Book Review

Weeding out the Sons of Pollan

CorrespondentAugust 19, 2007 

Grocery shopping used to be so simple. A pear was a pear -- the only two varieties were fresh and canned. And the only danger in any kind of food was too much sugar.

Then the organic movement came along and made us suspect farmers of trying to poison us. In the years since we learned to avoid pesticides, a number of other authors have sallied into the fields and factories that produce our sustenance and ferreted out further dangers. So many dangers, in fact, that the only really wholesome alternative would seem to be hunting and gathering our own grub. That was the conclusion reached by Michael Pollan in his bestselling 2006 book "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" (Penguin). It wasn't the first to make the case for modern-day foraging, but its sheer eloquence won it the most attention.

Now, three other books are following with specific instructions for getting food grown as close as possible to home. Each makes a compelling, and in varying degrees entertaining, case for the virtues of local food. At the same time, all of them highlight the enormous practical challenges of the proposition.

That something is wrong with our way of eating has become the conventional wisdom. Prions pollute our beef, and E.coli invades our spinach. Epidemics of diabetes and obesity spread through elementary schools. Fertilizer runoff is killing fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Soil erosion, illegal immigration, rural depopulation, even global warming are all at least partly symptoms of our national eating disorder.

Each of the new books diagnoses the same illness: industrialization. And each prescribes approximately the same treatment.

In "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," (HarperCollins, $26.95, 370 pages) Barbara Kingsolver and her family recount their adventures trying for a year to eat mostly from what they could grow in their Virginia garden. Between polemics on the wrong-headedness of long-distance food transportation come rooster concerts and asparagus recipes.

For their version of the experiment, "Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally" (Harmony, $24, 264 pages), Vancouver journalists Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon restricted themselves to food grown within a 100-mile radius of their home.

Finally, for "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future" (Times Books, $25, 272 pages), Bill McKibben (whose previous books include "The End of Nature") tried eating for one winter only from the valley around Lake Champlain in Vermont.

I don't recommend that anyone read all these books, especially one after the other. All three culled statistics from the same Iowa State University studies, all dish up charming anecdotes about the only farmer in the neighborhood who still grows wheat or the rigors of canning, and all of them basically agree with one another.

The distinctions between "Plenty" and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" -- both written as family projects -- are especially minor. Smith and MacKinnon, who are married, alternate chapters in "Plenty." Their story offers a bit more reality-TV-style interpersonal drama. And the two aren't gardeners, so you won't learn from them, for example, at what temperature chard goes to seed. "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" is the weightier of the two both literally (it's almost a hundred pages longer) and figuratively. It is freighted with short essays by Kingsolver's ecologist husband, Steven L. Hopp, on issues such as genetically modified organisms and agricultural subsidies as well as meditations and recipes by their college-student daughter, Camille Kingsolver.

None of the three offers a coherent political plan for transforming the national food system in the direction they advocate. And the personal difficulties the authors encountered in their local food experiments -- however humorous -- might actually deter some readers from taking the plunge. But "Deep Economy" stands out in this crop because it situates its discussion of local food in a thoughtful analysis of the global economy. It is the most intellectually rigorous, and perhaps for that reason, the driest, though it is by no means dull.

McKibben argues that our national eating problem stems from a much more fundamental problem of putting too much emphasis on consuming more of everything -- cars, cell phones, rooms in houses as well as Big Macs -- well past the point at which More Is Better. Not only are we damaging the planet, he argues -- with convincing statistics from the new field of behavioral economics -- we aren't making ourselves any happier.

What would make us happier? Other people.

Buying food from a local farmer is part of an about-face that might also include listening to a locally produced radio station or shopping at a locally owned clothing store. It would make us happier because we would be more likely to know the people with whom we are interacting. It would make us connected to a community and, therefore, more likely to take care of that community, its air, its water, its soil and its inhabitants.

Though all these authors are serving from the same dish, McKibben digs deepest: If a pear can introduce you to a neighbor, it's a better kind of pear.

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