Friday, September 24, 2010

Thought for Food: two great books on the politics of food

Below are reviews of two great books I've read on the politics of food, an issue around which an increasing number of people are radicalizing.

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, by Michael Pollan

     Common explanations of the unhealthy “Western diet” blame fast food companies and gluttonous consumers. But for Michael Pollan, the problem is the commodification of food under capitalism, which harms the earth and humans: the increasing geographical separation of food production and consumption robs the soil of nutrients, and the profit-driven processing of food then purges those nutrients. This has produced “a radical and abrupt set of changes over the course of the last 150 years, not just to our foodstuffs but also to our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal”.
     In Defense of Food focuses on the “nutritional industrial complex” that has emerged in recent years: governments deregulate food production, marketers sell artificial food as healthy, and scientists provide the ideological justifications.
Pollan explains how food is “a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another”. He contrasts this with the “official ideology of the Western diet”, nutritionism, which reduces food to a static and simple collection of individual nutrients. As a consequence fertilizers ignore and sabotage the earth’s own ability to feed plants, sapping their quality; attempts to simplistically create food produces toxic alternatives; and reducing food to a delivery mechanism for nutrients undermines its cultural diversity and pleasure. Pollan concludes with a series of steps to regain a healthy diet, summed up with his maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
    While In Defense of Food provides a brilliant analysis of food under capitalism, it doesn’t provide a very effective solution: “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should. Doing so benefits not only your health, but also the health of the people who grow the food as well as the people who live downstream and downwind of the farms where it is grown.”
    The problem is that Pollan sees humans and the planet relating to each other primarily through the act of consumption, rather than production—relegating those who actually produce the food to a passive role. But if those workers and others had democratic control over the production, they could consciously grow food in ways that are healthy for humans and the earth.
While In Defense of Food does not provide this ultimate solution, it takes the first step by showing us how food is “no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on the other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight”.

SOIL NOT OIL, by Vandana Shiva

     In her latest book, renowned scientist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva shows capitalism is the root of the climate crisis, and its profit-driven solutions will only makes things worse.
In this short and accessible book, Shiva blends science and politics to analyze three crises—climate chaos, peak oil, and the food crisis—showing how they are interconnected and based on two centuries of an unsustainable quest for profits that drives people off the land and privatizes nature.
     She looks back on the results of the “Green Revolution”, which claimed to promote food security but instead concentrated a monoculture of climate-sensitive crops in the hands of oil-dependent corporations, whose production and use poisons the earth and promotes climate change, and whose expensive patented seeds and fertilizers creates huge debt that has produced an epidemic of farmer suicides.
     Now we are presented with a new series of pseudo-solutions—nuclear power, carbon trading, and biofuels—that will only exacerbate the climate crisis. As Shiva points out, “nuclear winter is not an alternative to global warming.”
     Shiva shows how these pseudo-solutions are rooted in capitalism’s incessant commodification: “some things should not be tradable—water and biodiversity are too valuable to be reduced to marketable commodities. Other things, like toxic waste and greenhouse gases, should not be generated. To turn them into tradable commodities ensures that they will continue to be produced. Instead of putting a value on clean air, emissions trading schemes value pollution”.
Meanwhile, the production of biofuels drives communities and trees off the land, and uses oil and large amounts of water to divert food production into crops to run cars, while wild speculation on these profits drives up food prices and creates artificial famines.
     For Shiva, the solution will come from the periphery of the system and a focus on small farms: “the solution to the climate crisis begins with the cultures and communities who have not contributed to it”. While she condemns capitalism for two centuries of driving people off the land into polluting cities, she does not articulate a role for the urban working class in fighting back. She claims that “as the fossil fuel economy has grown, it has substituted energy for humans”, rendering “humans redundant to the economic process”, and “replacing people with fossil-fuel driven machines”. Seeing no contradiction in capitalism, she calls for a “cultural transition” with an appeal to a mystical energy force.
     But machines do not run themselves, they run on human labour, and the working class has the collective power to bring the system that produces climate chaos to a halt. The 100 million workers in India who struck at the start of the month—shutting down coal, power, port, and road transportation—show how the working class can be a key ally of peasant communities fighting climate choas.
     Despite this shortcoming, Soil not Oil is valuable reading for anyone seeking to understand the climate crisis and the dangers of profit-driven solutions


  1. Hi Dr J,

    I'm a huge Michael Pollan fan, but I haven't yet read IDOF. If you haven't read Omnivore's Dilemma, I highly recommend it.

    I agree that Pollan often falls short of making that last link. But what he does, he does so well.

    Re Shiva, I admire her so much, and didn't know which book to read first. I'll start with this one.

    Thanks! Love the blog.

  2. Thanks L-girl

    Yes, reading Omnivore's Dilemma is on my long to-do list.

    I love the holistic and beautiful way in which Pollan and Shiva see and explain the world. I almost feel bad critiquing, but as the saying goes, "criticism is an act of love".

  3. You will also find that in Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan pays more attention to labour issues and people as producers, not only consumers of food.

    And sure, we always have to critique the ones we love. How else would we all improve?

  4. These both are really amazing books on food. These can be play massive role for spread awareness for food.
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