Columnist sips the Pollan Kool-Aid
Mar 09, 2009
By Steve Cornett
Did you see that George Will has bought into the Pollan Premise? (Click here to read it.) Will is usually a careful thinker and reporter. His column last week is testimony to just how persuasive Michael Pollan’s arguments are.(Click here to read Pollan's views on food policy from the New York Times magazine.)
Somebody better get busy presenting the other side of this story, because now we have both our new president and a leading conservative thinker playing footsy with a most radical concept.
Michael Pollan is the teacher, writer and “food activist” who is pushing a premise that holds that food is too cheap in the United States. He says that cheap food is a bad thing because we eat too much of it and get fat and unhealthy and that is a big part of the health care problem. And, by the way, the way we farm produces a big carbon footprint.
He summed it all up a couple of years ago with this bit of advice in a New York Times piece: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
His primary target is subsidized corn, but to get at corn he likes to say mean things about “factory farm” feedlots and how cheap corn makes cheap meat and, ergo, we’re all fat slobs because of cattle feeders.
I’ll let the corn guys take care of themselves on this. I’ve read both ways on the science behind the anti-corn syrup argument and don’t pretend to know the answer. But you can’t blame red meat for this obesity problem, and especially not the explosion in diabetes.
Here, after just a bit of Google research, are a couple of graphics that ought to make anybody—much less somebody with George Will’s intellect—question that premise.
So we can see that diabetes, a terrible and expensive disease, indeed, has been increasing since the 1970s, with a growth spurt in the 90s.
This leads Will to presume in his column that:“Type 2 diabetes -- a strange epidemic: one without a virus, bacteria or other microbe -- was called adult-onset diabetes until children began getting it. Now it is a $100 billion-a-year consequence of, among other things, obesity related to a corn-based diet, which is partly because steaks and chops have pushed plants off the plate.”
Did you get that little “steaks and chops have pushed plants off the table” comment? Well, as of 1996, this is how USDA figured the changes in food consumption:
Per capita red meat consumption has done nothing but go down since 1996. Steaks and chops haven’t pushed plants off the plate during this epidemic. The opposite is true, and I would argue it is because of the way a gullible public has reacted to simplistic “bad food good food” arguments against red meat.
The public has been doing just what they heard the government and “food activists” tell them to do since the government introduced the first dietary guidelines in 1980. They eat less red meat, more fish and poultry and more fruits and vegetables.
But look how much good it has done:
Look what happens to that graph about 1980, coincidentally perhaps, the year USDA published those first “simple” dietary guidelines.
It’s not fair to blame USDA’s advice for the entire problem, I suppose. Think of all the changes we’ve seen during that rise in obesity. Microwaves—and all the fat and sugar that makes microwaveable meals edible; Chicken McNuggets and other treatments to make poultry edible; VCR’s and Tivo technology to keep us in front of the TV more; the Internet to keep us even more sedentary than we were before.
I wouldn’t argue that people who sit on their saddle parts all day shouldn’t change their diets. But there is no evidence that beef is the culprit in all this.
Nonetheless, Will buys into another trendy Pollan notion: “Corn, together with pharmaceuticals and other chemicals -- a Pollan axiom: "You are what you eat eats, too" -- has made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots rather than grass, cutting by up to 75% the time from birth to slaughter. Eating corn nourished by petroleum-based fertilizers, a beef cow consumes almost a barrel of oil in its lifetime.”
I’ll leave it to others to determine the accuracy of the math and to compare the beef cow’s relative use of fuel to that of chickens and pigs that never step outside the feed pen. But the point of the thing is the point of the thing. Why, given all the evidence, is beef always the villain?
More importantly, what can be done about it?
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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