Hi I’m Maggie, one of your 2015 Charlottesville Sustainable Agriculture Interns! Conner and I will be posting reflections on a series of books about sustainable agriculture right here all summer, so stay tuned. Our first book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
In the introduction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan claims America is suffering from a national eating disorder (2). What Pollan does not mention, is that there is a named eating disorder very similar to what he is describing. In 1997, Steven Bratman, MD established the term “Orthorexia Nervosa” to describe disordered eating characterized by an obsession with healthy or righteous eating. The Omnivore’s Dilemma examines many of the complex negative externalities created by America’s current industrialized agricultural system, and it is easy to see how together they can foster anxiety in the American consumer and provide an unhealthy outlet for individuals with disordered eating. The industrialized agricultural system is an inefficient use of resources, perpetuates social injustice, and is held together by outdated and misguided policy and law.
For example, many people assume that organic is the healthiest option, but do not consider the resources required in its production. After visiting an organic lettuce processing plant, Pollan considered the larger system of processing produce. The San Juan Bautista processing plant was entirely refrigerated. Large machines sifted through the lettuce, washing and packaging it into plastic bags and boxes (167). Even though the fossil fuels burned to power the plant, water consumed, and plastic packaging that will inevitably end up in an ocean do not have immediate health effects on the consumer, they will have lasting effects on the health of the planet and humans in the future, and so consumers can worry about the environmental effects of their food.
When Pollan is describing George Naylor’s corn and soybean farm in Iowa, he mentions that “George’s farm…is basically a food desert” (34). The crops that are produced on George’s farm are sold to be livestock feed or be processed into food additives. American farmers take on a lot of risk, and if they are lucky, they are able to break even. When selling corn, farmers only earn a little over half of what it costs to produce it. They are kept afloat by government subsidies, but enter a cycle of debt and soil degradation. The additives derived from the corn these farmers produce are put in unhealthy processed foods which are then directly marketed to lower socioeconomic groups in rural and urban food deserts, and so consumers can worry about the social justice implications of their food.
Many consumers are aware of the many externalities available for them to worry about. Many people, especially those with other more immediate issues to worry about, neglect to see their food choices as a political act. Others are too overwhelmed by information to make informed decisions. Pollan says, “Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds” (10). We need to shift the perception of our magnitude of choices away from giving us anxiety about not making the right choices and towards it giving us agency to improve our broken systems. As consumers we have power and together our choices can make major contributions towards ending our current epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and starvation around the world as well as limiting pollution and promoting social justice.