Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Misinformation on Big Farming--Pollan

A review of Mr. Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma in Sunday's Washington Post passes on this [mis]information:
"Each bushel of industrial corn grown, Pollan notes, uses the equivalent of up to a third of a gallon of oil. Some of the oil products evaporate and acidify rain; some seep into the water table; some wash into rivers, affecting drinking water and poisoning marine ecosystems.[1] The industrial logic also means vast farms that grow only corn. [2]When the price of corn drops, the solution, the farmer hopes, is to plant more corn for next year. [3]The paradoxical result? While farmers earn less, there's an over-supply of cheap corn, and that means finding ever more ways to use it up."[4]
[1] I shouldn't claim any expertise in growing corn but my guess is that the "oil products" are mostly the fertilizer needed for high yields of corn. It's true enough that rain can wash fertilizer into the water and this has deleterious effects. But note the effect of language--"oil products" sounds much more omnious than "excess fertilizer". It's rather like a plastics manufacturer saying the plastic artifacts that end up in the oceans are "oil products"--technically true but not very helpful in analyzing the problem.

[2] Also misleading. Yes, the farms are "vast", at least compared to the farm my great grandfather had in Illinois in 1850, but not compared to the collective farms in the USSR back in the 1950's. But farms don't grow "only corn". Usually they rotate corn and soybeans. But soybeans can't be demonized as readily as corn-based high-fructose syrup, so Mr. Pollan presumably (if the reviewer is doing a good job), ignores the soybean half of farming.

[3] It's certainly true that given today's agricultural policy farmers have to grow crops. But they do change from crop to crop, growing more soybeans and less corn as prices change.

[4] I do agree that the economic structure of farming tends to produce cheap food and fiber. But it's not a question of finding ways to use the surplus, but of encouraging behaviors that might not be wise. It's rather like the oil industry--without OPEC it tends to produce cheap gas, meaning, in the absence of high gas taxes and/or CAFE standards, cars are bigger and more powerful than they would otherwise be. But people don't buy Hummers in order to use cheap gas.

The reviewer ends: "His [Pollan's] cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling."

Based on this part of the review, NOT.

Bunny Crumpacker is the author of "The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eat."

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