burning).

    Ebonmuse:

    In the long run, if we continue farming the way we’ve been doing it, all these problems are only going to get worse and become more and more expensive to mitigate.

    Which is why improvements are being made, it’s just that some of us would rather they come from science (genetic engineering), not religion (‘organic’ farming).

    Besides, it’s not like you can feed everyone on the planet using obsolete technology, we have gotten to the point at which we are dependent upon technology and we need to accept that fact.

    ‘Organic’ farming is not the way to feed the planet, it’s a way to separate rich people who don’t know any better from their money.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’ve always gone about it in the method that seems most straightforward to me – I try to give a brief summary of the book, long enough to do its argument justice, with special emphasis on any particularly interesting parts. I criticize any weaknesses that stood out, and then close with an overall assessment of what I thought and try to draw connections to similar material I’ve read elsewhere.

    Let me rephrase: how do you approach reading a book you plan to review, and preparing yourself to review it?

  • Jim Baerg

    Bestonnet said

    (and no-till farming using GMO’s does show quite a bit of promise)

    Is this article the sort of thing you mean?
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200310/rauch

  • bestonnet

    Yeah, that’s got a pretty good overview.

  • Chet

    Soil depletion caused by tilling and practicing monoculture without crop rotation
    • Aquifer depletion caused by irrigation
    • Watershed poisoning and aquatic dead zones caused by fertilizer runoff
    • The ever-greater costs of dosing the fields with pesticides to ward off pests that are continually evolving resistance
    • Global warming caused by the enormous fossil fuel inputs required by traditional agriculture
    • And – for that matter – the costs of the fossil fuel itself, which, being a nonrenewable fuel, is only going to increase in the long run

    Ebon, are youtaking into account aquifer depletion, watershed pollution, pesticide resistance, global warming, and fossil fuel costs? Organic farming has these exact same issues as well. Organic crops don’t walk themselves in from the fields; organic farmers use diesel tractors too. Organic crops need to be irrigated as well. Organic crops need to be fertilized, usually with manure, and that comes with the risk of coliform bacteria on your food.

    Sure, organic farming looks pretty good when you do yourself what you’re accusing me of – ignoring the negative externalities. I think maybe you have a view of organic farming that is just a little idealistic. Organic farming isn’t magic; you still have to till and fertilize your fields, only you don’t have the option of using sterile ammonia to do it. Organic farmers have the exact same problems that conventional farmers do, and a lot of the time their solutions are pretty much the same. “Organic” is just a restriction on what kind of chemicals you can use.

    If you want to set up a comparison of best-case organic to worst-case conventional, that’s not the intellectual honesty we’ve come to expect at this site. If you want to compare an honest-case organic to an honest-case conventional, you’ll find that conventional agronomists are taking steps to manage insect pesticide resistance through IPM methods, taking steps to manage soil runoff and watershed effects, taking steps to reduce dependence on expensive fossil fuels, just like the best organic farmers. Indeed a number of these techniques were pioneered by conventional agronomy, not by organic farmers.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    It’s been a while, but I’ve finally found the time to revisit this thread. A few comments:

    The nutrients can be put back through the use of fertiliser (and no-till farming using GMO’s does show quite a bit of promise).

    I didn’t say “nutrient depletion”, but “soil depletion”. It’s well known that current farming methods cause massive erosion and loss of topsoil, at rates far faster than it naturally builds back up. Ecosystems like the North American tallgrass prairie once had several feet of fertile soil, which is why that land is so good for farming now, but just a few decades of modern farming techniques have already reduced that to a fraction of what it once was.

    Healthy topsoil is a complex biological matrix of humus, fungi, microorganisms, insects and worms. It can’t be created by dumping chemical fertilizers into sand. And no-till farming, while undoubtedly a good idea, has its origins in the organic farming movement you denigrate as “religion”.

    If pests develop resistance you change the pesticides you’re using.

    Yes, that’s a brilliant strategy, and clearly sustainable over the long term. Just look at how well the same plan is working with antibiotics.

    Which is only done because that’s the cheapest way at present, hydrogen for ammonia could come from spliting water or the sulphur-iodine process, it’s just that right now steam reforming of methane is the cheapest source, thus why we use steam reforming of methane instead of electrolysis.

    Again, by calling it “the cheapest way”, you reinforce my point – industrial farming only seems cheaper because the current method of calculating costs doesn’t factor in externalities. This is particularly relevant in agriculture, since changing climate patterns are likely to cause dramatic changes in which areas are best suited for farming. I’m not saying that none of these methods can be adapted to be more sustainable, but it’s going to require some fairly serious changes in the way we calculate and assess costs.

