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An Inconvenient Hoof
June 9, 2009 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Opening this Friday in L.A, New York, and San Francisco, Food, Inc. is a documentary about the modern food industry that features Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Joe Salatin of Polyface Farm, and Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Yogurt. Here's the trailer. And here's a New York Times article about the film.

Also available, a participant's guide book.

Currently scheduled for wider release on June 19th.
posted by Toekneesan (120 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
You know, I really should read The Jungle -- I can't help but wonder if this current documentation of the modern food industry (this movie, movies like Supersize Me, books like Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, etc.) is going to have a similarly far-reaching reform of agriculture and food production.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:34 AM on June 9, 2009


Neat! Thanks for the headsup!
posted by gurple at 11:36 AM on June 9, 2009


Oh boy, fire up your keyboards High Fructose Corn Syrup apologists!
posted by diogenes at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was able to see this during previews a few months ago. If you've read Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, this will be pretty boring for you. There's a really interesting section on Monsanto and corporate agriculture stuff towards the end, but it's maybe 25% of the movie. It's a good watch, but I felt myself having the same reaction I have everytime I see one of these "agenda documentaries": Where are the numbers? I realize saying "25% of all Americans spend less than 2% of fruit" is less captivating than doing a funny cartoon of fat-man-as-pie-chart, but these always feel a little stuffed with "HOW DARE THEY" outrage and a little thin of actual information. Pun intended?

Anyway, if nothing else, it's very watchable. Really slick, well edited. Just not anything new for folks who are involved with this kind of thing already. Still, if it gets the traction of, say, Bowling for Columbine or something, it'd do the movement some good.
posted by GilloD at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2009


I can't help but wonder if this current documentation of the modern food industry (this movie, movies like Supersize Me, books like Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, etc.) is going to have a similarly far-reaching reform of agriculture and food production.

I think it already is. I just gave a presentation a couple of weeks ago on some of the dramatic changes in food sourcing and public policy action in just the last decade to fifteen years or so - and I suspect the movement has just reached its tipping point over the last two years or so, and attention to the food supply is becoming near-mainstream.
posted by Miko at 11:43 AM on June 9, 2009


Hopefully it'll be better than Fast Food Nation, which I fell asleep during.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:44 AM on June 9, 2009


Crappy food is bad for you . . . eat salad . . . grow a garden . . . my cholesterol is dangerously high . . . blah blah blah. Enough already! Jesus. We know we shouldn't be eating an entire sleeve of Oreos in a sitting Micheal Pollan. We don't do it because we think it is good for us. Lay off!
posted by ND¢ at 11:45 AM on June 9, 2009


We know we shouldn't be eating an entire sleeve of Oreos in a sitting Micheal Pollan.

I think maybe -- and this is just conjecture, so bear with me, here -- you have absolutely no idea what this movement is about.
posted by gurple at 11:47 AM on June 9, 2009 [24 favorites]


It's like "don't eat a lot of Oreos" right?
posted by ND¢ at 11:48 AM on June 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


Eat Oreos. Never enough. Mostly Doublestuf.
posted by one_bean at 11:51 AM on June 9, 2009 [23 favorites]


I fell asleep during Heaven's Gate, so I hope it's not like that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:53 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Where are the numbers?

For me, most of them were at the USDA Economics, Statistics, and Market Information system, in the USDA Agricultural Census presented by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization. You can also pick up some information from policy groups, with the usual caveats about bias: the Organic Trade Association, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, PoultryHub, whatever sector you're interested in. Because food is an industry connected to national security and to economic growth, it's very well studied, numbers-wise.

Analysis of practice and impact goes beyond numbers - the documentary makers and writers are encouraging, and in some cases performing, analysis. A good Google term, also, is "food systems analysis."

Pollan is pretty scrupulous about documenting his sources and even some of his op-eds and such will have full citations on his website. The same is often true for documentaries - visit the website and look for the citations/sources page. People do want to know where the numbers are coming from, so producers and writers have been learning to head off the inquiries by listing all the sources.
posted by Miko at 11:53 AM on June 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


We know we shouldn't be eating an entire sleeve of Oreos in a sitting Micheal Pollan.

Wait, when did Michael Pollan get his panties in a bunch about you eating Oreos?
posted by symbollocks at 11:54 AM on June 9, 2009


It would be great if Oreo filling came in can. So you could make sandwiches with it. PB&O, baby.

Is this about that?
posted by dirtdirt at 11:55 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's like "don't eat a lot of Oreos" right?


... well, a lot of people are really stupid and dont know Oreos are toxic, or just dont have access to any decent food. My uncle thinks deep fried turkeys are healthy because they're fried in peanut oil.
Not that those kind of people will likely see this movie anyway.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:56 AM on June 9, 2009


Fast Food Nation was a horrific, terrible, awful movie, Bruce Willis yelling about shit in the meat notwithstanding. Please don't superimpose a fictional narrative over these books. Just put some pictures on the screen and read the books.
posted by GuyZero at 11:57 AM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Whoa, weird. I just picked up Omnivore's Dilemma from the library when the book I went for (also a 394.12) was out. I had a "whoa, maaaan, everything is corn" moment about five pages in that made me feel like I'd had a couple bong rips before I started reading. Then I started jonesing for some Fritos.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:58 AM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh boy, fire up your keyboards High Fructose Corn Syrup apologists!

Not likely, as HFCS is pretty hard to burn and my keyboard is pretty saturated with it... so sttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttticky
posted by GuyZero at 11:59 AM on June 9, 2009


King Corn wasn't a bad flick, if a bit simplistic. But it had no star power. It's nice to see the big guys in this movement teaming up.
posted by gurple at 11:59 AM on June 9, 2009


diogenes: "Oh boy, fire up your keyboards High Fructose Corn Syrup apologists!"

There's nothing to apologize for. It's just like regular sugar, except better because it has awesome shiny mercury.
posted by mullingitover at 12:00 PM on June 9, 2009


My uncle thinks deep fried turkeys are healthy because they're fried in peanut oil.

Deep frying gets an unnecessarily-bad rap. You're not absorbing much oil if you fry at an appropriate temperature.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:01 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I only eat local, grass-fed oreos.
posted by bondcliff at 12:01 PM on June 9, 2009 [12 favorites]


Crappy food is bad for you . . . eat salad . . . grow a garden . . . my cholesterol is dangerously high . . . blah blah blah. Enough already! Jesus.

That's not the point at all. The food industry is so geared toward making this shit food that they're fucking over land, resources and people . It's not about health really, so chill out and have a Vitamin water.
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:03 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lest the Oreo Scarfers' Union of America think this is all just an effort to smear the good name of overindulgence and empty calories, I'd like to share a stat from Richard Manning's awesome essay "The Oil We Eat": It takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost energy to an acre of eroded land.

You may want to cross-reference this with the IEA's recent admission that global oil production will peak by 2020 (and/or the opinions of other energy experts - unapologetic self-linkage warning - who would place that date much sooner). Fortunately, I'm sure this will do little to affect the affordability of the produce of the vast hand-tilled organic creme-filled-sandwich-cookie fields of the American Midwest.

Here's a longer excerpt from Manning (the whole essay serves as a great companion piece to this doc):
The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem is, it's mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't eat. So we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move on.

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land—in 1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.
Fortunately, as I said, this is utterly unconnected to the mean ole nanny-statist hectoring of the proto-communist junk food police.
posted by gompa at 12:04 PM on June 9, 2009 [11 favorites]


Here in Iowa, our Oreos are made of corn.
posted by MarshallPoe at 12:04 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


We know we shouldn't be eating an entire sleeve of Oreos in a sitting Micheal Pollan.

I think maybe -- and this is just conjecture, so bear with me, here -- you have absolutely no idea what this movement is about.


