Tales of a Recovering Pollanite

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[ 4300 words – 15-20 minutes reading time ]

Down on the Farm

I grew up working on farms. I picked cucumbers in the summer during junior high and worked on an orchard year round through high school. I did cukes for two summers, living with my grandparents in western Massachusetts for the eight week season. (Or was it six? It seemed like twelve.) I worked half a day as a six grader and the full eight hours the next year, earning $2.85 an hour when the minimum wage was $3.10 – agricultural work was exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, even for suburban white kids. You spent the day prone, hanging off a giant wing off the side of geared down old Mack truck, your hands scrambling through the prickly vines and leaves like fiberglass to find those future pickles. Until you were skilled enough to move the leaves out of the way with some serious dexterity you wore rubber kitchen gloves to keep the plants natural defenses from giving you a rash on your forearms. Those gloves quickly became a cold and wet from the morning dew and a puddle of steam in the afternoon sun. You got rid of them as soon as your skin became immune and could move the leaves with your finger tips got tough enough to deal with the prickers on the vines and your hands got fast enough that your arms weren’t constantly rubbing against those fiberglass leaves. Until you got good, the cukes you missed ended up in an embarrassing pile on back of your legs. A full days work netted a little less than twenty bucks take home pay; a sore, stiff neck; and a nose full of muddy snot. They took taxes and Social Security out of my little eleven year old, sub-minimum wage paycheck! “Welcome to the workforce, kid.” Orchard work was a little more rewarding.

A little less than twenty bucks take home pay, a sore, stiff neck, and a nose full of muddy snot. | Photo via strangepicturesofmishacollins.tumblr.com
A little less than twenty bucks take home pay, a sore, stiff neck, and a nose full of muddy snot. | Photo via strangepicturesofmishacollins.tumblr.com

High school was spent in orchards,  clearing the under brush in the early spring, thinning, picking, packing,  jugging cider and then pruning late in the fall. Our crew of high school kids, led by college student who had been with the orchard since high school, was mostly confined to the peach orchard. Like cucumber leaves, mass quantities of peach fuzz will give you a rash on the inside your arms and your chest until your skin toughens up. But that was about the only bad part of the job. It was pretty idyllic. We worked hard and listened to oldies radio all day on transistor that would start playing mid-morning after it dried out from the morning dew. I swear that radio could repair itself after falling out of a tree or getting knocked over by one the farm’s two GMC Jimmys.

We ate a bagged lunch in the orchard and spent of most of our break whipping unripe peaches at each other using the straps that hooked into the peck baskets we slung from our necks as we picked. The straps had metal hooks that we pushed into the flesh of the peach. When you whipped the strap, the flesh gave way and sent the peach whizzing through orchard. We developed the sufficient skills to keep the orchard safe from the Sheriff of Nottingham and his henchmen if he ever dared to tax our harvest.

We pruned the apple orchards in the fall, but the apple orchards were mostly the domain of Keith, the farmer who owned the orchard and the picking was done by Jamaicans on H2 visas, with us in a support role, loading the apples they picked, keeping them supplied with bushel baskets, in awe of their speed and endurance – even as a high school athlete in top physical condition there was no way I could keep up with those guys. I led the crew my senior year, responsible for getting the peach orchard in shape for the spring, the pruning, clearing the weeds and undergrowth, the thinning. I’m sure it had more to do with the weather, but we had a great harvest that year, something I still feel proud of to this day.

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Part of that is because apples were a big deal in our town and we were the biggest orchard and farm stand. It was a town that still holds Apple Blossom Parade and Festival every spring. For the pretty girls in town, being Apple Blossom Queen was a bigger deal than homecoming queen. Our farm stand was an iconic part daily life, a real hub of village social interaction, with friends and neighbors chatting in the parking lot and the check out line. People lined up from miles around in the fall for tractor rides into the orchards to pick their own apples. It was the convergence of local food, community and culture before Alice Waters ever published a cookbook.