    Besides, it’s not like you can feed everyone on the planet using obsolete technology, we have gotten to the point at which we are dependent upon technology and we need to accept that fact.

    This is exactly the kind of short-sighted thinking that’s caused so many of these environmental problems – the idea that sustainability is a luxury. You can genetically modify your crops as much as you like – I’m not against that if it’s done wisely and carefully – but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ll need fertilizer, water, sunlight, and protection from pests, and we’ll need to find a way to grow and harvest them that doesn’t cause soil depletion, poison the groundwater, or contribute to climate change. Genetic engineering is not going to eliminate any of those problems.

    I’m not saying that small-scale organic farming will save the world. As I stated clearly in my review, one of the problems with that method is that it’s labor-intensive and ill-suited to be scaled up arbitrarily. But at the same time, the way we’ve been doing it is not going to work indefinitely, and certainly not with a continually growing human population. I’m not claiming to know the final shape of the solution, but we need to make changes soon, and switching to hydrogen fuel cells to power the tractors is not enough. Sooner or later, if we don’t make these changes voluntarily, they’ll be forced on us and then the consequences will be far worse. The sooner we do it ourselves, the softer the landing will be.

  • bestonnet

    Ebonmuse:

    And no-till farming, while undoubtedly a good idea, has its origins in the organic farming movement you denigrate as “religion”.

    Most early scientists were religious, is that an argument that religion is worth having?

    The advantage that conventional farming has over ‘organic’ farming is that conventional farming can use any improvements that ‘organic’ farmers come up with whereas ‘organic’ farming has the requirement of ideological correctness that prevents some technologies from being used for no good reason. The quasi-religious character of the ‘organic’ farming movement means that it will always be worse than the best of what conventional agriculture can offer.

    Ebonmuse:

    Yes, that’s a brilliant strategy, and clearly sustainable over the long term. Just look at how well the same plan is working with antibiotics.

    We are coming up with new antibiotics all the time (though it always will be an arms of sorts between us and the bugs).

    Ebonmuse:

    Again, by calling it “the cheapest way”, you reinforce my point – industrial farming only seems cheaper because the current method of calculating costs doesn’t factor in externalities.

    We have enough natural gas to keep doing that for at least a few decades, once we get around to running out of it then other sources of hydrogen will become competitive (and probably end up cheaper than getting it from natural gas).

    But for the moment, if we can last a few decades then we can leave whatever problems for the people in a few decades to deal with, they’ll be more advanced then us along with having more resources to put into solving problems.

    Ebonmuse:

    This is exactly the kind of short-sighted thinking that’s caused so many of these environmental problems – the idea that sustainability is a luxury.

    It’s also true to an extent.

    If we lack the technology to feed our current population in a sustainable manner then we have two choices, either we use what we have to feed everyone and then let our (wiser, wealthier and more technologically advanced) descendants clean up whatever mess we make, or we let a lot of people starve (people who could have later on come up with the solution to the mess we make).

    In the long term we’ll have to figure out sustainability, but in the short term we may not be able to do that.

    Ebonmuse:

    You can genetically modify your crops as much as you like – I’m not against that if it’s done wisely and carefully – but it doesn’t change the fact that they’ll need fertilizer, water, sunlight, and protection from pests, and we’ll need to find a way to grow and harvest them that doesn’t cause soil depletion, poison the groundwater, or contribute to climate change. Genetic engineering is not going to eliminate any of those problems.

    No it won’t, but it will help us to reduce them (and is already doing exactly that).

  • Alex Weaver

    If we lack the technology to feed our current population in a sustainable manner then we have two choices, either we use what we have to feed everyone and then let our (wiser, wealthier and more technologically advanced) descendants clean up whatever mess we make

    And this differs from robbing our children how exactly?

  • bestonnet

    Alex Weaver:

    bestonnet:
    If we lack the technology to feed our current population in a sustainable manner then we have two choices, either we use what we have to feed everyone and then let our (wiser, wealthier and more technologically advanced) descendants clean up whatever mess we make

    If we don’t do it then a lot of those children we are ‘robbing’ will never even exist.

    If you believe the quote that was falsely attributed to Charles H. Duell then it would look like robbing the future generations, but if you accept that technology advances and that there are things that haven’t been invented that we might find useful then it starts to look more like an investment.