If someone's eating entire sleeves of Oreos, we probably don't want to know all about his movements, either.
posted by xingcat at 12:09 PM on June 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Okay gompa, how many Oreos can I eat in one sitting to not do whatever bad thing you are talking about? Cause Iowa to sink or whatever.
posted by ND¢ at 12:11 PM on June 9, 2009


Has there been discussion here of Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread)? Swiss documentary from a couple of years ago that played in New York for a week at Anthology Film Archives & then seemed to disappear entirely - I thought it was much more powerful than Food, Inc.. Geyrhalter & crew snuck into & filmed food production sites in various countries in Europe (where one presumes quality standards are much higher than in the U.S.) until they were thrown out; no interviews, no soundtrack, but it's stunningly beautiful, almost a modern version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. More aesthetic than polemical in strategy, but ultimately much more moving.
posted by with hidden noise at 12:12 PM on June 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm not saying that I disagree with any of the content here, but I always cringe a bit when I see the names of people who are known to have financial interest in a movement being involved in the production of a documentary that supports that movement. It's not like you would view a documentary about how great High Fructose Corn Syrup that features executives from ADM and Pioneer Seed as unbiased why would a documentary featuring people with a vested interest on the other side be considered somhow less biased?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:13 PM on June 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Okay gompa, how many Oreos can I eat in one sitting to not do whatever bad thing you are talking about? Cause Iowa to sink or whatever.

How many licks does it take to get to the center of HELL?
posted by gurple at 12:14 PM on June 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


I always cringe a bit when I see the names of people who are known to have financial interest in a movement being involved in the production of a documentary that supports that movement

That one organic yogurt guy isn't going to take over yogurt production for the entire US of A, unlike the guys from ADM.
posted by GuyZero at 12:16 PM on June 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Okay gompa, how many Oreos can I eat in one sitting to not do whatever bad thing you are talking about?

So you're asking what you can get away with? I'm pretty sure that's up to you to figure out. Personal responsibility and all.
posted by symbollocks at 12:16 PM on June 9, 2009


How many licks does it take to get to the center of HELL?

Nine, as long as you have Virgil guiding your way.
posted by GuyZero at 12:16 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


... known to have financial interest in a movement...

You know, I don't actually question these guys' motives (like GuyZero, I think your analogy is a bit false), but I would be a lot happier if the doc were distributed for free online. It would reach a bigger audience and make its point better. On the other hand, it probably couldn't have been made at all that way.
posted by gurple at 12:21 PM on June 9, 2009


It's not like you would view a documentary about how great High Fructose Corn Syrup that features executives from ADM and Pioneer Seed as unbiased why would a documentary featuring people with a vested interest on the other side be considered somhow less biased?

It is biased. I don't care if that's what the conventional food industry wants to do. Go ahead. Make that movie. The problem is when they deliberately lie or deceive their audience. If you can make a valid case for current agricultural methods and food supplies, then do it.
posted by symbollocks at 12:23 PM on June 9, 2009


Okay gompa, how many Oreos can I eat in one sitting to not do whatever bad thing you are talking about? Cause Iowa to sink or whatever.

That's easy. All of 'em. Every last one. And your grandkids will thank you for it, as soon as you explain to them what an Oreo is. By candlelight.
posted by gompa at 12:26 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


The Dust Bowl was no accident of nature.

Well, it sort of was. The short version is that bad farming practices combined with a few unusually wet years led to widespread farming which all dried up and blew away (literally) when they entered a drought period. These were also "traditional farmers" practicing European style agriculture in an area that in the long term wasn't suited to it.

An interesting aside to the Dust Bowl. During the worst years the dust storms were so intense that paint was sandblasted off of cars and houses and the static buildup was so great that people were killed by huge static lightning bolts.
posted by electroboy at 12:26 PM on June 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Surviving the Dust Bowl by PBS, is a pretty good documentary on the Dust Bowl.
posted by electroboy at 12:37 PM on June 9, 2009


people were killed by huge static lightning bolts

sure, electroboy.
posted by snofoam at 12:47 PM on June 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


EAT A BOWL OF OREOS!!!
posted by swift at 12:55 PM on June 9, 2009


Eponysterical, I know, but they replicated the conditions during the documentary. Pretty cool stuff.
posted by electroboy at 12:56 PM on June 9, 2009


That one organic yogurt guy isn't going to take over yogurt production for the entire US of A, unlike the guys from ADM.

Everyone listed above has a vested financial interest in this movement. It's more than that one yogurt guy.Do you think Michael Pollan goes on the Colbert Report to talk about the food industry out of his sense of public service or to sell more books?

The problem is when they deliberately lie or deceive their audience.

When there are financial interests involved, how do we know there is not deceit on the other side as well? Once there is money involved in the equasion anything becomes possible. Gary Hirshberg could very well clam that some vague "Big Dairy" lobby puts AIDS in their yogurt for all it matters, his interest is simply yogurt sales.

Look, again, I'm not arguing against the merits of the movement or their arguments. I'm just saying that if you want objective content perhaps a film featuring people with direct financial interest in one side of an argument is maybe not the best place to find it, even if you tend to agree with their side or truly objective, scientific content would also tend to favor their side.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:11 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bias isn't just lying. It's also omission.
posted by smackfu at 1:15 PM on June 9, 2009


Pollomacho, by your logic basically no one could ever write about, make a film about, research or teach anything because they would have a financial interest. People should always consider the source of information, but it doesn't make sense to essentially preclude any method of actually getting the message out to the population in general.
posted by snofoam at 1:20 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's poorly expressed, but it's not entirely unfair. How many people here reject out of hand anything from ADM or Monsanto without actually investigating their claims?
posted by electroboy at 1:28 PM on June 9, 2009


Okay gompa, how many Oreos can I eat in one sitting to not do whatever bad thing you are talking about? Cause Iowa to sink or whatever.

It's not about how many Oreos you can eat. It's about how your Oreos are made, what ingredients are in them, how those ingredients were produced and processed, what Congress will and will not let the farmers and packagers get away with, and whether you say anything TO your Congressmen about it after you find out what the laws are.

In other words, if you've taken a look at the exact process for how your Oreo gets from the field to the factory to the store to your plate, and if you're okay with it, then however many Oreos you eat is between you and your doctor.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:39 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Do you think Michael Pollan goes on the Colbert Report to talk about the food industry out of his sense of public service or to sell more books?

I really dislike people who get all conspiratorial, but ADM has a market cap of $18 billion dollars. Michael Polan is nobody and like most authors isn't making that much money from his book. Single insider transactions filed with the SEC net ADM executives more than Polan will make in a year (http://google.brand.edgar-online.com/?sym=ADM)

So if moral weight is inversely correlated with financial gain then Polan is still way, way ahead of ADM.

Of course, correlating being right with making money is foolish and has nothing to do with it. And it's not really a Polan-ADM dichotomy. As others have said, by your logic we can trust nothing anyone says in public because they're either talking about their profession or being paid to talk professionally (e.g. the entire media).
posted by GuyZero at 1:43 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


So if moral weight is inversely correlated with financial gain then Polan is still way, way ahead of ADM.

Plenty of people sell snake oil for a lot less than Pollan is making. That's not to say either industrial agriculture or Pollan are being dishonest, but your "wink wink look at all this money, gotta be something fishy going on" implication is no better than what Pollomacho said. The amount of money someone is making off a product or an idea may motivate unscrupulous people, but these things have to be evaluated on the evidence.
posted by electroboy at 1:51 PM on June 9, 2009


Besides, can't we all just get along?
posted by electroboy at 1:52 PM on June 9, 2009


electroboy, I don't think that is the issue. There is no way of reaching a large mass of people without having some vested interest, whether it is paying for the film cameras or money from your book sales or just becoming some internet activist mini-celebrity who will leverage that into future $. This blanket skepticism is just a way to introduce doubt without any substance behind it.

I think it would make more sense to either:

a) Actually look at the data and see if there are reasons to be skeptical about it (e.g., compare to other data, understand the methodology).
b) Or, if you don't want to/can't do that, but still want to gauge how skeptical to be, at least compare the magnitude of the incentives on each side.

Someone like Michael Pollen probably has little incentive to be lying right now. I'm sure he could make much more money if he became a spokesperson for agribusiness.
posted by snofoam at 1:57 PM on June 9, 2009


We know we shouldn't be eating an entire sleeve of Oreos in a sitting Micheal Pollan.

I haven't read In Defense of Food yet, but I do not believe that Michael Pollan advocates anywhere that we should stop eating junk food entirely. What he says is that we should pay attention to where our food is coming from and the true costs of that food because it might change the ratio of healthy organic produce to Oreos consumed.

I always cringe a bit when I see the names of people who are known to have financial interest in a movement being involved in the production of a documentary that supports that movement.

