Michael Pollan thinks and writes about biology using a simple and powerful tool - looking at systems from the perspective of a plant or an animal. This perspective has led to his books, “A Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma“. He found this insight while working in his garden, watching a bee gather nectar as he planted potatoes. He wondered, “What did he and the bee have in common?”
Both, he realized, were advancing specific genetic lines, and both thought they were in control of the process. But that wasn’t entirely true - he was “seduced into planting that specific potato, giving it more space”. When you think of agriculture as “co-evolution”, where “clever grasses get us to deforest the world and plant grasses,” agriculture looks very different.
Pollan says he’d always thought of lawns as somewhat conformist and totalitarian, the mower reducing everything to the same size. But now he realizes he’s “a dupe of the lawn,” helping it fight its battle against the trees. He warns that the discussions we’ve had today about ethanol and biofuel shows that “ethanol is the ultimate victory of corn over us, corn bending us to its will.”
As an alternative, he shows us a remarkable farm - Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley, where Pollan apprenticed under Joel Salatin for a week. The farm thrives through complex interactions between six animal species and the grass they feed on.
He shows us the relationship between just two species - cattle and laying hens. He grazes the cattle in a specific pasture, and keeps them in (and other animals out) using inexpensive electric fencing. Three days after the cows move from the field, he brings in a coop full of laying hens. The 350 hens rush out of the coop and immediately “make a beeline for the cow patties”. The patties are filled with maggots - by waiting three days, they’re fat and juicy for the hens - wait a day more and they hatch as adult flies. The chickens spread out the manure and add their own manure, which is high in nitrogen. The result - the grass grows like crazy and can be used to graze the sheep or make very rich hay.
The farm produces an amazing yield of meat on only 100 acres. It gives lie to the myth that meat cannot be sustainable and that organic meat farming can’t be profitable - the key may be to go far beyond organic and into very complex permaculture. Salatin, he tells us, doesn’t consider himself a chicken or cattle farmer, but a grass farmer, which is what makes the remarkable system work.
Pollan tells us that we have to get over the idea that we get more for us, and less for nature - at the end of the season at Salatin’s farm, there’s more soil, more biodiversity, more for everyone.
I'm in the middle of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. Very interesting so far. His approach and style reminds me of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse). The ideas seem to be spreading. Time magazine devoted its cover last week to the organic vs. local food debate.
Meat is only sustainable if people eat a heck of a lot less of it. We cannot raise 10 billion animals (the number slaughtered in the US each year) in a sustainable or humane manner.
In addition, apparently not all of the chickens at Polyface are pastured in the sense that they can roam. The "broilers" do eat grass, but they don't roam--they are kept in small, movable sheds that give them access only to the grass under the shed. (See the Polyface website for more information.)
The "layers"--used for their eggs--are the ones who get to roam more freely.
I.acknowledge that Polyface is a much more stable and friendly model than industrial farming practices. However, that sort of grass farming isn't an alternative to making fuel from corn. Switchgrass aside, we have a plant that we could use instead of that wily yellow grass infesting the midwest: hemp. It can be grown with fewer pesticides and fertilizers but gives a greater energy yield in the biodiesel produced. Of course, it's harder to produce high fructose syrup from it. Perhaps that's why it isn't catching on in our morbidly obese culture.
Pollan is a talented writer who has tapped into a new stream in the "western civilization is evil" myth. Unfortunately, he perpetuates some of the worst features of mainstream science writing. He talks down to his audience, he overgeneralizes regularly, and he contradicts himself from page to page - sometimes within single paragraphs. Alas, his aging hippie readers are so busy cheering him on that the don't notice. As a member of that same generation who recognized "Monsanto monocultures" 20 years ago, I find this kind of writing dangerous. The problems are too serious to be other than deadly honest about them.
Most pernicious of all is his anthropomorphization of animals and plants. Grasses are not fighting wars with trees. Unlike humans, their flowers do not choose which other individuals to let themselves be pollinated by. Civilized societies gave up this kind of projection of minds into natural objects when we abandoned polytheism for monotheism; these days we confine anthropomorphic stories to childrens' fairy tales. Pollen apparently assumes that his readers can't handle the stark truth of unguided variation and natural selection. Judging by the glowing reviews of his books, maybe he's right.
Jeff, I've seen this line of criticism a few times, and have to confess I just don't understand it. What's the problem with using a metaphor of "war" between grass and trees to discuss the competition between species for resources? Are you worried that people will take the metaphor literally? Or is there something about unguided variation and natural selection that is fundamentally mistaken by the metaphor?
Jeff, if "western civilization is NOT evil," does this mean you are content with where western civilization has brought humanity as a species? And talk about self-contradiction -- you go on to say, "the problems are too serious to be other than deadly honest about them." Are you saying the serious problems we should be deadly honest about are not the result of western civilization?
I think this is a case of, "If he isn't against you, he's for you." Humans respond to a broad array of appeals. Some people must have hard facts -- in third-person, passive voice. Others respond best to lighter faire. If you acknowledge problems that concern Pollen, is there really any harm in Pollen's manner of calling attention to them, if it gets more people interested in change?
So if you agree with the message, why quibble with the messenger?
And personally, I abhor and reject modern monotheism. More harm has been done in the name of someone's god than has ever been done by druids or pagans.
I feel as Ghandi did, when a reporter asked what he thought of western civilization. He replied, "I think it would be a very good idea!"
getting back to the post... there is an important distinction that you nearly clarify in this post: organic (defined by the USDA) and what you call permaculture (or what I would call 'actually organic').
The mainstream organic movement has simplified the term to mean 'grown without synthetic chemicals' - a narrow definition. But a truly sustainable agriculture is about new systems, not different inputs. This is, as I said, a terribly important distinction - something WC could keep highlighting?
A 4,000 acre water-intensive cotton farm can be organic, but it will never be sustainable. Polyface is a good example of the latter.