Food For Thought – “Local Organic” vs. “Big Ag”

Food For Thought - Local Organic vs. Big Ag

While I have been embarking upon our quest for healthy foods I have been doing a lot of reading. One book I particularly found helpful was In Defense of Food , by Michael Pollan. I still believe this is a very good book to use when deciding to cut out processed foods. I think it will be easier for us as a family to cut as much out as possible and then slowly add in things that we feel comfortable with as we see fit. His rules are strict and all encompassing but easy to follow.

Recently while searching through Kindle to find some more stuff to read about food I ran across another book by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This book goes into way more detail about where our food comes from and the different food systems in our country.

Before I go too much further I have a few caveats I need to share.

#1 I come from a pro agriculture family. I am from Florida, 9th generation, and while everyone thinks of beaches and tourism, agriculture is HUGE in Florida and not just because of oranges either. And my mother and step father are recently (a few months ago) retired pro agriculture lobbyists.

#2 When I research something for my family I look at both sides of the story. When Noah was a baby my go to resources were The Baby Book by Dr. Sears and Babywise. If you aren’t familiar with these books, these two parenting books couldn’t be from further ends of the spectrum. I try to fall somewhere in the middle and take a little from this and a little from that.

When I read the descriptions and rave reviews on Amazon of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I started to wonder about the other side of the story. It all seemed a little one sided in the organic, cows are our furry friends, kind of way. So I clicked over to the one star reviews to check out those people who didn’t agree with what Pollan had written.


There weren’t that many, but the one that I am including below, in its entirety, is amazing. If you want to hear what the other side (ag professionals) have to say, and you should if you want a well rounded view, then here it is. You can find a link to his comment and all 124 comments he received here.

The author is a 5th generation agriculturalist from Montana with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education. His comment is anonymous, by Professional Aggie, and very enlightening.

As always, no matter which side you are on, you have to consider the source. I chose to share this persons point of view because there are TONS of books, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which tell the “Local Organic” point of view, but not so many nor as popular which tell the “Big Ag” point of view. I hope you find it as interesting as I did, no matter which side you are on.

All food systems are necessary in order to feed the worldDecember 12, 2009

by Professional Aggie

Wonderful title and overall the idea of organizing a book around the four main food systems in the United States is great. The truth is, for many, a trip to the grocery store has many dilemmas which must be faced. Pollan is an investigative journalist from Berkeley, CA and goes directly to the source of various ingredients to make a meal from each of the four food systems in the United States. He begins with going to a corn farm to help plant seed corn in the spring and follows the corn through various channels of processing and to a beef lot where the corn is used to finish a steer. The section on what he terms “Industrial Agriculture” ends with a meal from McDonald’s which he eats in his car. Pollan continues by exploring the “Big Organic” food system, a “Beyond Organic” food system which is the locally grown organic, and ends with the “Hunter – Gatherer” food system where he hunts and kills a wild hog and gathers mushrooms and other ingredients for a meal.

I purchased and read this book upon recommendation from a friend/co-worker who described it in a similar manner which I did above. My friend also added that Pollan takes a critical look at each of the four food systems, offering advantages and criticism of each. I thought to myself, this should be good; explore the food systems, take a critical look at each, the U.S. actually needs a book like this in order to be better informed consumers. My friend also asked me to read the book for a professional development opportunity which he was organizing for other teachers to participate in a review of this book. It is only fair to point out the fact that my colleague and friend who recommended the book is a high school English teacher who readily admits that he knows nothing about agriculture. For his sake I read the book cover to cover and dissected every detail.

Pollan is an outstanding creative writer and tells a great story. However, the journalism aspect of his writing (finding and reporting facts) are shoddy workmanship to say the least. Please allow me to qualify this statement, first with some of my credentials.

I am a fifth generation agriculturalist in this country and my roots in agriculture run even deeper when my family’s history is traced back to the time before immigration into the U.S. I was born into agriculture, thus I lay claim to all 35 years of my life as actual experience in agriculture. I earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and have engaged in a great deal of additional professional training, reading, as well as travel to conferences & workshops, touring a wide variety of agricultural facilities, and networking with other agriculture professionals from around the world. I am a past state president of a professional agriculture organization and served a total of six years as a state officer of that organization. I have been published in a peer reviewed professional journal and have been invited to present professional workshops on several occasions throughout my career.
Today’s U.S. Agriculture is nothing short of awesome. Even with my extensive training in this field, I still learn new things every year that amaze me about our total agricultural food system. I have hundreds of resource books at my disposal; have travelled tens of thousands of miles to learn, tour, network, explore, and further educate myself about agriculture; I also have countless hours of real experience producing various crops and livestock, research, and learning. U.S. Agriculture is complex to say the least and it is feeble minded for anyone to believe that an investigative journalist (or any person for that matter) could even begin to scratch the surface of today’s global food system in one book that is 400+ pages in length.