So you can't advocate for anything that pays you money? Or you can't make money from anything you advocate? Or movies, and books, and lobbying should be done by volunteers? Or are you simply pointing out that Micheal Pollan the author/Joe Salatin the independent organic farmer and ADM are similar corporate entities?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:59 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Do you think Michael Pollan goes on the Colbert Report to talk about the food industry out of his sense of public service or to sell more books?

umm...both?

Isn't that the way our system is supposed to work (ideally)? You find something you care a great deal about and then make a living at it.
This stuff can only be judged by actual facts. Everyone has a personal agenda about everything.

on preview, I see this has already been addressed, but there it is anyway...
posted by Jeeb at 2:00 PM on June 9, 2009


I fucking love Oreos
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:01 PM on June 9, 2009


Yelp sponsored a preview here in SF, and although I did read Omnivore's Dilemma, it was great seeing the issues presented in a more marketable format. My fear always was (and still is) that the people who really need to get the message will never even encounter the message. I'd love to see it screened in every school in the country, personally.

Oh, and seeing Joel Salatin of Polyface on the big screen was awesome. He's one crazy mofo, but he's a crazy mofo that also happens to be absolutely *correct*.
posted by argh at 2:02 PM on June 9, 2009


I do think it is highly likely that Michael Pollan writes about food largely because he is interested in it and to help educate others about how unhealthy (in many senses of the word) our modern food system is. Is that really so strange to think?
posted by snofoam at 2:06 PM on June 9, 2009


Oh, also, if Michael Pollan acted like Monsanto, he get his friends in congress to have his books included at full cover price into school curricula nationwide and sue anyone who wrote an article about local food in their co-op newsletter for stealing his intellectual property.
posted by snofoam at 2:11 PM on June 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Each Spring, we travel the wide plains of Nabisco County camouflaged in zebra costumes, hunting down our Oreos with military-grade flasks of USDA milk. We pour a sacrificial offering of milk to the Keebler elves, before twisting and licking what we kill. Like the native American cookie hunters before us, we do not waste any crumbs, and leave the plastic bags the way we found them. It's the way Nature intended it to be.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:16 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Someone like Michael Pollen probably has little incentive to be lying right now.

How do you figure? He's got a huge following, his books sell extremely well and gets big speaking engagements. This would all go away if he started supporting industrial agriculture or endorsing Cool Ranch Doritos. Likewise a Monsanto executive would rightly be fired if he started publicly speaking against the interests of their company.

I'm not making the argument that any particular person's message is tainted because they accept dirty filthy money for doing what they do. I am suggesting it's unfair to apply a double standard when using that reasoning.

The "magnitude of incentives" isn't really fair either. Sure, the CEO of ADM may make more money, but most people can't name him off the top of their head. Pollan is famous, and that's a pretty big motivator for some people.
posted by electroboy at 2:19 PM on June 9, 2009


Pollan is famous, and that's a pretty big motivator for some people.

Pollan's fame (apologies for repeated butchering of his name, although I let it graze free-range beforehand) is pretty thin. I think most people who read Pollan are not really swayed by his arguments (such as they are) but rather he fits into their existing world view. He's the choir's favourite preacher.
posted by GuyZero at 2:24 PM on June 9, 2009


Bugs Bunny: Would you like to shoot me now or wait till you get home?
Daffy Duck: Shoot him now! Shoot him now!
Bugs Bunny: You keep outta this! He doesn't have to shoot you now!
Daffy Duck: He does so have to shoot me now!
[to Elmer]
Daffy Duck: I demand that you shoot me now! [Elmer shoots him.]
posted by nola at 2:32 PM on June 9, 2009


I'm not sure how rich and famous you think Michael Pollan is, but no one is asking anyone to believe everything he says.

He could be lying.

The clearest way to find out would be to research what he says and see if it seems verifiable and accurate. I think that seems like a reasonable thing to do.

Let's not be too silly here. No one has even begun to show that Michael Pollan even has an incentive to be dishonest. Sure, he makes money selling books about food. But why would he be misrepresenting contemporary food production? What he says seems mostly easy to verify. Presumably his status as an author and a speaker would be considerably diminished if he was a fraud.

It's basically the whole fair and balanced, both sides of the story BS that comes from not bothering to educate yourself or do your own thinking. Ignorance and apathy dressed up as skepticism.
posted by snofoam at 2:44 PM on June 9, 2009 [8 favorites]


I think most people who read Pollan are not really swayed by his arguments (such as they are) but rather he fits into their existing world view.

I'm not so sure. I've always been a big proponent of whatever pisses off the vegetarians being a net good. I ate a whole lot of processed food product. I would, quite without guilt, eat an entire feedlot chicken for dinner, without any kind of side dish. All servings are one serving, including that bag of Oreos. And so on. This wasn't due to any kind of ignorance -- I learned very little from The Omnivore's Dilemma. I just didn't care.

My diet has radically changed. I seldom eat any kind of meat before dinner. I buy organic when I can, and avoid feedlot meat (trying to stick to things like free-range chicken, buffalo, local lamb, etc.) I'm not going vegetarian -- I think that there is a value to my enjoyment of food that cannot wholly be quantified and paid for by ethical shopping. Lunch today was a huge salad -- about half a head of leaf lettuce, two bright red and very sweet tomatoes, celery, cucumber, about an ounce of feta cheese and a olive oil and pesto dressing. Mostly filling. Also had a few pieces of sushi left over from a catered event the other night -- because it's better that the food not be wasted. Free food trumps any other concern.

I'm not being dogmatic about it. If I'm running behind, I'm gonna pick up KFC on the way home, but at least I'm going to think about it and maybe I'll plan better next time.

I am by no means alone, nor, based on the experiences of some of my co-works when Pollan has been in town, is there much of a choir. He's changing peoples' minds.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:46 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I hate the idea that my food is engineered, not cooked.
posted by Flood at 2:55 PM on June 9, 2009


He's changing peoples' minds.

I'd agree with this. Five-ten years ago, people didn't have enough information about the food system to critique it. Pollan first got into the topic as a science writer, through the stories in The Botany of Desire - particularly, the potato section. In the research for that book, he discovered a lot of agricultural practices which were being taken for granted in the industry, and yet were surprising to him, and, he suspected, would be surprising to the general public. From that point he undertook an investigation of contemporary agriculture and food production that helped heighten people's awareness of how our food system has developed in recent decades, and what factors have molded it into its present shape. He's one among a legion of journalists doing this sort of work in recent years - because there is a big, big story there - and we aren't dependent solely on professional writers for the information, because many agricultural scientists and policy folk are writing, as well.

People discover Pollan because he's just a terrific, clear, and responsible writer. But he's not just preaching to a choir, because the choir is just beginning to form and is still learning to read music. He has been educating himself and, in turn, the public, and everyone is learning along the way. The information he is sharing with us has been very well packaged by his writing talent, but is available, has been available, to anyone with the interest and time to dig into it. The information would not have been forthcoming from other sources, because those sources were uninterested in taking a critical stance. It's not the making of money, but the taking of the critical stance - the examination of claims and the relation of facts with the goal of evaluating them - that makes the purpose of Pollan and the people behind this movie qualitatively different from a movie made by industry shills.

Pollan's writing skills are as strong as they get. He could work on any topic and have a career. As it happens, he has struck upon a topic that is a big, interesting, and continually developing story that touches on the everyday life of just about everybody in the country. People are interested. He's amassed knowledge and background to make a living by finding and sharing this information, and, like Bill McKibben, felt that it was incumbent upon him not just to report, but to critique and advocate. We all know we're listening to advocacy, but it deals in fact. A critical stance is appropriate where there has been no significant criticism before.
posted by Miko at 2:58 PM on June 9, 2009 [14 favorites]


2nding Miko, who mentioned a couple things that I was also thinking:

1) that he's a very good writer who could be successful writing about other things
2) if you read Botany of Desire, it seems pretty clear that he was interested in the relationships between us and plants before he was writing about what we are eating and what we should eat.

And I also agree that he is changing people's minds. There are certainly some basics that, ideally, everyone would know by now about factory farms and processed foods. We know we should avoid those things. It is more interesting when he goes into detail about the alternatives, like Polyface farm, and how they actually work.
posted by snofoam at 3:04 PM on June 9, 2009


What the hell is wrong with having a financial stake in something?

Nothing. ADM has a right to make money. So does every pig farmer out there.

And guess what? So does Micheal Pollan.

