That’s the takeaway point from this NY Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Pollan details how an unholy trifecta of scientific experts, sloppy journalism and the food industry have distorted the American diet by pushing the idea of “nutritionism” – the notion that nutrients, rather than actual foods, are the building blocks of a sound diet. This makes us beholden to “experts” who tell us what to eat instead of relying on tradition and common sense. Ironically this has had the effect of making our diet worse because nutritionism tends to focus on individual components of food and whether they’re deemed good or bad rather than how foods as a whole affect us. Consequently we end up eating a lot of processed food with the “right” nutrients as determined by current nutritionist orthodoxy rather than foods that human beings have been eating for ages (a.k.a. real food).
Pollan makes the telling point that what we might call a “technological” approach to eating has consequences which in turn call for a new technological fix:
The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating. You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat. The question is, Are we better off with these new authorities than we were with the traditional authorities they supplanted? The answer by now should be clear.
It might be argued that, at this point in history, we should simply accept that fast food is our food culture. Over time, people will get used to eating this way and our health will improve. But for natural selection to help populations adapt to the Western diet, we’d have to be prepared to let those whom it sickens die. That’s not what we’re doing. Rather, we’re turning to the health-care industry to help us “adapt.” Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick. It’s gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it’s working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is itself marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery. But while fast food may be good business for the health-care industry, surely the cost to society — estimated at more than $200 billion a year in diet-related health-care costs — is unsustainable.
The solution, he argues, is to return to a food culture as an alternative to food science. This includes things like: eating real food (“Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”), avoid “food products,” even those bearing health claims, buy food directly from the producers by, e.g. patronizing farmers’ markets whenever possible, pay more for better quality of food while at the same time eating less, eat mostly plants, borrow ideas from traditional food cultures (e.g. the Frence, Greeks, Italians), take pleasure in eating, cook and grow some of your own food if possible, and diversify your diet, including not only new dishes, but new species whenever possible.
It’s hard not to be reminded of Christopher Lasch’s point (made in his book The True and Only Heaven and elsewhere) that an obsession with expertise has cultivated the sense that ordinary people are essentially helpless to confront routine tasks like choosing what to eat, rearing children, making educational choices, etc. and must rely on a class of benevolent experts to tell them how to live. Lasch and Pollan see traditional as embodied in communal practices and memories as a more reliable guide to living and are, in that respect, profoundly conservative.
A similar point is made by this article in the Christian Century lauding a return to more traditional forms of animal husbandry. The author contrasts the practices of industrial farming which “relies on monocultural crop production, extensive use of fossil fuels and chemicals, massive injections of growth hormones and antibiotics, expensive capital investment, the confinement of animals, standardized production, farming practices that erode soil and deplete groundwater, and a deceptive way of calculating gains and losses” and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in central Virginia. Salatin, a Christian whose faith informs his farming practices, “sees it as his responsibility to honor the animals as creatures that reflect God’s creative and abiding love.” He does this by allowing the creatures on his farm to follow something closer to their natural patterns of life and interaction:
This system honors the creatures by enabling them to live the way God intended them to live. The cattle, ruminants created to eat grass, are not fed corn, nor are they stacked up and confined to standing in their own waste. As a result, they do not need the hormones and antibiotics that have become indispensable in industrial beef production. Nor do they produce the deadly strains of E. coli that now regularly surface in our food supply. The chickens, meanwhile, do not peck at each other like their confined and stressed industrial counterparts. They are free to roam.
The fields, in turn, do not require the synthetic fertilizers and the toxic pesticides that other farmers routinely use. They are fertilized and kept relatively pest-free by the activity of the animals feeding upon them. Conventional farmers who visit Polyface Farm are routinely baffled by the fact that Salatin has no need of costly and toxic inputs.
Working with creation rather than against it has made Polyface Farm amazingly productive. It produces annually 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broiler chickens, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits and nearly a half million eggs.
Chefs throughout Virginia and the Washington, D.C., area cannot get enough of Salatin’s eggs and meat because they simply taste better. With this food you don’t have to worry about poisoning or periodic recalls. As a bonus, the grass-fed beef (because of the protein structure of the grass) is much healthier than the corn-fed variety.
The author, Norman Wirzba, a philosophy professor, makes a point similar to Pollans, that the techno-fix approach to raising animals creates unforseen problems which in turn cry out for another techno-fix, and so on. This comes from ignoring the natural patterns of creation and seeking to impose a anthropocentric model of efficiency.
This is all to the good as far as I’m concerned, and I hate to nitpick, but I do want to demur at Wirzba’s suggestion that concern for the fact that animals are killed (in addition to how they live) is a matter of “sentimentality” in the pejorative sense. He writes:
Salatin is explicit about saying his Christian faith informs the way he raises and slaughters the animals on his 500-acre farm. He sees it as his responsibility to honor the animals as creatures that reflect God’s creative and abiding love.
Not that there is anything sentimental about his approach. Salatin knows that the animals are not pets. They are raised to be food. But Salatin’s method of food production is designed to honor God’s work.
There seems to be an emerging orthodoxy of sorts that industrial/factory farming is indeed bad and it’s wrong to subject animals to those kinds of conditions, but killing them for food is, considered in itself, perfectly ok. As much as I think efforts like Polyface Farm are a vast, vast improvement over the status quo, I wouldn’t want to leave that assumption unchallenged. I’m not going to rehash the argument here, but one gets the impression of an attempt to distance oneself from those kooky, extremist, sentimentalist animal rights types, while still being concerned about the treatment of animals (never mind that it was mostly kooky extremist animal rights types who made it an issue in the first place…). But that’s a minor quibble. A world of responsible stewardship instead of rapacious exploitation is obviously far superior. I’d be happy to get to the nearly utopian-seeming point at which all animals we raised for food were being raised in conditions like those of Polyface Farm. Then it might be time to hash out the question of abolition.
But the noteworthy thing here is that scientism – the view that all of reality can be exhaustively described in the categories offered by natural science and that the world is best understood in strictly material terms – turns out to be not only theoretically inadequate, but to have deleterious practical consequences. And that tradition may in some cases be a more reliable guide to living.