Out of the Orchard and Into the Frying Pan

I worked as a line cook through my campus radical years. I enjoyed cooking – the steady preparation for service, the physicality and adrenaline rush of dinner service on the line, the pirate camaraderie of the kitchen. I loved the tactile relationship with food, the creative opportunities in designing putting together a cheese tray or fruit platter for a buffet and playing around with flavors and textures when I got to cook for friends. After I dropped out of college, I continued to cook while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

My politics were concerned mostly with the concentration of power and the maldistribution of wealth in America. Wanting to help shift power from those who had it to those who needed it, I settled on a career as a union organizer, and lit out for the least unionized part of the country; landing in Atlanta. As a union organizer in the South, living in motels, driving 50,000 miles a year, I had to redefine ham hock as a seasoning to keep my less than fully committed campus vegetarianism somewhat intact. I started off organizing public employees in Georgia – county school employees – custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers – and state correction officers working in Georgia’s prisons. I moved to work for the southern region of the clothing and textile workers union, doing campaigns in Knoxville, TN; Martinsville, VA; Lakeland, FL; Miami, FL; Reidsville, NC; and Greensboro, GA – with briefer stops in lots of small rural towns around the South.  I finished my organizing career with the healthcare workers union in Northern California.

After several years of 70 hour work weeks and eating in my car, an introvert burnt out on constantly having to motivate other people, I retreated back to restaurant kitchens to regroup. This time I fell head over heels in love with food and cooking. I decided I wanted to be a chef.  That led to reading everything I could get my hands on: food history, food science, food travelogue…all of it. With the leadership skills I’d honed as an organizer, the knowledge I sopped up from my reading, and decent palate, I moved up through the ranks pretty quickly with stints in Tucson, Arizona; NYC and finally Portland, Oregon.

While working as a chef, I received a diagnosis of slightly above normal blood sugar, I was given some books on nutrition as homework. Nutrition became a new hobby and the obesity epidemic a new public policy issue on my radar.

Finding Michael Pollan’s Food Movement

So I was a chef with left wing politics, a former union organizer and farm worker, and an armchair nutritionist when I started stumbling across various voices from the Food Movement some time around 2005. It’s hard to imagine someone better primed for a message of sustainable agriculture, grassroots activism, local economics, and low income community food security. Being a Massachusetts born union organizer who lived in cities but often worked in rural communities in the South has irrevocably scrambled my cultural allegiances in ways that would eventually play havoc with my loyalties in the debates the Food Movement had started. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

food-bookshelf

I dug into the message of the Food Movement and read everything I could get my hands on starting with Michael Pollan’s classic, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I dutifully watched all the documentaries, Food Inc., The Future of Food, The World According to Monsanto, you name it. There is a lot of appeal to the message of the Food Movement, but even early on it seemed to me that aesthetics and cultural loyalties often trumped metrics; and some evidence was more equal than other evidence. After reading over and over from Tom Philpott, my favorite ag blogger at the time, about the most recent study showing that organic farming is more profitable with higher yields than conventional, I started to wonder why more farmers weren’t adopting organic methods. I finally dug though his archive and discovered I’d been reading about the same study over and over. The “proof” of superior organic yields was all reporting on the same studies by David Pimentel on organic yields from the organic advocacy organization Rodale’s test farms. No little data set should ever have to shoulder such a heavy burden.

I left my career cooking for a living after a failed restaurant start up. It was a little bistro/café with as many local, organic ingredients as we could squeeze into the every day prices of neighborhood joint. We were the only place in Portland, OR with a wine list confined entirely to Oregon, Washington, Northern California wines. That was the good news. The bad news was – we’d opened in the middle of the Lesser Depression with not enough money and too much confidence that economic recovery was just around the corner. (Guess what! Recovery from a financial crash recession takes longer than from a business cycle recession. Who knew? Not me.)  I started to think about writing about food: nutrition, public policy, history. In trying to put pen to paper, it became evident that there were big gaps in my knowledge that needed to be filled if I was going to write with the kind of authority of the writers I admired.

