We’re getting really excited for Michael Pollan and Raj Patel to speak at Edible Education 101. To give you a feel for what to expect we have pulled notes from one of Pollan’s lectures from last year, Eating Oil, Eating Sunshine. Although it’s a bit dated it’s still a great read and the information is still relevant.
Pollan begins the lecture by explaining how the story we tell ourselves as a culture about food is in the process of changing dramatically. The story about where it comes from, the story about how it is produced, and the story about its impact on our health and the environment.
The story Pollan grew up with around food was that food was a simple thing that was either from the supermarket or a factory. It didn’t bear much consideration. The industry made food abundant and cheap, and it was regarded to as a form of fuel or entertainment. The relationship of a chicken nugget and an actual living and dying chicken was not even considered, it was just food with a nominal relationship to chicken.
Most of the stories you heard back then about food were through marketing brands which often delivered deliberate lies about how food was made, what it was made of and what it would do for you if you ate it. Most of the consumers accepted these stories uncritically, and that is the beginning of the change. The uncritical accepting of these things is starting to give way all across the country.
People outside of the food industry including chefs, activists, journalists, farmers, and environmentalists have been telling very different stories about food…about where it comes from and how it is produced, about its implication on our health and the environment and our culture, and these stories have consequences.
Pollan explained that there is a story you can tell about a big Mac that will change the minds of the consumer, and the behavior of consumers and it will change things in the corporations that produce it. Who gets to tell the story of food is the question now? It’s a real battle of the food industry trying to regain control of the story of food and the groups that want to change that story….and who gets to tell that story whether its journalists, food corporations, citizens, or students really matters greatly to our health, to the environment, and to the world.
A few years ago Pollan was curious to find out where his McDonald’s burger truly came from. He had the opportunity to answer that question while he was working on an assignment for the New York Times magazine. He had the idea of buying a steer and following it all the way through the food system until he bought it at a happy meal at McDonald’s. He was able to meet the steer in South Dakota.
After the steer had spent six months of his life in an idyllic pasture he was moved to a feed lot. When Pollan arrived to meet the steer he was shocked by the landscape. There was a giant feed mill in the background and two mountains that the cows would stand on. One mountain was made of corn and the other was made of manure. The cows were standing all day long knee-deep in manure.
When Pollan noticed the major role corn played on that feed lot (because that was the bulk of the cows diet) he realized to really understand the origin of that burger he had to go back farther still. He had to go to the farms where the corn was grown– and beyond that to where the oil fields were in the middle east where the oil to make the fertilizer – to grow the corn- to feed the cattle comes from and the pesticides- to grow the corn was also made from oil. He realized that this simple object was part of a very complicated food chain and that food chain was implicated in three of the most important issues or society has faced, the energy crisis, health care and climate change.
Pollan said that you can’t really understand these issues without taking account of the role of the food system because 20 percent of the fossil fuels we use in this country goes to the food system. A lot of it is in the form of fertilizer but also for trucking, for drying the corn after it has harvested, for processing the food and for moving it around the world. In healthcare we spend about $750 billion a year on chronic diseases and about $500 billion of those chronic diseases are linked to diet. Lastly, climate change – somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of green house gasses are from the food system.
Pollan then shared something that was more hopeful which was that any change we manage to make in the way we eat or any push in the direction of greater sustainability is going to help with all three of these problems.
Pollan went on to explain how any calorie you have ever eaten ultimately comes from the sun. The only gain that we can get from eating is photosynthesis. This is a key fact that sunlight can feed us, which suggests that it might be theoretically possible to wean ourselves off of this food system of a heavy diet of oil and perhaps begin to push that back to the sun. To understand this we must know a bit of history. We all know pre World War II farming because it’s the image marketers have been trying to sell food to us, with the picket fences and happy chickens and so forth.
In a sense that was what farming was like pre World War II. It was a solar and human power system where the sun fed the plants, the plants fed the animals, and the animals fed us, and in turn the animals with their manure would feed the plants. Even though this system didn’t provide huge amounts of food it was from an ecological point of view incredibly efficient.
And here is an example of how you can measure that, a calorie is just any unit of heat, and pre World War II for every calorie of fossil fuel energy farmers used they got back two calories of food energy. That is a net gain of one calorie.
After World War II there was a lot of pressure to get more food from fewer farmers. There was the baby boom , there were more mouths to feed, and there was a population that was sick of food rationing.
We were also industrializing so there were more factories and the government set out to shrink the number of farmers, and to get each farmer to become more productive. They were able to accomplish this by adapting war machinery to agriculture and by using the research that had been used in chemical warfare to make pesticides. The system turned into a different model that moved to a factory system.
The factory system helped achieve the goal of producing food fast, and efficient with fewer farmers. Before World War II your average farmer in America could feed his family plus 20 other people, we now have a system in which one farmer can feed his family plus 150 other people.
As consumers this meant the price of food would drop considerably. In 1910, the average American spent a quarter of their income on food. By 1960, that number fell to 18 percent and today that number is less than 10 percent.
This has been a blessing to many people ,but we have to acknowledge that there is a very high cost to producing cheap food. The first cost is oil. We are using a food system dependent on oil. Pollan did some research on how much oil it takes to make a double quarter pounder, and he found that it takes 26 ounces to make one burger, and that is only for the meat. When you are eating from this system you are eating oil.
Today the average calorie in the supermarket took ten fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food. That is what we mean when we say that the industrial food system is unsustainable, it can’t go on indefinitely.
The second cost of cheap food is health. The minimal thing that you want your food system to do is keep the population that depends on it healthy. Pollan explains that our food system is not doing that. We have an epidemic of chronic disease. We spend an enormous amount of resources on health care, and we have a population that is getting fatter and fatter. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one-third of Americans are obese, and that number is expected to rise to 50 percent of the population in ten years. Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases strongly related to diet but not entirely.