Michael Pollan’s Mission to Reverse Progress

When food writer Michael Pollan romanticizes the days when our great-grandmothers were preparing meals from scratch, it’s not because he’s craving a taste of the “Old World.” Pollan, warns one skeptic of his work, is just teasing his readers with a sweet whiff of nostalgia that ultimately stinks up the joint with his “simplistic” diatribes against sound science.

Internationally recognized as an expert on issues of responsible agriculture and food consumption, professor and columnist Louise O. Fresco says Pollan feeds his readers a steady diet of misinformation about “hunger and progress.” Pollan’s two most recent books, she contends, erroneously rail against decades of innovation and technology that have made the farm-to-table process better able to feed the global community.

“Our collective food story is not a tale of decline, but of remarkable improvements,” Fresco opines on ZesterDaily.com. In her critique of Pollan’s “misguided food nostalgia,” she provides examples of how Pollan’s Pre-Industrial Era fantasies deserve a bit more skepticism and a little less indulging by readers.

On Pollan’s advice that we don’t eat anything our great-grandmother’s “wouldn’t recognize as food,” Fresco reminds us:

We are much healthier, not sicker. We are eating much better than our great-grandmothers. We are infinitely better at controlling the risks of food production. The proof lies in our increased life expectancies and the doubling of world population in the last 50 years.

Countering Pollan’s insistence that we eat “mostly plants,” Fresco warns such a limited menu isn’t a viable option for some regions in the world where the land is better suited for grazing than farming:

In many parts of the world, such as Mongolia or the Argentine Pampas, the land is mainly suitable for grazing, so there is no alternative to producing meat. Also, meat is often a byproduct of milk production: no milk without male calves who go on to be slaughtered. Meat also provides protein and iron in a form that is more easily absorbed by humans and is a unique source of vitamin B12. A diet with milk products and fish but no meat can be perfectly healthy. But children benefit tremendously from small quantities of meat.

We’ve noted in the past that Michael Pollan is often well-intentioned. But his policy platform remains flawed because it favors ideology over science. Fresco agrees:

His intentions are no doubt honest, although his scientific statements are often simplistic. For example, he asserts that we have replaced sun-based agriculture with fossil-fuel-based agriculture. But, of course, all agriculture is sun-based.

Pollan opposes large-scale agriculture and modern farming techniques because he prefers to fantasize about the meals our ancestors used to whip up from only a handful of raw ingredients. If he gets his wish and agriculture becomes less efficient, conventional food prices will rise — making Pollan's favored “locally grown and organic” products more competitive (and pricing more food out of the reach of more people).

Michael Pollan and his fellow locavores are, of course, free to pay through the nose for what they eat. But most consumers find no joy in spending more than necessary to feed their families healthy meals.

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