In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, organic-farming cheerleader Michael Pollan declared: “For several years now, an alternative, postindustrial food chain has been taking shape, its growth fueled by one ‘food scare’ after another: Alar, G.M.O.’s [sic], rBGH, E. coli 0157:H7; now B.S.E.” This, for Pollan, is a good thing. Never mind that the Alar scare, which devastated apple farmers, was an utter fabrication staged to raise money for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Forget that biotech crops (GMOs) pose zero risk to human health, that milk from cows given the “recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone” (rBGH) is indistinguishable from conventional milk, that Americans are more likely to get E. coli food poisoning from eating organic produce, and that — as Pollan himself admits — the risk of getting mad cow disease “may be vanishingly small.”
Michael Pollan never denies that our modern food system is the safest in the world. He simply doesn’t care. Instead, Pollan wants readers to share his feelings about the way food is produced. It’s just “nauseating,” “gross,” and “disgusting,” according to this eminent writer. Go organic, Pollan insists. Embrace the “countercuisine.” It’s less “gross.”
Of course, Pollan’s knack for making the most innocuous agricultural practice seem “disgusting” is never applied to organic food. He knows that readers are less likely to embrace the “alternative food chain” when they know their bean sprouts are grown in manure (what we might call the “ick” in organic).
There’s nothing wrong with promoting organic food. But implying that it’s safer than conventional fare because of a series of false food scares is patently dishonest. And calling conventional food processes “disgusting” while pretending that organic veggies are grown in rose petals and cotton balls is equally misleading. Unfortunately, Pollan’s galling bias against modern, efficient American farms affords him “expert” status in mad-cow-disease stories run by the likes of National Public Radio and the San Francisco Chronicle.
These days, Pollan comes off less as a venerable journalist than a partisan promoter of organic, who wants to make Americans fear their food. Along the way, he has allied himself with our biggest food scolds. In November Pollan organized two panel discussions that he freely admitted were one-sided. “Were you to ask a group like the Center for Consumer Freedom,” he noted at one, “they would tell you that this is a seriously unbalanced panel, over-representative of what they like to call the Twinkie Police. I plead guilty.” That panel included obesity warrior Marion Nestle, organic evangelist Joan Dye Gussow, and Twinkie-taxer Kelly “Big Brother” Brownell. Pollan called this puritanical trio “the three most important, most eloquent voices in the debate over our food system.”
The second panel featured “Slow Food” movement guru Carlo Petrini, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, anti-biotech fanatic Vandana Shiva, and organic-only dining maven Alice Waters. Pollan described these zealots as his “teachers, really. These have been my mentors on this panel. Taught me, really almost everything I know about food.”