I support the idea of all food systems. I do consume from each of them and feel strongly that all systems are necessary. What I do not support is the extreme use of rhetoric and false assumption used to market organic or local food to an ignorant public. Most readers would assume that Pollan reports the findings of his food systems investigation in great detail. However, the average U.S. citizen is three or more generations removed from the farm which makes them extremely vulnerable to misconceptions about agriculture. There is an assumption that food will always be in the grocery store and we believe we understand subjects which we actually do not; we fear the wrong things; and we do not fear the right things. Unfortunately many of the misconceptions about agriculture come from superficial reporting by media including this book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” As of today, there are 600 people who have written reviews of this book at, of which 528 rated the book at 4 stars or higher. I fully realize that I am in the minority here and I would also bet that I have more professional credentials and experience in agriculture than all 528 of those writers put together.

I paid money for this book based upon my friend’s recommendation expecting to read a balanced source regarding all of the different food systems. However, this book is far from balanced in its approach to each of the four food systems. Pollan chooses to demonizes the “industrial” agriculture system throughout the book. Big organic and hunter gatherer systems are closer to being critiqued fairly with pros and cons. The Local organic system receives nothing but praise throughout the book. There are several pieces of information which Pollan either missed during his investigation or he forgot to report to us in his book. Further, there are several pieces of information which he did print that simply are not true and of course there are those pieces which are factual but twisted out of context. I will give specific examples later in my review, but bearing these things in mind, I have to question whether Michael Pollan is even an expert in journalism due to his struggles with reporting the facts in the proper context. I already knew that he was not an expert in agriculture before I started to read the book. But after reading, I have to wonder whether or not he is even qualified to write a book on a subject as complex as agriculture.

As a fictional resource read for entertainment purposes only, I would give this book five stars. The American public would do well to gain its information from a variety of experts in a particular field (in this case agriculture) rather than only from investigative journalists who are really not experts at anything. If you have not heard the good news about American agriculture, then I content that you are not getting the right information and your information is coming from the wrong sources.

On the cover, the New York Times Book Review is quoted as saying “Thoughtful, engrossing . . . you’re not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where food comes from.” I would certainly beg to differ with this statement and would challenge readers to consider if the New York Times Book Review would know if they received a “better explanation of where food comes from?”

Why isn’t “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” endorsed by any sources with any credible expertise in agriculture?

Now a little about the very end of the book. Michael Pollan provides a very impressive 18 page inclusion of sources which he used in writing this text. As I reviewed the sources it became very apparent to me why his book leans toward the local organic food system and against the “industrial” food system. Well, how can we tell if a source is credible or not? Some questions which you should ask yourself to identify a credible source include:

1. What is the track record of an organization? (Some organizations have been predicting doom and gloom for decades and they have not been correct yet.)

2. By what authority are they making claims? (Many environmental groups or animal rights groups claim to have conducted scientific research, but do not have any Ph.D. scientists on their staff. Discredited individuals often bounce from position to position claiming their expertise, but their peers do not thing highly of their capability or credibility)

3. How long has this organization been in existence and what has been its purpose? (Groups surface overnight and make claims that cannot be substantiated, but the media report on it anyway.)

4. Who funds this group?

5. How important is creating a public uproar to their fundraising abilities? Actually, this is probably the most important question in the case of this book. Public uproar sells books, movies, and speaking engagements, all of which Michael Pollan has an extremely large vested interest.

