Because food systems are, in the end, oriented around producing commodities necessary for life, Pollan notes that an important criterion in comparing and evaluating them is their efficiency and utility, but that much of the American economy only measures this in terms of profit. This measurement requires putting on blinders to all of the system’s external effects, including its impact on the environment and public health, and even many internal effects, like the health of cows that are fed corn. Pollan shows that the way we measure efficiency and utility in food is shaped by the fundamental values of the American economy rather than a more holistic view of its success—values that, on closer examination, Pollan deems as both difficult to agree with on a moral level and practically unsustainable in the long term.
Pollan’s visit to the conventional, industrial food chain reveals a web of inefficiencies hidden by the determination to subsidize corn and soybeans. He explains that as a country, we have focused the industrial food system single-mindedly on these two crops because by one measure, they are the most efficient: “Corn is the most efficient way to produce energy, soybeans the most efficient way to produce protein.” This logic is driven by the measure of calories and money. But at what expense? The massive costs to the environment and the difficulty with which the farmers sustain themselves are discounted. Pollan writes, “Ecologically this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food—but ‘ecologically’ is no longer the operative standard.”
The industrial system is not only ecologically inefficient, but also economically inefficient for most of the farmers. The system is designed to benefit the largest food companies who control most stages of production. They demand large yields of corn and soybeans, which they need to feed the next stage of the industrial food chain, the animals, and therefore place high demands on individual farmers with low compensation. Pollan visits the corn farmer George Naylor, who makes small compromises to be able to work within the industrial system and still get by. Naylor’s neighbor, adhering to the system perfectly by planting genetically modified corn and purchasing state-of-the-art technology, is barely getting by because of these enormous expenses—and picking up work outside of farming in order to support himself. The farmers are used to using yield as a measure of success, so the neighbor gets bragging rights and a sense of pride in producing more, even though his expenses are higher and he is therefore adding more corn to the system, helping keep prices low, and making less money himself.
The mainstream practice of producing meat relies on the same single-mindedness to justify itself: “The economic logic of gathering so many animals together to feed them cheap corn in CAFOs is hard to argue with; it has made meat, which used to be a special occasion in most American homes, so cheap and abundant that many of us now eat it three times a day. Not so compelling is the biological logic behind this cheap meat. Already in their short history CAFOs have produced more than their share of environmental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, novel and deadly pathogens.” Animal farmers similarly rely on the measures of calories and money, ignoring all other factors and looking at animals purely as machines. The resulting abundance of corn, soybeans, and meat creates imbalances, some of which can be rectified by economic measures, while others, like obesity—which we’re evolutionarily hardwired not to be able to resist under these conditions—are poorly addressed. After all, it makes good economic sense that people with limited money to spend on food would spend it on the cheapest calories they can find, especially when the cheapest calories—fats and sugars—are precisely the ones offering the “biggest neurobiological rewards.”
On small, sustainable farms like Polyface, Pollan finds a system of efficiency that makes vastly more sense. Polyface farmer Joel Salatin has a theory of the “holon,” or complete, closed system that converts waste from each part of his farm into a useful input for another: “What could be more efficient than turning cow pies into eggs? Or running a half-dozen different production, systems—cows, broilers, layers, pigs, turkeys—over the same piece of ground every year?” Yet this view, too, relies on restricting analysis to a few factors. It can’t account for the need to feed the number of people in America who need to be fed. Pollan is wary of relying on measurements that focus only on intuitively positive and feel-good factors, though he recognizes their value and importance. While he enjoys the meals that result from his Polyface chapter and the chapter where he hunts and forages all ingredients, he doesn’t argue for their all-around efficiency. His adventures in slowly learning how to hunt in pursuit of one kill, spending hours in the freezing ocean in pursuit of wild abalone, or weeks learning to pick mushrooms in the wild don’t offer a vision of a perfectly efficient food system, either.
Pollan tries not to favor any one measure of efficiency, but to point out that there are many that are worth considering. Most pointedly, he argues against the single-minded focus on any one particular factor, like profit.
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Efficiency and Utility Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
The question is, Who or what (besides our cars) is going to consume and digest all this freshly manufactured biomass—the sugars and starches, the alcohols and acids, the emulsifiers and stabilizers and viscosity-control agents? This is where we come in. It takes a certain kind of eater—an industrial eater—to consume these fractions of corn, and we are, or have evolved into, that supremely adapted creature: the eater of processed food.
This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process…Salatin’s audacious bet is that feeding ourselves from nature need not be a zero-sum proposition, one in which if there is more for us at the end of the season then there must be less for nature—less topsoil, less fertility, less life.
You have a choice of getting sad about all that or moving on. We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn’t successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.
Our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines. They prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economies of scale. Everything about corn meshes smoothly with the gears of this great machine; grass doesn’t.
“Efficiency” is the term usually invoked to defend large-scale industrial farms, and it usually refers to the economies of scale that can be achieved by the application of technology and standardization. Yet Joel Salatin’s farm makes the case for a very different sort of efficiency—the one found in natural systems, with their coevolutionary relationships and reciprocal loops. For example, in nature there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch.