Food for thought: Michael Pollan on “sustainability”

Combine in a storm, by flickr user JBAT.


Amid our holiday feasting, New York Times writer Michael Pollan offers a few important questions about the fragility of the American food system.

Pollan isn’t shrieking that The End Is Near, but he has been focusing on some related questions, like: If the complicated industrial processes that feed this country started to collapse, how could we tell? (Related discussion thread on Metafilter).

“To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude,” Pollan writes. “What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.”

He continues:

For years now, critics have been speaking of modern industrial agriculture as “unsustainable” in precisely these terms, though what form the “breakdown” might take or when it might happen has never been certain. Would the aquifers run dry? The pesticides stop working? The soil lose its fertility? All these breakdowns have been predicted and they may yet come to pass. But if a system is unsustainable — if its workings offend the rules of nature — the cracks and signs of breakdown may show up in the most unexpected times and places. Two stories in the news this year, stories that on their faces would seem to have nothing to do with each other let alone with agriculture, may point to an imminent breakdown in the way we’re growing food today.

Me, I’m a sucker for learning about the substances fueling my body, and the bodies of my darlings, so I read it. If nothing else, it’ll give you an interesting new topic at Christmas dinner.

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