Wendell Berry

January 30, 2011

So picking up immediately where we left off last week, I will say of Pollan what I said of Shiva: It matters that we get the details right. And just as I have been irked by Shiva, there are people who seem to be obsessed with correcting Michael Pollan’s factual errors and misleading statements. In fact, there is an entire blog running since last May that has been dedicated to this task, written by a graduate student at the University of California – Berkeley where Pollan is on the faculty teaching journalism. I commend these efforts by Adam Merberg, although they sometimes go into more detail than even I want to read. I wonder how long he will keep it up?

Merberg has combed both the internet and the scholarly literature for critiques of Pollan’s works, though he’s missed my own blog commenting on Pollan’s (retracted) remark comparing the climate consequences of eating a Big Mac to driving a Hummer. While there are details with which I would quibble, I will certainly use some of Merberg’s research (with credit I assure everyone) in work that I do in the future.  Furthermore, there is a general thrust to his blog that I endorse strongly: Many  localvore/environmentalist/organic/what-ever-multiple-hyphenated critiques of the industrial food system turn out to be wrong when examined in detail. Other critiques turn out to be debatable, which for me just means that it would be useful to debate them. Yet Merberg seems to fall in with a line of thinking that I still see too often among mainstream farmers, their advocates and scholars of food and agriculture. It’s a view that starts with an uncritical acceptance of the progressive nature of science-based agricultural technologies that were developed starting in the 19th century, and continues by suggesting that anyone (like Pollan) who questions this assumption is an elitist. For many in the world of agricultural science (but in fairness probably not Merberg, who seems to be taken with the idea of eliminating all animals from the food system) the implication is that we don’t need to debate the claims of elitists: They just aren’t worthy of serious consideration.

There is a substantive argument behind this sentiment. It is that these industrial technologies have a) made the food supply much more stable; and b) have benefited the poor because they make eating a lot less expensive. Anyone who defends organic food, farmers markets or the like is an elitist, because they are promoting a diet that poor people cannot afford. I don’t know what the farmers market in Berkeley is like, but if it is like the one in Bloomington, Indiana, I can understand where that sentiment might arise. On the other hand, if it is like the Allen Street Market in Lansing, or the market I blogged about in Washington DC, it would be pretty clear that local foods are being made available at prices that are at least as affordable as the fast food meals that are Michael Pollan’s big target.

More substantively, this pro-industrial farming argument ignores huge subsidy costs, and the huge subsidies are both direct, in the form of payments to farmers, and indirect, in the form of military expenditures that have dramatically reduced the cost of developing the science and infrastructure for fossil fuels, hauling goods on interstate highways, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and now synthetic biology. It’s not surprising that when you pour billions of tax dollars into a technical infrastructure that it can “out compete” the alternatives. But that doesn’t mean that people who say, “Let’s consider the alternative,” are elitists! No one knows what organic or local foods would cost today if the farming methods to produce, process and distribute them had had a tenth of the public support given to the industrial food system over the last century.

The first person to mount this kind of critique of what we have wrought in American agriculture was Wendell Berry, and like Michael Pollan, people (include Norm Borlaug on the list) called him an elitist. I got to meet Wendell just one time at a conference in Ohio. And I have friends (who shall remain nameless) who know him better and think he is an elitist. They think that mainly because unlike Pollan, he really does have an agrarian philosophy of agriculture at work in his writing. Although you can find plenty of points on which I take issue with Berry in my professional work, he’s also an icon. If you’ve read the previous four blogs you know that the flavor of the month is that for icons we’re more tolerant of errors because of their larger impact on public discourse. Wendell Berry may be the “uber icon” for agricultural ethics, even if it’s true that I don’t really think his work provides an adequate basis for thinking about issues of hunger. So Wendell gets my final nod as we wrap up food icon month on the Thornapple Blog.

I was able to express my admiration for Wendell Berry’s work to him personally. He will be 77 in August of 2011, which is not really all that old in our day and age. Maybe we will have him around for a while. But don’t take that chance. Look him up, and get a few steps beyond Michael Pollan.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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8 thoughts on “Wendell Berry

  1. Professor Thompson,

    I found this post through my traffic logs, and it looks like you have a lot of interesting stuff here. I must confess, however, that your reading of my work left me scratching my head.

    You write,

    Yet Merberg seems to fall in with a line of thinking that I still see too often among mainstream farmers, their advocates and scholars of food and agriculture. It’s a view that starts with an uncritical acceptance of the progressive nature of science-based agricultural technologies that were developed starting in the 19th century, and continues by suggesting that anyone (like Pollan) who questions this assumption is an elitist.

    I feel that my defense of science-based agricultural technologies has been extremely limited. It’s true that I defended the scientific method, but I didn’t defend science as it has been applied to agriculture. I also pointed out that grass fed cattle aren’t free from E. coli O157:H7, but I certainly did not argue for grain-feeding of cattle. Other than that, I don’t think I’ve written anything that might be construed as a defense of agricultural science.

    Nor, for that matter, have I argued that it is elitist to question agricultural technology. Where I have discussed elitism, the focus has been on how Pollan talks about the issues. I don’t disagree that our food system is broken, but I believe that a wealthy guy telling everybody else to stop wasting money and spend more on food is precisely the sort of thing that fosters perceptions that eating well is elitist. Even if invalid, such perceptions can’t help the cause. It also doesn’t help that Pollan writes about more upscale food. I doubt the food movement will get anywhere if it fails to distinguish itself from the gourmet.

    For what it’s worth, I have been heavily involved in an organization that recently opened a co-operatively-run grocery store dedicated to providing local, sustainable, and ethically-produced foods to the UC Berkeley community at affordable prices. (Note: Although I am on the board of directors of this organization, opinions expressed here and on my blog are mine alone). I am strongly in support of food system reform, and I believe that making good food more affordable is an important part of what needs to happen.

    Adam

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