Is ‘biological’ the new ‘organic’?


Pollan traces the natural history of four meals: a fast-food lunch at McDonald’s, an organic, farm-fresh meal eaten near the farm, a “corporate organic” meal from Whole Foods, and a meal made almost entirely of food that he grew, foraged, or hunted himself. Along the way, he has plenty to say about what we grow and what we eat—and he’ll get you thinking about how you garden, too.

If the organic baby lettuce you purchase at the grocery store was grown on an industrial farm, harvested by machines, and driven across the country in a truck, does the term “organic” lose its meaning? He cites one ecologist who estimates that 57 calories of fossil fuel are burned for every calorie of baby organic lettuce produced. If the lettuce had been grown conventionally, the figure would have been only four percent higher. In other words, the cost to the environment doesn’t end when the food leaves the field. Harvesting, washing, chilling, bagging, and shipping the lettuce, he suggests, is all part of the food chain and should be taken into account when we use a label like “organic.”

So what’s the answer? Pollan himself points out that it’s hardly practical to put together three meals a day, every day, from food that you’ve grown or foraged or killed yourself, and it’s not always feasible or affordable to even buy locally-grown food. Besides, even if nothing else changed in the industrial food chain, eliminating synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides from agriculture would represent an enormous step forward for the environment and for the safety of farmworkers and consumers.

And getting those chemicals out of the ground will not just give us safer food—it may also give us more nutritious food. A nineteenth-century German chemist named Baron Justus von Liebig came up with the idea that plants rely on three major nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Bags of fertilizer carry the N-P-K label even today thanks to Liebig’s work. Pollan calls the N-P-K approach to soil fertility “the scientific method at its reductionist worst” and describes healthy earth as a mystery that we should treat with some respect. “When we mistake what we can know for what there is to know,” he writes, “a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.”

He goes on to cite studies that show that organically-grown produce may be more nutritious because it contains higher levels of substances like polyphenols, which help fight cancer. Plants that are grown organically develop these compounds to fight off pests and disease, and also have access to more soil nutrients to help produce them in sufficient quantities. “Qualities we can’t yet identify in soil,” he writes, “may contribute qualities we’ve only just begun to identify in our foods and our bodies.”

So even corporate organic agriculture offers some advantages. Still, most gardeners who read his book will be motivated to abandon that industrial lettuce for their own homegrown variety. After all, what could be simpler to grow than lettuce? Sprinkle a row of seeds in the ground every few weeks, water, and wait. There you have it: slow food at its slowest.

But where did your own agricultural inputs come from? Have you been saving lettuce seeds yourself, year after year, or did you order them from a seed company on the East Coast? What about the manure you raked into the soil? Was that bagged in the Central Valley and trucked here? If there is such a thing as corporate organic agriculture, what about corporate organic gardening?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of those books that will get you wondering about every small action you take in the kitchen or in the garden. Just this morning, I was spreading some industrial-organic jam on some locally-baked bread made with wheat that surely didn’t come from Humboldt County, and waiting for my fair trade Latin American coffee to brew, and I realized that even if I did assemble my breakfast from entirely locally-grown ingredients, nothing else in my kitchen would pass the sustainability test. The toaster wasn’t made locally, nor the coffee machine, nor the napkins or the mug.

Out in the garden, I may not be doing much better. Those tulips in the ground come from Holland. That butterfly bush came from a local nursery, but it probably arrived by truck from some faraway greenhouse. The organic fertilizer I bought for my apple tree came from Indiana, and the ingredients that went into it—the kelp meal, the bat guano—may have come from all over the world.

It’s enough to make you want to abandon the enterprise all together, but I’m not giving up. My garden is a crazy little circus of imported plants, European earthworms, chickens from a Fresno hatchery, and organic fertilizer from all over. It’s a productive and meaningful place, filled with my best efforts and good intentions. And I think it does better without too much scrutiny, so this weekend I’m going to put down Pollan’s book, turn off the computer, and go outside to dig in the dirt.


  1. It is enough to make you throw up your hands in despair, isn’t it? How is your average John or Jane Doe supposed to make sense of it all without spending hours a day in research? The moral implications keep widening. What about Third World sweatshops? What about Third World sweatshops that provide the best jobs in town?

    Best I think to “shut up and dig” and then make one small permanent change in our habits. And in a week, or a month, think again, and make one more small change.

    Every little bit helps.

  2. “And I think it does better without too much scrutiny, so this weekend I’m going to put down Pollan’s book, turn off the computer, and go outside to dig in the dirt.”

    Amen to that. This is the second article I’ve read that discusses Pollan’s book (the New Yorker also looked at it recently) and neither one makes me want to read it. I’m enough of a worry wart already.

    I eat organic for one main reason: it’s closer to what human bodies evolved with. Pesticides and fertilizers developed using petroleum haven’t been around that long — the whole chemical industry roared into high gear around World War II. In evolutionary terms, that’s a millisecond.

    We also don’t know everything there is to know about how our bodies utilize micro-substances in the food we eat.

    I’ve seen other research that posited pest attacks on organic produce caused the food to produce salicylates (the ingredient in aspirin that helps dissolve clots) and that also contributed to greater health benefits.

    Law of unintended consequences, anyone?

  3. Lord, I love the way Pollan gets us to rethink our knee-jerk reactions. I first found him forcing me to think in his chapter on the idea of a garden in “Second Nature.” He totally pulled the rug out from my romantic notions about wilderness.

  4. I had been looking forward to reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” since I heard about it, and found that a some of my food choices made me uncomfortable after reading it.

    Not knowing how your food is produced can be more relaxing, but as the law says, ignorance is no excuse.

    Weekly trips to the farmers market are part of my effort to clean up the diet, at least on sustainble level.

    A little discomfort is good. I hope the discomfort persists, or maybe new habits are set, before cold weather closes down all the sellers but the ones selling beads and jewelry.

  5. It is difficult if not impossible to seperate ourselves from the cultural processes that we live in and are surrounded by. I take comfort in knowing that the patch of earth I am responsible for tending is not a toxic waste resevoir held in the soil. My ground acts more as a living sponge that has a capacity to cleanse the earth of toxins if they should arrive, much like a marsh can clean polluted waters.

    As suburbia has spread across the American landscape taking up more and more farm land and land in general it would be nice if more individuals learned to view their soil as a living sponge.

    Each individual responsible for the cleanliness of their own patch of dirt knitted all together could have a huge impact on the overall health of the planet.


    Today’s NYT has a story on B1 about Michael Pollan and his exchanges w/ the co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey. A little factoid from the article: one of the organic farms used by Whole Foods, Cascadian Farm in Washington State, is a subsidiary of General Mills. Oh the irony.

  7. I just spent three hours writing a post for my own blog about this very subject. I am so happy to see it here too. Reading Michael Pollan’s book “Botany Of Desire” encouraged me to change some of the choices I had been making, such as not buying non-organic potatoes. In fact, I buy a lot more organic now than I did before I read that book.

    I think it would be asking too much of any person to change their entire life right now, this minute, but I think Janet is right, that we can all make small changes now, and then more changes later. The biggest first step is to get people to make conscious choices, to actually think about what their choices mean in the bigger picture. The more consciously you make choices, the easier it is to make good ones.

  8. More or less nothing seems important. I’ve just been letting everything happen without me recently. I can’t be bothered with anything recently, but such is life. My life’s been generally bland today. Not much on my mind these days, but eh.

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