For example, one of many reasons Pollan is against “industrial” corn in his book is the use of Atrazine as a pesticide as he claims on page 178 (which is in the “Big Organic” section, but he’s still ranting on and on about “industrial”) “that Atrazine has been shown to turn normal male frogs into hermaphrodites.” He cites his source as […] (Pesticide Action Network North America) – I visited the site today and found that they still make this claim – go to the site yourself and compare it against the questions I listed previously. Is PANNA really a source which we can call credible? Researchers have found that a parasite caused the mutation and in other peer-reviewed studies, scientists have not found any connection between agriculture and mutated frogs. Dr. Gene Larsen at the University of Minnesota made the discovery of parasites as the cause. Don’t take my word for it, go to the source and check it out for yourself – some of these sources have only been available since 1996 so I can certainly see how Pollan missed them (sarcasm). “Deformed frog mystery” by Sean Hanahan at […]. “Frog Population Declines and Malformations – is Atrazine a factor?” by Sherry Ford and Kay Carter at […]. You can even look at “White Paper on Potential Developmental Effects of Atrazine on Amphibians” by Thomas Steeger and Joseph Tietge at […].
I was disappointed that he either misinterpreted or chose to report facts out of context, one such example follows: Pollan is correct that Sec. of Ag. Earl Butz told farmers to do whatever they could to increase yield specifically “plant fence post to fence post.” He suggests that Butz wanted to “drive up agricultural yields in order to drive down the price of the industrial food chain’s raw materials.” (p. 103) This is a major hitch pin in Pollan’s argument against corn and its “industrial, surplus” nature. However, he is completely out of context – Butz told farmers to plant fence post to fence post in the early 1970’s after he and the grain companies of the U.S. negotiated the largest sale of grain to Russia – he told farmers this because they would be able to expect good prices due to the increased demand. The whole thing is documented in a book titled “Merchants of Grain” which Pollan cites in his resources, but he completely missed the mark in the context of his reporting.

Probably the most disappointing piece for me throughout the book is the drastic omission of facts. Of course he does this to make one system (“industrial Ag”) look terrible and another system (local organic) appear great.

Omissions of facts in conventional agriculture – He does this severely when discussing the feedlot situation with cattle and the feeding of corn. He chooses not to tell the reader about the forage or waste food processing products (almond hulls, carrot waste, soybean oil meal, tomato pomace, beet pulp, distiller’s grain, etc.) which are also fed to cattle in the feedlot in addition to the corn. He actually does a nice job on an elementary level of explaining the rumen function and bloat, however he does not tell the reader that each different feed requires a different bacteria to digest it. When feeds are changed too much too fast, cattle might not have enough of that bacteria in the rumen and thus will bloat. He further does not tell the reader that high heat also causes bloat. Or that alfalfa will also cause bloat if the cattle are not used to eating it (I’ve observed this happen) – Alfalfa would normally be considered OK as a grass-fed feedstuff. He goes on to explain that antibiotics are given to cattle, specifically Rumensin and Tylosin; however he leads the reader to believe that these products are given to all animals the entire time they are in the feedlot, which is completely false. Another fact that he missed is that Rumensin is not an antibiotic. If cattle have been already started on a feed ration which included corn then there is no need to give them Rumensin – if not, then the Rumensin is given only at the beginning of the feedlot period and then as necessary to promote bacteria growth in the rumen and to prevent coccidiosis (caused by the coccidia protozoa, NOT A BACTERIA). He is correct that the Tylosin is an anti-biotic, but he does not tell the reader that this is also given at the beginning and as needed to prevent the onset of disease caused by “stress” – shipping, change in environment, weather, handling, etc. He doesn’t tell you about the slim profit margin in finishing these cattle and that administering too much of any pharmaceutical for any reason will drastically cut into that profit margin. He doesn’t tell the reader that the reason why corn is fed to cattle is because it contains more energy than hay, is less bulky to store than hay, and can be stored year-round unlike fresh grass. He does suggest that all conventionally produced animals are “suffering” in some way, but does not mention that “suffering” animals do not produce or gain well to be economically sustainable.

In the section on corn, Pollan chooses not to tell the readers about precision agriculture, conservation tillage farming (the most sustainable farming system in history which cuts soil erosion by 90% and reduces energy use). He also does not tell us that erosion on cropland in the United States has been reduced by 40% (from 4 tons per acre to 2.6 tons per acre) since 1982. He talks about farm subsidies, but doesn’t tell the readers that less than 1% (more than 70% of which is nutrition assistance programs including WIC, Welfare, and School Lunch/Breakfast programs) of the federal budget goes to agriculture, yet agriculture accounts for nearly 20% of the Gross Domestic Product for the United States. He doesn’t tell the reader that farm subsidies protect us as consumers from monopolies producing our food which keeps our food affordable or that those subsidies help the individual farmer compete with cheap labor from other countries which keeps our food more local and safe. He further assumes that all conventional farms receive some sort of subsidy payment, which is also false. An underlying thought from Pollan regarding corn is that “food scientists and others are always trying to come up with new ways to gobble up the huge surplus.” When in fact the reality is that demand for corn has increased and farmers work hard to meet that demand – if in fact the surplus were as huge as he says, we would see much lower prices on that particular commodity. Of course this is not an exhaustive list of examples .