In looking to fill those gaps, the website Biofortified was a big influence. As were Steve Savage’s writings. Twitter led me to the blogs of many Midwestern farmers and Western ranchers (Fiercely proud Tractor Moms, as I called them – back when “Soccer Moms” was still a thing). Obviously smart, obviously well informed farmers and ranchers did not seem to find Michael Pollan and Alice Waters as insightful about farming as I had. Clearly, this was a case of “More Research Needed.”

A number of dominoes started to fall. James McWilliams and others debunked the concept of food miles as a significant environmental concern in food production, seriously weakening one leg of the Food Movement’s three legged stool – Small. Local. Organic.

Digging Into the Research

Picking up from where I had left off with those doubts about the wonders of organic farming, I dug into the academic literature, trying to find robust papers, meta-analyses, and systemic reviews. What I found surprised me. While organic farming often came up superior on some metrics, it certainly didn’t on all of them. And where organic comes up short are on some big ones. In terms of overall environmental impacts, while organic often looks better on a per acre basis, the metric that really matters is on a per unit produced basis.  On that count conventional nearly always comes out ahead. The reason for this is that, the Rodale trials not withstanding, there really is a persistent 20% yield gap and organic farms don’t score 20% better on all environmental metrics. In fact on some they come out behind, even on a per acre basis. The yield gap also means that more land is required to produce the same amount of food, meaning less land is left uncultivated, still wild.

The issue is too complex to fully lay out here, suffice it to say, that after surveying the literature on the subject, it was not at all clear to me that organic was better for the environment. In fact there is a much stronger case that conventional farming with best practices performs head and shoulders above most organic farming for the environment.

What also became evident was how resistant people in the Food Movement were to evidence that didn’t fit a certain a narrative. More importantly, it became clear that the Food Movement narrative was determined more by aesthetics than metrics. It was more important the farming practices felt good for the environment than whether they really were, when measured rigorously. What do I care if conventional farms using best practices outperform organic for the environment? That seems like good news to me, because it’s happening on a LOT MORE acres. But the aesthetic coherence of organic farming has a strong psychological appeal for a lot of people.

Two simple examples:
• The copper that organic farmers use on grapes is less environmentally friendly than modern synthetic fungicides.
• Without any organic approved herbicides, tillage is used to control weeds by many organic farmers (and too many conventional farmers). Tillage disturbs the soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion. The judicious use of modern synthetic herbicides is actually a less impactful way of controlling weeds when used in no-till and conservation tillage systems.

Nevertheless, there is an undeniable attraction to the coherence in using only naturally occurring pesticides and fertilizers, hewing to techniques and systems that mimic nature, and connecting with a sense of tradition and continuity from a bygone era. Contrast that with the cold logic of GPS aided precision application of synthetic fertilizer or mixing conservation techniques like cover crops and conservation tillage with herbicides and biotech seeds.

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The fact of the matter is that all the tools in the organic toolbox are available to conventional farmers and many of conventional farmers put them to good use. But the reverse is not true, certified organic farms can’t use all the tools available to conventional farms, even when they are more eco-friendly than trying to mimic nature. That might seem counter-intuitive until you’ve spent some real time talking to farmers and researchers, but mimicking nature isn’t the always the best way to minimize the environmental impacts of farming. It becomes pretty depressing to watch people twist themselves into pretzels insisting that the system with fewer tools in the toolbox is more effective than the system with the bigger toolbox. But having started out there, I can at least understand what people want to believe that.