But there ARE right sides of issues and wrong sides of issues. And the problem is the way Big Corporate Ag is doing is business is causing extreme harm to the environment and to public health. That is a fact. The problem ISN'T that they are making money at it. Making money might be a big incentive for them to not change they way they do business but nobody is saying they shouldn't DO business.

So. It's a retarded and rather dim criticism to negate to correct side of the argument becuase it seeks to profit FROM BEING RIGHT.
posted by tkchrist at 3:07 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think most people who read Pollan are not really swayed by his arguments (such as they are) but rather he fits into their existing world view.

I come from ranching and farming family. 12 years ago I would have called his argument complete bunk.

And then I actually read him and did the math for myself.

I irrevocably altered my way of eating and buying based on his (and other) writings.

What he doesn't appeal to is a world view that is cognitively dissonant, self deluded, and lazy.

But if understanding facts and science fits into your world view then Pollan's conclusions are inescapable.
posted by tkchrist at 3:12 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I come from ranching and farming family. 12 years ago I would have called his argument complete bunk.

Huh? What's changed in 12 years? And why would you have called it bunk? I'm really curious here.
posted by GuyZero at 3:28 PM on June 9, 2009


Huh? What's changed in 12 years?

What's changed? Like I said I got ed-ja-ma-kated. And the lobbying efforts of companies like Monsanto to essentially crush traditional farming practices as we know them have intensified exponentially in the last couple of decades.
posted by tkchrist at 4:02 PM on June 9, 2009


I think most people who read Pollan are not really swayed by his arguments (such as they are) but rather he fits into their existing world view.

Well, I for one knew nothing about issues in food production until I picked up Pollan's book. It was a fascinating, eye-opening read that got me into some interesting conversations and further reading.

It hasn't completely changed my eating habits, but I am a lot more aware of my food now than I was before...so he couldn't have fit my "world view" on these issues because I didn't have one.
posted by never used baby shoes at 4:17 PM on June 9, 2009


Monsanto's response to the movie.

I will never see The Corporation, Michael Moore flicks or Fast Food Nation. Slated is slated. If you wanna save yourself the 90 minutes of your life and $10 bucks lemme sum up the film. Ask where your food comes from and cook it yourself. I do, and the results are far more rewarding and delicious than your health care premium.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:40 PM on June 9, 2009


One thing that is particularly amusing about using the example of Pollan possibly misleading people for profit is the way in which he writes. He uses a lot of basic facts (e.g., % of food calories that come from corn) and some historical information to describe the current situation. He avoids making judgements or prescribing a specific course of action whenever possible and is very clear when he is stating opinions. Exactly what would he be misleading people about? That the way Polyface Farm isn't actually fascinating? Or that their eggs aren't really tasty?

Given his subject matter, I think it is a wise approach, since people are very sensitive about what they eat. I wouldn't be surprised if he is seen as a very important writer in a hundred years. (Not that he isn't important now, but that he will have a lasting impact.)
posted by snofoam at 4:42 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Slated is slated.

Slated? You mean "slanted?"

That's funny that you won't ever see a documentary with a particular POV, because it's "slanted" but you will post a link to PR from a kajillion dollar corporation becuase it's... what? Neutral?
posted by tkchrist at 4:55 PM on June 9, 2009


I think the biggest argument to make against Pollan - and I do like his books and generally agree with him - is that it's all so easy to say when you live in the Bay Area. His examples of well-tended food are not so easy to find in, say, Thunder Bay. Not everyone has the fortune to live in the middle of a cornucopia.
posted by GuyZero at 4:55 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I fucking love Oreos.

Oreos figure into the best Freudian slip I have ever had the chance to experience. In 2002, I worked for a publishing company that had fired the staffs of two magazines based in Connecticut and hired a new crew of writers, editors and designers in Richmond. Now, these were health magazines—Vegetarian Times and Better Nutrition. But as I was the keeper of the petty cash, and the one who most often did the shopping for the staff's break room, I had relatively free reign over the grocery list.

So, one week, I decided I'd supplement everyone's usual special requests of mixed nuts, yogurt, etc., with a package of Oreos just to see what would happen.

I happened to be walking by the break room when I overheard this exchange:

Coworker #1: Isn't it great that emelenjr picked up Oreos?
Coworker #2: I know! I love emelenjr! *beat* I love Oreos, and therefore emelenjr for bringing them.
posted by emelenjr at 4:58 PM on June 9, 2009


In related news:

Slim Jim plant explodes in NC

"At least 20 people have been hospitalized and two remain unaccounted for following an explosion Tuesday morning at a ConAgra Foods Inc. manufacturing plant in Garner, N.C. that knocked down walls and caused the roof on the south side of the building to collapse."
"...a hazardous materials crew is on the scene..."
"...once the chemical threat is abated..."

What on earth are they putting into those things?
posted by Hairy Lobster at 5:02 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


GFAO
posted by kaspen at 5:03 PM on June 9, 2009


And never mind that there likely were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than all of beef farming raises in the same area today.

Speaking of bison, OMG, is that a delicious, low-fat, delicious meat.

Eat more bison.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:14 PM on June 9, 2009


People who do not want to change will find and use every excuse their wild imaginations can conceive to avoid changing. Which explains about half of this thread. As well as the looming environmental disasters we now face.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:19 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


It takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy to restore a year's worth of lost energy to an acre of eroded land

What the hell does that mean? A gallon is a measurement of volume! And how do you measure the energy of an acre of eroded land?

So what is it then, do we have a gallon of petrol's worth of energy? A gallon of oil's worth of energy? A gallon of natural gas' worth of energy? And as for the land, the caloric energy yielded by an acre's worth of corn crops? Tobacco crops? Tomato crops? The worms in the soil? The nutrients in the soil? AARRRGHGGHGHG
posted by Ndwright at 5:41 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Monsanto's response to the movie.

Their "DO YOU KNOW THE FACTS ABOUT MONSANTO'S ROLE IN FOOD, INC?" quiz is fun. I got a 100% just by choosing the option that made Monsanto look less evil. Slated it is not!
posted by youarenothere at 6:05 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Each Spring, we travel the wide plains of Nabisco County camouflaged in zebra costumes, hunting down our Oreos with military-grade flasks of USDA milk. We pour a sacrificial offering of milk to the Keebler elves, before twisting and licking what we kill. Like the native American cookie hunters before us, we do not waste any crumbs, and leave the plastic bags the way we found them. It's the way Nature intended it to be.

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:16 PM on June 9


WIN!
posted by liza at 9:22 PM on June 9, 2009


Want to live longer and be as green as possible? EAT LOCAL. Now you don't have to see the movie. (If you can get Oreos locally, go nuts.)

Our co-op has organic bananas--from Peru! That's not very green. I thank Michael Pollan et al for upping the bar on the thinking behind what and how we eat.
posted by Camofrog at 9:56 PM on June 9, 2009


Eat local is great unless you live on the coasts, in which case no grain products like bread. And no rice in most of North America. And no green vegetables throughout Canada for 10 months of the year - unless you plan to build a lot of capital-intensive and energy-intensive greenhouses. And of course, no cane sugar outside the Caribbean. And definitely no chocolate anything.

People should eat local where possible, absolutely, but again, it's really, really easy to do so in California. Something like 70%+ of the lettuce grown in the US comes from Monterey country or somewhere else between San Jose and Los Angeles. And I would guess the remainder doesn't come from Syracuse. So unless you live in California, eating local means probably never eating a salad again. If you live near all those chemical plants in New Jersey, go crazy with the Oreos.

P.S. I really do think Pollan is a very smart man and makes a lot of good points. Locavorism just isn't that easy to do
posted by GuyZero at 10:14 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Re: Oreos:

My solution is to eat lots of Newman-O's and pretend that this takes care of everything.
posted by naoko at 10:44 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I started this shitstorm of a derail so let me just try and nip it a bit so folks can focus on the film.

Pollomacho, by your logic basically no one could ever write about, make a film about, research or teach anything because they would have a financial interest.

How did you extrapolate that? People can do what they want, financial interest or not. What I caution against is presumption of objectivity from someone who has a vested interest. By all means read Pollan's books, see the film, stop eating Oreos if you like, but just do so with scepticism. Doubt and scepticism are good things remember? I'm not precluding anything at all, all I said was it makes me cringe a bit when a position piece comes out and everyone featured has a financial stake in that position.

