Maybe not directly nature-related – but what and how we eat really DOES affect our environment!

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and several other books on food and food production and marketing spoke at Luther College Feb. 23. We found his discussion and his books insightful and thought provoking. Here are a few of my observations. I’d welcome yours! Larry

Pollan displays "edible food-like substances" (photo by Aaron Lurth, copyright Luther College)
Pollan displays "edible food-like substances" (photo by Aaron Lurth, copyright Luther College)
photo by Larry A. Stone
photo by Larry A. Stone

“In Defense of Food: The Omnivore’s Solution”

“Our food system is broken.” Michael Pollan told an audience of 1,400 at Luther College in Decorah Feb. 23.

And if you don’t believe Michael Pollan’s assertion, at least consider the evidence he cites:

We’ve undergone an obesity epidemic in the U. S. since 1980, with the average male weighing 17 pounds more than 30 years ago and the average female having gained 19 pounds.

Of the roughly $880 billion spent annually on food each year, less than $60 billion goes to the farmers who produce it.  Meanwhile, the cost of packaging that food is nearly $70 billion.

We now get about 10% of our total calories from high-fructose corn syrup.

With the technology farmers now use, it takes about 10 calories of energy from fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food energy. In the early 1900s, farmers used one calorie of mostly human and animal energy to produce 2.3 calories of food energy.

Our healthcare crisis can be linked to diet. “Four of the top 10 killers in America are chronic diseases linked to diet,” Pollan claims.

Pollan is an outspoken journalist whose award-winning books have prompted millions of people to take another look at what they eat. Is it an edible food-like substance – or real food?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals follows a series of foods on a not-so-simple journey from field to table, with plenty of middleman profit in between. It’s a 400-page investigation into why, for example, the average components of an Iowa meal might travel more than 1,500 miles; why the breadbasket of the world can’t feed itself. Pollan’s conclusions led some critics to protest that he was anti-farmer.

But Pollan countered that healthier diets would lead to healthier agriculture – and vice versa. He demonstrated by unpacking two grocery bags in front of the Luther audience, which included students, a few farmers, local-foods advocates, and environmentalists. He joked about the products that TV ads sometimes persuade us to buy at supermarkets: Lunchables, Gogurt, energy drinks, flavored coffee creamer, chocolate Cheerios, Cocoa Krispies, Weight-Watchers Twinkies, breakfast bars with artificial milk, and white bread.

Sadly, many of these products may have started out as Iowa corn or soybeans, which were shipped to processors and essentially turned into junk foods, Pollan said. Marketing ploys make food processors rich, he said, while cheating farmers of profits and consumers of healthy diets.

Our monopolistic, energy-intensive, industrial food system began to dominate our eating habits about 1980, a few years after Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz boasted that America could feed the world by farming “fencerow to fencerow,” Pollan said. Farmers rose to the challenge – although the environment sometimes suffered in the face in the intensive, chemical-dependent farming methods. People suffered as well. Farm programs subsidized calories from corn and meat from corn-fed cattle and hogs.

Coincidentally, government dietary guidelines hit a buzz-saw in the late 1970s, when a U. S. Senate committee headed by South Dakota Democrat George McGovern suggested that people might be healthier if they ate less red meat. After protests from livestock producers, the language was watered down to recommend choosing meats, fish, and poultry that might help reduce fat intake. The discussion suddenly became about nutrients, rather than whole foods, Pollan lamented.

Thus came the low fat craze that “gave a free pass” to people to eat too much of other things, such as carbohydrates, Pollan said. And that’s one reason for our increase in obesity.

So how should we decide what to eat? Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, distills his research down to what you need to know to start eating real food. Pollan listed some of his rules for the Luther crowd.

Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, (It’s probably full of chemical additives, highly processed, and wastefully packaged.)

Avoid foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup, which is “a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed.”

It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

Avoid foods you see advertised on television. (“I know the ‘prune board’ is going to be upset with me,” Pollan quipped.)

Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.

Avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients.

Eat slowly.

Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.

The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.

In summary, as Pollan put it in another book, In Defense of Food, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

“The food movement represents an opportunity” for both consumers and farmers, Pollan concluded. “It’s not a threat.”

Pollan said better connections between consumers and farmers would go a long way not only toward fixing our broken food system, but also to strengthening our communities. With a return to sustainable, diverse agriculture, farmers could reduce the use of fossil fuel and sequester more carbon, thus helping to solve the problem of global warming.

At the same time, the whole foods they would produce could help people have healthier diets, and ease the health care crisis. “The solution is producing healthier food, and farmers have the power to do that,” Pollan said. “If our big problems are climate change and health care, farmers have the key to both.”

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