Scale and Scope

As I worked to come up to speed on a range of issues, I saw a consistent theme developing – the question of scale – or rather Scale Versus Scope. I wanted to find solutions and policies that could really move the needle on the biggest challenges in the food system – the environmental impacts of farming, the diabetes and obesity crisis, food waste, the persistence of food insecurity in the midst of a rich and prosperous nation, agricultural and economic development in the Global South. Even when the Food Movement critique of problems was on target, and often it was not, the preferred solutions struck me as hopelessly small bore, overly local, nibbling around the edges. When we need to improve the environmental impact millions of acres of farms and improve the diets of millions of people eating their way to an early grave, with the exception of Federal school lunch reform, solutions always seemed to be aimed at thousands – thousands of acres, thousands of people – rather than millions or better yet BILLIONS.   Often the Food Movement can be quite insightful of the scope of a problem like the epidemic of diabetes and obesity that has damaged the health of millions of people and is driving by a wide range of factors. The problem is the Food Movement often seems allergic to solutions that could scale into the millions; again, usually because of aesthetic objections. Is Subway adding more vegetables to their sandwiches? “Yuck. We prefer double food stamp coupons at farmer’s markets.” Never mind that Subway interacts with far more people who could stand to eat more veggies than farmer’s markets by several orders of magnitude. Have biotech crops brought conservation tillage to tens of millions of acres? “Maybe, but we should put more funding into organic research.” Never mind that organic accounts for a mere 5.4 million acres out of 914 million total acres of US farming and ranching (0.6%). Seems like figuring out how to make  908 million acres of conventional farms 10% more sustainable would be a better investment than trying to make 5.4 million acres of organic farms 30% more sustainable. And given that current organic farming has a greater environmental impact, trying to increase the number of acre in organic production doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me.

Why do we talk about organic vs conventional as if they were on anything near the same scale?

And that was the final leg of the Food Movement stool. Small. Local. Organic. They had all slipped away from me. And what was I left with as a writer? I had what I thought were better answers, but answers that didn’t always make for great stories. Advocating for a better industrial food system doesn’t have the emotional appeal of cheerleading for Small. Local. Organic.

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The problem is that a bunch of small improvements that add up to a 10% improvement that can be scaled across millions of acres doesn’t make for as good a story in Mother Jones as a few sexy changes that add up to a 30% improvement that might only scale across a few hundred thousand acres. The first is a massive improvement with little aesthetic appeal, the second is a modest improvement with massive aesthetic appeal. Call me Mr. Spock, but I’m happy to cheerlead for option A, even if Evil Corp. might end up turning a profit.

Which that leads us to GMOs.

The Big Dumb Proxy War Over Biotech Crops

A disdain for GMOs was part and parcel of the Food Movement package deal, but it wasn’t a big concern of mine, just something I filed away for further study. My lazy operating assumption was that, while the technology would probably be of use in the future, we currently don’t understand nutrition or ecology enough to monkey around with Mother Nature successfully. Witness the cases of trans fats and vitamin supplements. We thought we were doing the right thing, but the human body turned out to be more complicated than we thought and it bit us in the ass.

But it was clear to me that whether or not the Food Movement was correct that the technology was not ready for prime time, it was already here and further application of the technology was inevitable. There was no getting the toothpaste back in the tube.

When I looked around, I could see leaders in the Food Movement calling for bans or labeling. What I couldn’t find was anyone in the Food Movement who seemed to be putting any thought into what a responsible, egalitarian future with GMOs might look like. It seemed to me that really knowing your stuff was going to be necessary to participate meaningfully in that conversation. It was also clear to me that leaders in the Food Movement didn’t exactly have an encyclopedic understanding of the issue. I was going to have to learn about the issue from “the other side”. That mostly meant Biofortified.org and Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s wonderful book Tomorrow’s Table about how biotech breeding and orgnaic farming techniques could and should complement each other.

I thought I would use the knowledge I gained from the other side to make the case against them. Instead, I was happy to find out that somebody was in fact already considering what a responsible, egalitarian future with GMOs might look like. The ‘other side’ wasn’t so other after all.