No one has even begun to show that Michael Pollan even has an incentive to be dishonest.

Well, actually there is plenty of incentive demonstrated, the fact that he has or has not been dishonest has not even been argued. I don't accuse him of lying, I accuse him of having a vested financial interest in promoting one side of an issue, which I don't think too many people here would disagree with, would they?

The clearest way to find out would be to research what he says and see if it seems verifiable and accurate. I think that seems like a reasonable thing to do.

I could not agree more!

I think most people who read Pollan are not really swayed by his arguments (such as they are) but rather he fits into their existing world view.

My wife picked up Omnivore's Dilemma and now anything containing High Fructose Corn Syrup has to be smuggled into my home like Frank Zappa cassettes into Ceausescu's Romania (I hide the Cokes behind the CFA crates of turnips in our root cellar, right next to the marshmallow fluff). Last week we took the toddler to meet the sustainable, free-range, smugly superior goats that will keep us supplied with chevre during the long winter months. I'm going to say once again that I don't disagree with Pollan on most counts (though I do drink Cokes, a true vice for me). I support my wife's decision to make ours a more sustainable household, but she was certainly a convert to the cause.

What the hell is wrong with having a financial stake in something?

Nothing, except for the loss of objectivity. Look, I can say, "I love Oreos" if that is my opinion. If I work for Nabisco and I say, "I love Oreos" and now it could mean I personally love Oreos, it could mean I love being paid by Nabisco.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:25 AM on June 10, 2009


actually there is plenty of incentive demonstrated

No, there has been none. That's partially why that point of view is so nonsensical. I mean, we all have a vested interest in promoting the sustainability of our planet. The theoretical problem would be if he had an interest caused him to mislead people, but no one has even tried to show that.

Either there's a problem with what he is saying, or there isn't. Raising some vague specter of self-interest serves no function other than to mislead.

People can do what they want, financial interest or not.

People cannot reach a broad audience without achieving something that has been labeled self-interest in comments above, whether it is money, celebrity, etc. It is also really difficult to reach a large audience without some form of financing to create something that will be widely distributed. By this logic, only people who can be trusted are essentially amateurs in a field with no significant audience and no desire to achieve a significant audience.

If some kind of absolute objectivity is what you're looking for, then good luck. You'll never find it anywhere. Your argument is irrelevant in the real world and serves no constructive purpose. It only exists as a mechanism to introduce doubt in situations where you have no actual evidence to present. It's the last refuge for those who seek to undermine things that they cannot legitimately call into question with evidence. It's not an adequate substitute for critical thinking.
posted by snofoam at 6:29 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


What the hell does that mean? A gallon is a measurement of volume! And how do you measure the energy of an acre of eroded land?

So what is it then, do we have a gallon of petrol's worth of energy? A gallon of oil's worth of energy? A gallon of natural gas' worth of energy? And as for the land, the caloric energy yielded by an acre's worth of corn crops? Tobacco crops? Tomato crops? The worms in the soil? The nutrients in the soil? AARRRGHGGHGHG


I understand your aggravation at a lack of sources for that number, but keep in mind it's a magazine article, and that you could pick apart almost any other article in the same manner. That said, if you are truly interested in finding out you could probably find the proper source in Manning's book Against the Grain, which was published the year before this article ran (and most likely was the basis for that article).

As for measuring the energy of an acre of eroded land, that would be the domain of soil science.

But at the same time... seriously? You're more outraged by the lack of details than the fact that (ANY) fossil fuels are being used to grow our food supply? What?
posted by symbollocks at 6:53 AM on June 10, 2009


You're more outraged by the lack of details than the fact that (ANY) fossil fuels are being used to grow our food supply?

I could be wrong here, but I think that even the most stalwart "sustainable" farms use tractors and vehicles to move products to market, at least the ones we've been visiting lately.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:03 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, not sure how the food supply could be maintained to sustain current population levels without any fossil fuels -- not to mention the question of where you draw the line. Can farmers have cars? Can they heat their homes? Can they have materials made of plastic?
posted by proj at 7:25 AM on June 10, 2009


No, there has been none. That's partially why that point of view is so nonsensical.

You're being deliberately obtuse. No one is saying that either Michael Pollan or {insert industrial food producer here} is lying. But you can't say an incentive exists for one and not the other, since both of them profit significantly from the work they do. Pollan is a good writer and a good researcher, but he certainly has a stake in the work he does.

It's basically the whole fair and balanced, both sides of the story BS that comes from not bothering to educate yourself or do your own thinking.

So.... you must've skipped the part where I said: "The amount of money someone is making off a product or an idea may motivate unscrupulous people, but these things have to be evaluated on the evidence."
posted by electroboy at 7:31 AM on June 10, 2009


Eat local is great unless you live on the coasts, in which case no grain products like bread.

Totally untrue; New England is seeing a resurgence of interest in growing grain for flour. In Maine we have wheat flour from Wood Prairie Farm, Aurora Mills, and Bouchard Farms. And "no grain products" is far too exclusive for a region that for centuries has made daily use of cornmeal and oats and oat flour for its survival.

And no green vegetables throughout Canada for 10 months of the year - unless you plan to build a lot of capital-intensive and energy-intensive greenhouses.

Greenhouses and hoophouses do not have to be capital intensive or energy intensive. I met a woman a few weeks ago in NH who built a hoophouse in her backyard last year for about $120. She grew vegetables, including lettuce, in there every month of the winter except December. By April she moved to the outside gardens. In any case, she was raising fresh food 11 months of the year and eating a lot from storage throughout the winter - things she'd grown in the warmer months and preserved. PReservation - canning, drying, freezing, cold storage - is essential to a year-round eat-local strategy. When you do get into eating local you stop expecting to buy the full range of food fresh all the time, and you plan accordingly, and eat seasonally. It's not all that hard or crazy. And with passive solar arrangements like cold frames - nothing more than a frame with an old window

And of course, no cane sugar outside the Caribbean.

No, but there's maple syrup, maple sugar, and honey.

People should eat local where possible, absolutely, but...unless you live in California, eating local means probably never eating a salad again.


Not at all! I've been eating salad for two months now out of my open-air garden...in southern NH....and will be eating locally grown salads of one kind or another until November. In deep winter, there are fewer greens - they just need a minimum amount of daylight - but that's when a locavore type eats more storage crops, winter greens like kale and chard, and summer vegetables canned or from the freezer. Lettuce is ridiculously easy to grow.

If you live near all those chemical plants in New Jersey, go crazy with the Oreos.

Almost anywhere in the US that's been settled for 100 years has contaminated soil. There's just so much lead, old oil, etc. So if you want to grow food on land that has been built on or around, the best bet is raised beds, where you seal the base of the bed and then fill with organic soil.

Locavorism just isn't that easy to do


It's not exactly easy, but it's not as hard as you make it out to be. The difference is one of attitude. Do you believe in the idea? Do you want it to work? Then rather than saying "forget it, too hard," you set about finding solutions that work for you. This is what people are engaged in right now, learning and experimenting and sharing information, starting new ventures and developing new systems. The food supply right now has been decimated, and it's not set up to deliver local food to local people, so we have to do a lot of our own growing and sourcing and work in groups sometimes and re-develop local supply chains. IT's not going to be ready-made, like industrial food, just yet.

But it's a lot of fun. The other straw man I hear a lot is what you said above: forget chocolate! rice! (coffee. Olive oil. Lemons. Whatever). However, I think the point of eating more locally is just that - eating MORE locally. Every time you choose a locally grown food over one shipped long distance, you're supporting the development of a local food supply and keeping the money within your community. That doesn't mean you'd ever have to eat only local food. when I teach people about the diet of the European colonists in America, I emphasize that even then it was the drive for trade in food, largely, that drove people around the globe and spurred the development of empires, slavery, and navigation. Exotic foods are wonderful. They add a lot of flavor and variety to the diet. I'd never want to live without chocolate, coffee, or olive oil. But it makes sense to import those things, because they don't grow here and never will. It does not make sense to import vast quantities of food that I can grow here, or buy locally grown, and it doesn't do the planet, the nation, or my local economy any good to insist on having a food supply that totally ignores the seasonal food cycle, even at great expense for production, shipping and storage.