Michael Pollan attempts to indoctrinate the reader into believing that “cheap food” is expensive in terms of health problems such as obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease. In fact, these diseases are quite expensive in terms of medical issues, but is it really fair to blame these issues only on the conventional agriculture system without also taking into account a lack of physical activity, portion sizes, frequency of eating, and genetics? Please keep in mind that “industrial” agriculture (I prefer to call it conventional) is everything that is not organic or hunted/gathered. Also, please keep in mind that ALL FOOD produced in the United States up until around World War II was produced organically. Is it possible to be healthy while eating only from the conventional food system? Is it possible to not be healthy while eating only from the organic food system? It is an undeniable fact that life expectancy has increased significantly in the United States over the last 100 years (47 years in 1909 to 77 years today).

Pollan omits facts about the organic production, making this method appear better than it is. He tells us on page 159 that “instead of toxic pesticides, insects are controlled by spraying approved organic agents such as rotenone, pyrethrum, and nicotine sulfate.” What he doesn’t tell us is that EVERYTHING is toxic at some level of exposure. He further chooses not to tell the reader that natural pesticides are not necessarily less toxic (some are less toxic, but many are more toxic) than synthetic pesticides. Specifically these pesticides which he gives examples of are actually more toxic than most synthetic pesticides – Copper Sulfate is highly toxic, shown to cause liver disease, and was recently banned in Europe; Rotenone is a nerve toxin which may cause Parkinson’s disease and the EPA is actually conducting a code red risk assessment for Rotenone to reconsider its registration (don’t worry, I didn’t get the press release about this either); and actually, Pyrethrum is a synthetic insecticide used by traditional agriculture and pyrethrin is the organic form – essentially these are the same compound with the same function, but pyrethrin comes from a natural plant source and breaks down more quickly in the environment which means that it has to be sprayed more often to be effective, thus kills more beneficial insects as a result and was recently listed by EPA as a likely human carcinogen. He also does not report that many of these organic products need to be (and are) applied several times or at higher rates to protect the targeted crops.

Further, because organic production cannot use herbicides to control weeds, many mechanically cultivate their crops to keep weeds under control leaving the soil surface unprotected and subject to increased soil erosion and moisture loss. He would really like us to believe that the only sustainable form of food production is organic, but he doesn’t tell us that with organic production yields decrease by 30 to 40 percent (the Danish government actually found even greater impacts than this as they considered a move to only organic production – they found it to be 47%). The first ever Census of Organic Agriculture was recently published and on some crops here in Montana yields were even lower than what the Danes found. For example, is the 17 bushels/acre average yield for organic barley sustainable when compared to the 52 bushels/acre average for conventional barley? That is a 67% reduction in yield. He also doesn’t tell us that to produce the necessary nitrogen to grow crops would require either conversion of 1/3 of all crop acreage into green manure production (usually legumes grown to be plowed into the soil) which would be on top of the 30-40% yield reduction OR to increase the number of cattle on the planet by 700% – Vaclav Smil professor of geography from the University of Manitoba made this calculation. The U.S. alone would have to raise 1 billion additional cattle to replace the nitrogen from commercial sources. Is this possible? We currently have 97 million head in the U.S. and globally there are 1.3 billion. If every square foot of private and public land including all parks, forests, wildlife refuges, golf courses, roadsides, and lawns were grazed by cattle there would still not be enough land to graze that many cattle in the United States. You can imagine the devastation to the environment that strictly organic production would have on our planet.

He also doesn’t tell us that manure is very bulky and thus expensive to handle when spreading onto crops. Earthbound farms uses 20-30 tons of composted manure per acre and their farm is 10,000 acres in size. How many more pounds of raw manure are required to make that much compost? Further, there is a real assumption that all nutrients are in manure in general for organic production, this is also false. If the nutrient is not in the soil it will not be in the feed; if the nutrient is not in the feed it will not be in the manure; if it’s not in the manure, it’s not getting back to the soil. Don’t get me wrong, the manure should get put back onto the soil, there is just no way that it can be our primary source of plant nutrition. Manure’s nutrient composition is also inconsistent throughout making it difficult to get the right nutrient in the right place in the field.