I was less happy to find that almost everything I thought I knew about GMOs was wrong or misguided. As I started researching GMOs, at first I was a little stunned and then really, really angry at how much bad information I had absorbed through Food Movement sources. The documentaries were the worst offenders, factually challenged, emotionally manipulative, often outright deceptive. I don’t like being made a fool of, and it was only by keeping my powder dry while doing the research that spared me from spouting off some seriously foolish nonsense. Terminator seeds, India farmer suicides, farmers sued because of pollination, it’s all industry research, superweeds, the misinformation that I’d been fed just seemed to go on and on. I care about what I feed my body, but I care even more about what I feed my head. I was angry and I became firmly anti-Anti-GMO.

As I’ve learned more, and gained what I think is a pretty firm handle on the issue, at times it’s become a little harder to see the other side’s viewpoint. As you work through the objections to GMOs – there is just so little to them – the embarrassment that you’d been duped starts to add up. If it’s not outright misinformation, it’s a critique of industrial agriculture itself that is being projected onto GMOs – biotech crops are constantly blamed for aspects of industrial food production that a much more the result of the invention of the combine harvester. The problem is that waxing philosophical on the socio-ecological implications of one more piece of gas combustion machinery carries far less cachet than holding forth on how biotech seeds supposedly encourage mass scale monocropped industrial agriculture. They don’t, but subtle and supposedly holistic critiques of a technology you are wary of and don’t fully understand sound a lot deeper and more serious than waxing philosophical on your socio-ecological misgivings about big tractors. But let’s be clear, COMBINES ARE the technological innovation that brought commodity crops to mass scale. Meanwhile, the high regulatory and R&D costs for biotech crops means that commodity crops have been nearly the only seed market where companies can recoup a return on their investment. You could make the case that mass scale monocropped industrial agriculture encourages biotech crops, not the other way around. To people who haven’t thoroughly thought this stuff through, the mysteriousness of GMOs masks the errors of category and causality in what passes for sophisticated critiques of biotech in agriculture.

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Lazy critiques of industrial agriculture masquerading as critiques of biotech  get away with missing the mark or getting the causality backwards because of the mystery surrounding the technology and people’s inchoate intuitions about messing with nature. They get away with sloppy logic and misinformation because most people have sentimental intuitions that farming should somehow be exempt from commerce, from technological change, from legalistic constraints – that it should somehow operate on a more pastoral logic, even as it works to serves a mass, industrialized society.

And those are the subtler criticisms and fears. Most are much blunter. Fears of Frankenfoods! Scaremongering rat studies! Foreign DNA!

Yeah. There's nothing about this that has anything to do with to reality. | Photo by elialO | Flickr CC license
Yeah. There’s nothing about this that has anything to do with reality. | Photo by elialO | Flickr CC license

But, when you start with a conception of a tomato being crossed with a fish that you got from a cartoon on a picket sign and you wind up finally understanding that it is a single well understood gene out of tens of thousands of genes being transferred from one organism to another, you wonder, why all the drama? When you realize that you share half your DNA with a banana or that an herbicide resistant soybean has been bred to express a different version of a single enzyme so that it is not affected by a single herbicide, the technology becomes a lot less mysterious and a lot less intimidating.

You learn that the Bt gene in insect resistant corn comes from a soil bacterium that’s been used for decades as an organic pesticide. You learn that the proteins that have been bred into the corn and cotton are toxic to insects that eat the plants because the protein is activated by their alkaline gut and binds to a specific receptor to damage their digestive tract.  It’s harmless however to humans and other critters because it’s digested in our acidic stomachs like any other protein. And besides, we don’t have that receptor anyways.

screen-shot-2015-05-23-at-7-59-54-am
Bt corn will kill the European corn borer, but it won’t cure kids of zombieism. Sorry Monsanto.

When you understand that the regulatory standard of substantial equivalence means that there is less difference between Bt corn and the parent corn the Bt gene was added to than there is between that parent variety and a different variety of corn, it all starts to seem pretty mundane.

So, you listen to people voice their objections to GMOs and you ask, “Why, exactly, do you think corn that expresses a Bt protein could harm humans or devastate the environment?” “What, exactly, is your objection to vaccinating papayas against ringspot virus?” “How can you think Golden Rice is a quick fix band aid, but Unicef workers dropping everything they are doing for two weeks, twice a year to administer vitamin A supplementation is not a band aid?” “Why are ‘superweeds’ a GMO issue and not a crop management issue, when non-GMO crops have superweeds too?”

