My problem with David Kamp’s NYT review of Michael Pollan’s new book
Kamp, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and GQ who himself is writing a book about food, generally approves of Pollan’s well-documented indictment of the dominant U.S. food system and exploration of its alternatives (which I reviewed here).
But to the big-picture problems presented by Pollan, Kamp demands big-picture solutions. And here is where I think Kamp, like many commentators on the vast-scale environmental troubles plaguing our culture, goes astray.
Kamp takes Pollan to task for his “too-nice” portrayal of of Joel Salatin, the pioneering Virginia farmer whose “beyond organic” methods make him the hero of Omnivore’s Dilemma. (A while back, I reviewed Salatin’s own book here.)
After recounting Salatin’s elegant farming methods, Kamp writes:
Salatin seems to have found the secrets of sustainable agriculture. The shocker is that he doesn’t want to be part of any national solution.
Kamp goes on to label Salatin an “off-the-grid crank.” There are assumptions embedded here that need to be aired out. From reading Kamp, you’d think Salatin was a shotgun-toting homesteader who greets visitors with a blunt “get off my property.”
Evidently, Kamp’s characterization of Salatin stems from the latter’s refusal to ship meat off the farm via mail, and his policy of directly marketing his products rather than relying on retailers such as Whole Foods.
Yet what Kamp doesn’t see — and, admittedly, what Pollan doesn’t spell out — is that in Salatin’s very intrangisence may lie the solution Kamp seeks. Salatin is no insular homesteader. He’s a successful small businessman who supplies 400 customers — including restaurants in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Washington, D.C — with beef, pork, chicken, and eggs. He has transformed his 100-acre plot into an important source of delicious food for his area — all the while expanding its biodiversity by refusing to use chemical inputs.
And rather than withhold his farming wisdom from the broader world, Salatin is eager to share it. Most off-the-grid cranks I know refuse even to place their names in the phone book (the government is after them, you see). Salatin holds weekly store hours on his farm, invites the public to watch him slaughter chickens, and authors books. I wasn’t a huge fan of Holy Cows and Hog Heaven, Salatin’s book aimed at the consumer market, but his other books are highly regarded how-to manuals aimed at farmers. The alternative-farming extension agent in my area says he recommends Salatin’s You Can Farm to new growers.
In other words, Salatin has knit his farm into the economy that directly surrounds it, and documented his innovative techniques in hopes of inspiring other growers. To me, that screams “way forward.” For Kamp, we have a crank on our hands; for a practical solution, we must look elsewhere.
In the conclusion to his review, Kamp reveals what he’s looking for:
So what to do? Is the ever-growing organic-food industry already on the right path? Or is more radical action needed? Should the Department of Justice break up giant, soil-exhausting factory farms into small, self-sustaining polycultural organic farms?
Kamp yearns for big answers; he wants Pollan — or Salatin, or the Justice Department — to come up with a grand, sweeping solution to the environmental, social, and public-health disasters being wrought by our food-production system.
Yet such thinking merely mimics the industrial logic that currently dominates food production. Chemical-intensive agriculture arose — with significant government support — to solve the problem of rural labor shortages and rising urban populations. Genetically modified crops are now being flogged as the “solution” to the environmental problems caused by chemical ag.
“As one problem is being solved, ten new problems arise as a result of the first solution,” writes E.F. Shumacher in his landmark Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), a much-admired, little-read book whose observations are now honored mostly in the breech.
Salatin may have the answer, after all. The problem with our global-scale food production system may be scale itself. And the solutions (note plural) might lie in leveraging local knowledge and grassroots efforts to recreate local- and regional-based food-production networks.
Granted, Omnivore’s Dilemma would have been a stronger book if Pollan had teased out these themes.