Most local economies are nowhere near food self-sufficiency. New Hampshire, for instance, produces only 6% of its own food supply. Maine, though, produces 20%. That 14% amounts to a huge difference in food security and a balanced and healthy local economy. And it's growing. Like most positive changes, eating locally is not an all-or-nothing proposition. One can learn a hell of a lot by participating in Eat Local challenges - weeks or months where you eat only what is produced in your area - but they don't need to become a permanent way of life. what you can do is take the things you learned in the challenge, such as where to buy local eggs, that mint iced tea is delicious, that your state may not be great at growing avocados but is great at raising pastured meat, etc, and let those become part of your more regular, day-to-day way of life. Once you start shifting your sourcing to local, and even more, once you start growing some of your own food, it gets easier and easier to continue, and you wonder why you didn't do it before. It's less convenient, but it can be a fun project for those with the ability to pursue it. And it's honestly not all that hard to choose something more local over something less local more often. Small changes add up.
posted by Miko at 8:24 AM on June 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


So unless you live in California, eating local means probably never eating a salad again.

I live in Massachusetts and I'm up to my ears in locally grown greens right now. I just picked up my second CSA share, and it's about 5 pounds of various greens. I don't think I could eat it all this week if I walked around munching on handfulls of it. And I've only got a half share!
posted by diogenes at 8:50 AM on June 10, 2009


>So unless you live in California, eating local means probably never eating a salad again.

I live in Massachusetts and I'm up to my ears in locally grown greens right now. I just picked up my second CSA share, and it's about 5 pounds of various greens.


Seconding this -- my first CSA share included a head of lettuce, a bunch of radishes, and 3 bunches of different greens. I could make salads out of that. And I'm in New York. And will probably get the same thing next week.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:23 AM on June 10, 2009


Locavorism just isn't that easy to do

Eh, it's not that hard. Farms and businesses are starting to realize that stuff is important to consumers and making the information available about what's local and where to get it. Ditto the increasing number of farmer's markets. It gets more difficult in the winter and if you live in the city you may not necessarily be able to grow much of your own food, but you can still make better choices. We have a pretty small yard and still manage to do a little. Most cities have community garden plots, if that's your thing. CSAs are also a good bet, if they have local pickup points. If everyone is driving out to the farm to pick up their food, it negates a lot of the benefit of eating locally.

Part of the difficulty is that there's a lot of competing benefits that people have to weigh against each other. Some food is local, but not organic. Sometimes the energy inputs (and hence, carbon emissions) for local food is greater than non-local due to production methods, inefficiencies in getting food to market, etc.

One of the issues I still have with a lot of the eat local/organic is that it's still primarily an upper middle class thing. Organic produce is still pretty expensive, and the selection at most middle of the road grocery stores is pretty unimpressive. Baltimore is doing some interesting things with involving local farmers in supplying food to schools and more farmer's markets are accepting WIC and food assistance, but local and organic food is still out of reach of a lot of people.
posted by electroboy at 9:28 AM on June 10, 2009


Besides, the problem with lettuce isn't cool weather, it's hot weather. The heat makes lettuce bolt and taste like crap.
posted by electroboy at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2009


it's still primarily an upper middle class thing.

Most social change starts among people who have the time and have the ability to make choices about where and how they spend their money. It is their interest that forms the point of the spear, creating new markets and providing incentive for the establishment of new social ventures. There are more farms in NH today then there were twenty years ago; the number of farmer's markets in the United States has tripled since the mid-1990s.

On the fairness issue, it's not only Baltimore that is doing farm-to-school programming or edible school gardens. Slow Food in Schools is one umbrella for this sort of project and Slow Food is about to launch a nationwide campaign with a school-lunch Day of Action next Labor Day. You can find nationwide networks of people interested in food justice issues uniting access to organic and local food with the food supply for middle and lower-income people. In fact, if you care about one issue deeply, it's likely you care about all its impacts. Wherever you find a strong local food movement, you're quite likely to find efforts to get better food to lower-income people. One coalition I work with goes around our local farmer's markets at the end of the market and 'gleans' the unsold food that farmer's don't want to take back, and we bring it to our night-by-night homeless shelter. Last week we delivered 60 pounds of fresh produce. Another colleague of mine has developed a campaign called the Giving Gardens Network which invites home gardeners to plant extra food and connects them with food pantries and donation centres which will accept fresh food (there are many of them). WIC coupons and food stamps are indeed accepted at many markets. In some places there is free market transportation provided by volunteers from city neighborhoods to market locations. The Heart of the City Farmer's Market in San Francisco was established in order to ensure access to a market in, well, the heart of the city. It was quite affordable. In my town, we had three community gardens when I moved here five years ago. Today there are eight. My garden is open to anyone at no cost other than 2 days of labor at the beginning and end of the season. Seeds are shared and free, as is the compost we make ourselves. Water is provided by the site owner. A CSA share represents a significant cash outlay of between $200-500 for a season's worth of food, but if you cost out the individual items CSA recipients generally are paying half to 75% of retail, getting a much better deal than the grocery store. Where you find an active movement, you find efforts to improve access.

I don't think it makes sense to just walk around a Whole Foods and say "forget it - organic is too expensive." We have to get better at cutting out those chain-store middlemen when it comes to our fresh food supply, particularly. Farmstands and farmer's markets tend to be equal to or cheaper than the grocery store item for item when you buy food in season - and generally, the value is different because the fresher product is often better quality. But as it stands, organic retail produce at the grocery store is about the most expensive version of produce. There are a lot of other ways and places to source food, and we who care about the issue need to find them, make them obvious, help people get access to them, and help them expand so that prices can stay reasonable while farmers make a living and create jobs. There is indeed a bit of a problem of cost, but I think it's far more one of perception than reality. The truth is that if you want to change the way you eat, you need to change the way you shop for food (or grow it). And everyone who gets into this has to do it, be you rich or poor. The cheapest food of all is that which you grow yourself. My grandparents enjoyed year-round abundance of fresh and preserved organic food from their half-acre garden, and they didn't do it because they were rich; they did it because it was so much cheaper than store shopping. Once you learn how to shop, and often shift the bulk in your diet from meat/cheese-based meals to grain/egg/produce-based meals, you can eat locally for about the same amount of money as a grocery store investment.

Not to be too blithe about it, because I certainly recognize the problems of access, but just want to make the point that so do all the people active in the movement. Everyone who's not quite affluent, which after all is most people, is aware of the cost issue and is working on it in their own lives and systemically. Like all barriers, this one can be taken down, and there are efforts nationwide to do so, bit by bit. There is always a way.
posted by Miko at 9:57 AM on June 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Most local economies are nowhere near food self-sufficiency. New Hampshire, for instance, produces only 6% of its own food supply. Maine, though, produces 20%

Wow. 20%. That's pretty good. Imagine if ever state could do at least that. I'd say that's a doable target.
posted by tkchrist at 10:47 AM on June 10, 2009


Maine has a Food Policy Council that works with the state legislature - and their goal is actually for Maine to reach 80% of its own food production!
posted by Miko at 10:55 AM on June 10, 2009


I don't think it makes sense to just walk around a Whole Foods and say "forget it - organic is too expensive."

Come on, that's a little insulting. Baltimore's problems are a lot different than either San Francisco's or where you live. You're talking about places that have 150% to 200% the average income that we do. You can't gloss over those differences.

Iif you cost out the individual items CSA recipients generally are paying half to 75% of retail

Sure, but organic produce can command a 50% premium as it is, so frequently you're paying the same as you would for conventional produce, just up front and without the same selection. Not a great solution for people who don't have the means. I like our CSA, but I'm not sure we're saving money overall. One of my projects for this year is to track and compare it to the comparable grocery store price.

The model I'd like to see adopted here is more the Detroit model, where vacant land is repurposed for community gardens, but I realize that the community gardening is mostly a solution for people who have the free time and the ability to do it. Ours donates part of the produce to a food pantry, but it's a tiny percentage of what their needs are.

The cheapest food of all is that which you grow yourself.

True, with a few caveats. You can incur some significant expenses if you're not joining an already established community garden where you can borrow tools and already has the resources available. Ours required a couple community grants and a lot of negotiating with the owners of the vacant lot, and then yet another grant and lobbying our councilperson to get a water supply.