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I try to remember that they probably watched all the same fact challenged documentaries that I watched. They probably read the some of the same blogs and articles I read. You just hope that when they come across better information, they will have those light bulb moments instead of twisting themselves into pretzels to protect the narrative that feels right, or making a charge of “SHILL” against anyone who presents information that contradicts their beliefs, so that they can conveniently dismiss the cognitive dissonance. Mostly I’m glad that I steered into the cognitive dissonance and worked through it, instead finding ways to avoid it. When people do have  those light bulb moments that come from stumbling across better information, I hope they end up as pissed off as I was that their old sources information had failed them.

Frankenfood as far as the eye can see. | Photo by Scott McLeod | Flickr CC license
Frankenfood as far as the eye can see. | Photo by
Scott McLeod | Flickr CC license

But I also wish I could just fast forward everyone to an understanding of GMOs that doesn’t call for all the drama. There’s a reason the drama is unwarranted, and the reason is easy to understand but hard to get used to. GM corn is corn. It really is just corn. It is totally not at all surprising that it behaves exactly like corn, because it is exactly just like corn, owing to the fact that it is corn.

And I wish we could move our discussions about how to deal with our food related public health crisis, the tragedy of food insecurity in the midst of plenty, and the steep challenges of extending truly sustainable agriculture to millions and millions of acres of farms and ranches without spinning around in the cul-de-sac of thinking Small. Local. Organic. The challenges we faces are just too big to keep nibbling around the margins.

Having a few beers with Frank N. Foode.
Having a few beers with Frank N. Foode.

A previous, much shorter version of this essay appeared on Nodes of Science.

Further reading:
Why I’d Rather Be a Team Big Dissident, Than a Team Small Cheerleader
Let’s Be Honest, It’s an Acre

 

[Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon.]

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7 Comments

  1. I haven’t read the whole piece yet, but boy did the intro bring back the memories. We might have worked on the same farm – I picked cukes one summer (radio tuned to a top-40 station), prone on the winged truck (for which we had a locally appropriate ethnic term I won’t repeat) and tobacco the next in Hadley farms near the Connecticut river, riding my bike down the hill from Amherst every morning and struggling back uphill in the afternoon. That was the hardest work I ever did in my life – worse even than delivering newspapers in January for five bucks a week. I was pretty happy when I was able to get paid instead for programming computers.

    I suspect that experience affects my attitude towards the urban foodies (which category includes many of my friends) with their edenic pastoral fantasies of “real” food. It’s not that you have to have lived farmwork to be allowed to have an opinion, but so many people’s opinions seem to assume – implicitly – that *someone else* will always be there to do the labor entailed by their “religious” demands.

    Now back to reading the rest of this memoir…

    • I worked for the Szawlowskis in Hatfield and rode my bike down from
      Leeds to their house in Northampton where they drove a couple of pick ups of kids to the field. I definitiely struggled with whether or not to include the local color on what we used to call those winged trucks.

      Still goin’:
      http://www.swazpotato.com

      • I had Raleigh Chopper stuck in third gear. Pedaling up the hill to Leeds after a long day in the fields was the cherry on my Horatio Alger sundae.

  2. Hi Mark!

    I wasn’t able to locate a good email address for you, but wanted to let you know that this article has has been featured on our site today. Check it out under the “Agriculture” heading at http://www.whatthekale.co. What the Kale (WTK) is a website dedicated to providing inspirational and credible, science-based nutrition and health information to the public in one centralized location. WTK will never reproduce content, we simply direct traffic straight to you. After your article is no longer featured on this home page, it will still be available under the category archived page (this has not been enabled yet as the content and site are new but will be enabled in the coming weeks!). We are always looking for new, awesome nutrition articles to feature. Let us know if you have another you’d like to submit!

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