I wish that Pollan would have chosen to interview a farmer who is more advanced in his adoption and use of modern farming practices – George Naylor (“industrial corn farmer”) could probably be considered “advanced” when compared to 1980’s standards. If Pollan would have chosen to abandon his agenda and spend time with a modern 21st century U.S. farmer he would have found a producer who is on the cutting edge of technology and actually doing a better job of both producing higher yields and caring for the environment than ever before in history. Precision agriculture technology is simply amazing at using less synthetic fertilizer and pesticides by applying them only where they are needed.

The USDA has recently reported that 36 million people are hungry in America. These people are not worried about whether or not the food they purchase is organic or locally grown or if the chickens are “free range” or the meat is “hormone free”, etc. The bottom line is that we need all food systems in the United States to feed not only our country, but also to contribute to the world’s food supply.

World population is growing quickly and with population growth we lose land which can be used to produce food. How will we feed the world when the population increases to 10-12 billion? How will we feed all of their pets as well?? The only possible answer is that we have to get behind high yield agriculture in order to produce enough food – we truly need another green revolution. This has to be considered, and I fear that books such as this one actually get in the way of any meaningful dialect taking place in terms of world food production.

I like the idea of local food and believe it to be great for local economy and it also seems to provide great opportunities (business & hobby or both) for those who would like to farm small acreages. However, a definition of “local” is really necessary before any criticism of “industrial” agriculture is to take place. How far away is no longer considered local?? And what is “industrial agriculture” and what is not? As much as these terms are tossed around throughout the book, it is only fair they have a concrete definition rather than just a generalization that is used to throw the rest of us under the bus.

Other questions which Pollan chooses not to ask or answer in his book are:

What happens when we have a shortage of food production due to drought, disease, or other in some area of the country?

How do we obtain food items which we cannot or do not produce? I live in the Pacific Northwest in an area with a growing season of only 100 days. A recent study by agricultural experts from Washington State University suggests that local food actually ends up using more energy and not less.

What do we do with our surplus food production? For example: 70% of Montana is rangeland not suitable to cultivation. We have a comparative advantage over many places in the world for producing cattle and as a result there are approximately 3 cows for every person in our state (a small number when compared to the 6 million bison which used to roam the range up here belching methane into the atmosphere) – there are only so many that can stay here to be used locally. We are also the 5th largest wheat producer in the country. Our dry climate here is actually very good for producing high quality wheat and we are the only place in the world which grows five of the six different wheat classes. A great deal of our wheat is and has to be shipped out of Montana.

What about comparative advantages? Shouldn’t food be produced in the places of the world that are best suited to do so?

What about those fresh produce items which are not aesthetically or otherwise suitable to be sold as fresh produce but are great for a processed food product? Examples might be ketchup, soups, salad dressings, frozen concentrated orange juice, applesauce etc.

What about balance of trade for our country?

What about consumer choice?

What about consistency of food products?

What about the changes in the American family (demographics, structure, morals) and their eating habits? Most moms work outside the home. Many parents are divorced. Sitting down to eat a meal together on a regular basis is a lost art in many homes.

We are all very fortunate to live in the United States of America where we pay the least of any country for our food at less than 10% of our disposable income after taxes. Not only is our food the cheapest, but it is also the safest and most plentiful and provided in the greatest variety compared to anywhere in the world. If you’re going to cut down American agriculture, please keep in mind that you do have the option of living somewhere in the world other than the United States. When food becomes more expensive to the consumer, what industries and jobs which have been built because people have more money to spend should we get rid of? Ultimately the free market will make this decision. But, will it be tourism-related? Entertainment and recreation-related? Technology & computer related? Medical & health related? Automobile related? Real-estate related? Savings & investing related? Communications related? I’m just curious to know what people will cut out of their lives when more of their dollar has to be spent on food.

Please go to the experts in agriculture for information about agriculture. The following websites should be helpful to get you started:

American Farm Bureau Federation – be sure to order your copy of the Food and Farm Facts book. You’ll be amazed at how poorly Michael Pollan did at reporting on modern agriculture through his book – Keep in mind though, he’s only a journalist while the people compiling the facts booklet are experts in agriculture. […] and […].

Feedstuffs Food Link Connecting Farm to Fork at […].

Safe Food Inc. is a website put together by agricultural experts as a rebuttal to the movie Food Inc. […].