Honestly I think giving preferences in government purchasing to local farmers and giving farmer's markets a price premium when using food aid is probably the answer to reaching people with lower incomes.
posted by electroboy at 11:37 AM on June 10, 2009


Also, since we're talking about gardens, I just have to post the strangest gardening magazine I've heard of. Curious who their target demographic is.
posted by electroboy at 11:41 AM on June 10, 2009


The cheapest food of all is that which you grow yourself.

See also.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:43 AM on June 10, 2009


Your points are fine, electroboy, but pointing out systemic issues is step one. Doing something about them is step two. It's incorrect to assume that because people are doing step one, they aren't also doing, or beginning to do, step two. In fact, no one is likelier to take on those Step Two projects than those who have already benefited from step one.

My point in mentioning the San Franscisco market was not to compare a wealthy city with a poor one. The HEart of the City market is located in a deeply poverty-stricken area of SF and the shoppers at the market are among the lowest-income people in the region, mostly recent immigrants working low-wage jobs, or the unemployed and people on other forms of public assistance. The point is that access issues are lessened because the market comes to them.

I find that a lot of people who take pleasure in pointing out the fairness and food justice and cost issues are doing nothing at all about the systemic problems that underlie those issues. One can always find imperfections in a developing system. Doing something to change it requires more than carping about the existing system. Pointing out problem areas in order to solve them is a necessary activity in needs assessment and solution-finding. Pointing out problem areas only to say "See, this whole endeavor is a vanity projec of the wealthy" is not as helpful - not even oriented toward being helpful.

I like our CSA, but I'm not sure we're saving money overall. One of my projects for this year is to track and compare it to the comparable grocery store price.

It is exactly this kind of close examination I was citing when I mentioned that there was savings. As a 5-year CSA facilitator, I feel confident you'll do better than grocery store prices. Barring natural disasters, the yield is insane, especially when you reach August and September. If you don't see a savings, switch CSAs, unless there is something special about them that is worth the difference to you.

And don't forget to compare value as well as price. A grocery store tomato that was shipped green will have a noticeable flavor and texture difference; if your produce from the farm is premium size, flavor, and quality, compare the price with a premium produce price, not just standard grocery-store fodder price.

Local Harvest has been undertaking a market-basket price comparison charting prices paid at farmer's markets for similar items in grocery stores. They piloted it last fall to some interesting results, and will continue this spring. More of this sort of comparitive analysis is needed.

Honestly I think giving preferences in government purchasing to local farmers and giving farmer's markets a price premium when using food aid is probably the answer to reaching people with lower incomes.

I think the answer is much broader-based than that; the answer lies in US Food Policy as written into the Farm Bill. At present, farmers who grow food, produce, don't get any of the abundant subsidy money poured into the industrial agriculture system. Theirs are considered 'specialty crops', as opposed to commodities, and are not eligible for most of the subsidies, grants, or tax breaks given to industrial agriculture companies. The cheapness of industrial food has its origins in this situation. It's not that good food is unfairly expensive, but that industrial food is kept artificially cheap, that is part of the problem. if some of those public funds were redirected to building local food security, protecting farmland, creating farm jobs and supporting cooperative programs. If we were paying the real cost of production for industrially raised food, and had access to subsidized locally raised food, we'd find the price structure reversed.

Rewriting the Farm Bill is the most vital and biggest task of redeveloping the food system. It will not, however, be easy to do. Incidentally, both the Food Stamp program and the federal school lunch subsidy are in the Farm Bill - so making changes to those systems requires Farm Bill changes, too. IF you'd like to see those changes made, start talking to legislators now. We missed the most recent opportunity: the 2008 Farm Bill passed with some positive changes but without significant structural changes to the industrial supports and without many new supports for local, small-scale, produce farming. it will not come up for reauthorization for another 5 years or so. When it does, people who want change will need to be ready, and vocal. The Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture is an important document, drafted by a selected group of "framers" chosen from both the policy and public information fields, including Pollan, several former USDA staffers, advocacy group heads, researchers, and farmers. The stated goal is to build on the statements in this document to create an "ideological shift" on food system issues that will result in a significant redevelopment of the Farm Bill and the food realities it creates.
posted by Miko at 12:06 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm familiar with that book about the $64 tomato, and also had a long conversation with a MeFite last year about how much their tomatoes cost them, but it sincerely bothers me that there's anti-garden propaganda out there. Those situations just are not average. You can cerrtainly go abut gardening in a consumerist way and assume that you have to go out and buy a bunch of new stuff, buy books and seeds and garden fixtures and a new hose...but you actually don't. You can use your resources and get stuff for free. You can call your cooperative extension and say "What do I need, and where can I get it with low or no cost?"

There's no need to waste money gardening; in the first year, there might be some investment required, but I know way, way too many people who garden with nothing. My garden costs me about $10-20 a year for the seeds I want to buy - others I've saved or traded with people. Yes, I've got a community garden plot, but if I didn't have one, I'd start one. I live in a city, and there are still a bunch of verges and funny berms and vacant areas that are ready to become a garden. You can salvage just about everything you need - lumber, stakes. You can find ways to get free straw or other mulch from people, and sometimes composted manure too, even in a city. A rain barrel and a couple old milk jugs can provide all the water you need. Tools needed for a small garden are totally minimal and can often be borrowed and shared among neighbors.

Gardens have been the province of the poor forever - until recently, when we've convinced people they're somehow fundamentally incapable of doing what human beings exist because they learned to do. Mistrust that.
posted by Miko at 12:13 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm familiar with that book about the $64 tomato, and also had a long conversation with a MeFite last year about how much their tomatoes cost them, but it sincerely bothers me that there's anti-garden propaganda out there.

I wouldn't exactly call the William Alexander anti-garden.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:49 PM on June 10, 2009


Discouraging people from gardening by implying that it's going to be prohibitively expensive is anti-garden propaganda. The author himself may not be anti-garden, but the message that he allowed to be placed on the front of his book certainly is.

From the link:
The title of the book refers to a calculation that he made at some point to find out how much each tomato that he had harvested that season had cost him. The cost he comes up with is $64 each. However, don't make the mistake of thinking that amount is typical and let it discourage you from planting a garden! I have to nitpick and point out that there are significant flaws in his calculation. In addition, he incurred large expenses that most gardeners will not face.

For example, because the spot he chose for his garden was on a slope, he had to bring in a professional with some heavy equipment to grade and terrace the ground, at a cost of $8,500! Plus, he valued all of the rest of his produce at standard supermarket prices, leaving $1219 in expenses. He then divided that among the 19 Brandywine tomatoes he got that year (it was an extremely bad harvest that year) and came up with the figure of $64 per tomato.

I could go into great detail, analyzing his accounting method and explaining what's wrong with it, but frankly it would be about as interesting as, well, accounting. So instead I'll just repeat that the average gardener is not going to spend anywhere near $64 each to raise tomatoes, so don't let that scare you off!

posted by Miko at 1:01 PM on June 10, 2009


Maine has a Food Policy Council that works with the state legislature - and their goal is actually for Maine to reach 80% of its own food production!

So why is it good that a state would be food-independent, but not good if it were labour-independent?

When I suggest the biggest mistake western companies have made is to ship their labour off to third-world countries, I am told that is wrong and that exporting unskilled labour is good for the nation. But suggest that food should be grown locally, and it's suddenly a different story.

When people talk up protectionism and tariffs and such, to protect the local/national economy, they're told that those are really bad things. But talk up growing food locally, and it's suddenly a good thing.

I do not understand why the one is good and the other bad.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:12 PM on June 10, 2009


Discouraging people from gardening by implying that it's going to be prohibitively expensive is anti-garden propaganda.

He wrote a popular humor book about how over-the-top obsessive he and his wife got about their garden, fully recognizing in the book that they were ignoring all the logic and rationality that make reasonable gardening cheap and easy. I wouldn't get too hung up on his title page, it's gardening humor not big-corn propaganda.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:20 PM on June 10, 2009


There's no need to waste money gardening; in the first year, there might be some investment required, but I know way, way too many people who garden with nothing. My garden costs me about $10-20 a year for the seeds I want to buy - others I've saved or traded with people.

this. Seriously, the seed packets I got were about 3 bucks each. The potting soil has been the most expensive thing. I didn't even need a pot - I just reused an empty plastic kitty litter tub. For fertilizer, I've been using used coffee grounds.

You just need dirt, water, sun, and seeds. That's it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:22 PM on June 10, 2009


five fresh fish:

They're both good in my opinion. The people saying that protectionism is bad generally have a very large financial interest in convincing us of that. Of course "free trade" has a lot of good points, but it's overused and overvalued because many of the true costs are externalized (worker exploitation, environmental damage, loss of local jobs, etc.). Unrestricted free trade proponents tend to think in purely financial terms, and they don't even get that right.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:34 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's incorrect to assume that because people are doing step one..

Your points are fine, Miko, but it's incorrect to assume that we're not doing something about them here just because I'm pointing out the difference between rural New Hampshire and urban Baltimore. But there are differences and all of your glib solutions don't necessarily apply to how everyone lives.

I find that a lot of people who take pleasure in pointing out the fairness and food justice and cost issues are doing nothing at all about the systemic problems that underlie those issues.

Interesting, because I find that a lot of proponents of local and organic foods elide the access and affordability issues without presenting realistic solutions, and frequently get unnecessarily defensive when those issues are raised. The proper response to "Some people don't have access to fresh produce" isn't to impugn the motives of the people raising the issue. This should be about helping people get access, not making moral judgements about people raising the issues.

it sincerely bothers me that there's anti-garden propaganda out there

It's not anti-gardening propaganda, but it does acknowledge that gardening isn't necessarily free if you're not already equipped for it. Granted, that book is ridiculous and is supposed to be, but to call it propaganda misrepresents it's importance. It may be easy for you to get access to these things, but you're already hooked into a network of people that does these things and in a relatively rural area.
posted by electroboy at 2:02 PM on June 10, 2009


When I suggest the biggest mistake western companies have made is to ship their labour off to third-world countries, I am told that is wrong and that exporting unskilled labour is good for the nation. But suggest that food should be grown locally, and it's suddenly a different story.

They're different people. I'm also against the ideas one finds in extreme free-trade propaganda and believe, for national and local security reasons, in maintaining a diversity of skill and the ability to maintain a manufacturing, medical, educative, and food production supply chain local.

rural New Hampshire and urban Baltimore.

Who lives in rural New Hampshire? Not me. I live in a city of 20,000 an hour north of Boston and south of Portland. There's farmland in towns nearby, but this environment isn't 'rural', and most people are not influenced by rural skill or background. During World War II, the United States population managed to grow 40% of its own food supply in home gardens. Those people were not more familiar with gardening than we are. IN large part, they'd left the farm behind a generation or more ago, back in Europe or in the family past. We were an urban nation concentrated in cities like this one and like Baltimore. In addition, in case you're unsure, I don't come from a rural background or perspective myself. I grew up in New Jersey in a thoroughly built-out environment and had only ever set foot on a farm to get a pumpkin on a school trip until probably after college. I also lived for several years in Philadelphia. The difficulties of procuring locally grown food in an urban/suburban/inner-city environment are as clear to me as to you.


This should be about helping people get access, not making moral judgements about people raising the issues.

That's exactly what I've been saying. I know what I'm doing about it, and what my community is doing about it. I see you raising the issues that are definitely in daily discussion among people active in food sustainability and food justice; what are you doing about them?

But there are differences and all of your glib solutions don't necessarily apply to how everyone lives.

They aren't glib solutions; they're in practice. I'm pretty thoroughly versed in economic and access issues. There are some differences, but generally, the problems of access and information are more similar than different. The solution is to get involved locally. If you are as upset by the disenfranchisement of people who should have access to better food, I look forward to hearing what action you are taking. I'm beginning to think, though, that you're more interested in nitpicking than in making actual change.
posted by Miko at 2:31 PM on June 10, 2009


It may be easy for you to get access to these things, but you're already hooked into a network of people that does these things and in a relatively rural area.

Hey, so are you! Imagine that. Look at your relatively rural area (assuming you're a Baltimorean) - you've got your Maryland Cooperative Extension at the ready with free information and publications - you can start by calling them on the phone and asking for info on your own garden, or inviting a collaboration to improve food supply or establish city gardens. Not sure where to begin? Maybe start with one of these classes at a local library. Or maybe you could get involved withCity Farms Gardens , bringing 640 garden plots to city residents. It costs a $10 entry fee and $20 a year to participate, but hey, if you can find a taker that's not much to donate so someone can grow their own food, right? There are a lot of free seeds out there, too, which you could help get, and a lot of grant programs to help fund garden startups. If that doesn't work you could find or start another community garden in your area, like the ones in this story Or you could join the newly formed Baltimore Food Policy Task Force - here are there February 2009 Meeting #1 minutes, maybe you'll find some contact information and ways to help. Or maybe you'd like the ecumenical nature of the Baltimore Food and Faith Project. Looks like school food projects are getting underway nicely, too. And hey, look at this! Even Baltimore's Mayor is getting into the act.

So, you know, I think people in Baltimore have a pretty good start on food sustainability and access projects, despite their tremendous disadvantage and not being from rural New Hampshire. I think they're doing pretty well, as are people all across the nation, and don't need a Jersey kid now living in a city to help them be "hooked in."

Seriously: the resources are there, work is well underway. I think that like a lot of people you have a perception that the food sustainability movement is for the wealthy, or that you need a particular background, environment, or skill set to be a part of it. But that perception is false. There's a lot going on, and if it concerns you that the wealthy still have the easiest access and the most choices with regard to the quality of their food, then obviously, there is a whole bunch you can do about it right there in Baltimore, with local resources and know-how. I don't have it any easier and didn't come from any more of a special background. I just had to educate myself and get going. That's all it takes.
posted by Miko at 3:13 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maine has a Food Policy Council that works with the state legislature - and their goal is actually for Maine to reach 80% of its own food production!

If they do that I will pay my equivalent of a Main State Income Tax to what ever organization achieves this.
posted by tkchrist at 3:51 PM on June 10, 2009


In my town, you can sign up for a weekly veggie basket. For $X you get a whopping load of locally-grown produce in-season. I think it's often the stuff that doesn't pass QC for the farmer's market, but damn is it cheap.

And then there is the farmer's market, which runs half the year. Everything including fruits, veggies, breads, candies, handmade crafts, and a few people hawking really bad crap.

There's also the local greengrocer, which I think tries to use local fruits and veggies in-season. And a couple of produce farms which sell from the farm. And a few U-Picks.

Granted, most of this is possible because I live in a small town in a farming district. But there are a lot of cities that have farming communities nearby, and I expect most cities have many of these exact same fresh, local foods venues.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:45 PM on June 10, 2009


Granted, most of this is possible because I live in a small town in a farming district.

Not really. I don't think you can officially declare your part of town a "neighborhood" until you have an operational farmer's market as you've described in DC and we're neither a small town nor in a farming district.

Baltimore is very, very, very easy striking distance to one of the richest and most varied sources of foods on the planet, and it's not just the veggies and chicken from the Eastern Shore or the veggies and dairy products from the Amish in Pennsylvania that's well within the B'more foodshed. You think all those crab cakes are shipped in from the Deadliest Catch guys?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:42 AM on June 11, 2009


Morning Edition just ran a story on the movie.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:45 AM on June 12, 2009


The New York Times review.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:59 AM on June 12, 2009


I'm not sure what point you're trying to prove, Miko. That you have a lot of free time to google up links about what I already know about food and Baltimore? I know what we (yes, including me personally) are doing to help people get access to produce, but I also have a job and therefore lack the time or the inclination to prove my bona fides to you. I suspect that we're not really all that far apart on this issue, but I'm finding it difficult to agree with you since you're being kind of a dick about it.
posted by electroboy at 9:10 AM on June 25, 2009


I'm trying to prove that you're wrong about this statement:

a lot of proponents of local and organic foods elide the access and affordability issues without presenting realistic solutions

And I did a pretty good job.

It took me no more than 20 minutes to Google up your links, and you could certainly do the same if you wish to learn more and keep working on the equity issues that you say concern you. I'm sure you have time for that, if this is something you genuinely care about and want to get involved in. If it's not, that's fine, but there's no need to judge and berate people who are taking action. Obviously work is being done all around you, and you aren't fully aware of how people in your own area are developing strategies for this. You made a lot of erroneous assumptions about both me and my environment, and about your own resources and environment. It doesn't make me a "dick" to correct erroneous assumptions and provide some resources. We'll make more progress when we stop leaping to easy assumptions and start looking into what can actually be done. You know...creating "realistic solutions."
posted by Miko at 8:43 PM on June 25, 2009


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