Field Notes from
a Catastrophe Elizabeth Kolbert
Philosophy in the Flesh
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
E. O. Wilson
The Omnivore's Dilemma
In Defense of Food
Notes from a Catastrophe
Subtitled: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
Part I: Nature
Alaska Shrichef is a small island five miles off
the coast of the Seward Peninsula, directly north of Nome, just off the
Bering Straight. It is 1/4 mile across and 2 1/2 miles long.
The highest point is 22 feet above the sea level.
The only thing on the island is an Inupiat village,
Shishmaref. Starting in about 1990 the ice surrounding the
island started changing and in 1997 fall storms started washing away
the island. The island has been there since the end of the
Ice Ages about 20,000 years ago.
Much of the land in the arctic is underlaid by zones of permafrost,
including much of the lane in Fairbanks, Alaska. In some
places in Russia the permafrost is up to a mile deep and in Alaska it
can be up too two thousand feed deep. In many places in
Alaska it is melting. A permafrost expert at the University
of Alaska estimated that the last time the area was ice free was
120,000 years ago. Many years ago permafrost was coldest at
the top and got gradually warmer until it reached the freezing point at
the bottom of the permafrost. Now in most places the coldest
point is in the middle and the upper layers are almost at freezing.
Kolbert presents several other types of evidence to show that
the Arctic is melting.
C2 A Warmer Sky In the
1850's the British physicist John Tyndall studied the properties of
several gases. In 1859 he built the first ratio
spectrophotometer. Among the gases he studied was carbon
and water vapor. He found that they were transparent in the
visible part of the spectrum but partly opaque in the infrared.
He understood that these gases were largely responsible for
determining the planet's climate, what we now call the "natural
greenhouse effect." In 1895 the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius
published a paper describing the calculated results of changing the
amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how this would change
the temperature. In 1958 a young chemist named Charles David
Keeling convinced the U.S. Weather Bureau to use his newly built
equipment to measure the amount of CO2 in the air at a new observatory on Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Levels of CO2 have
been continuously been measured there ever since and the resulting data
is presented in the widely known "Keeling Curve". This shows that
CO2 levels have been steadily increasing from 316 ppm in 1959 to 378 ppm in 2005.
C3 Under the
Kolbert discusses research done at Swiss Camp, a research station
built in 1990 on the Greenland ice sheet, and on Iceland.
C4 The Butterfly
and the Toad
Many European butterflies have the northern end of their range in
England. In the 1970's data was collected on the distribution of
many of these species and in 1984 the data was published for the first
time. The data for Polygonia c-album, the Comma butterfly, was
almost immediately out of date. In the 1984 map the northernmost
range of the Comma was along the south coast of England from Liverpool
in the west to Norfolk in the east. By the 1990's the range
extended to the north of England, near Durham and by 2005 it had been
reported in southern Scotland and as far north as the Scottish
highlands. It has been traveling north 50 miles per decade (5
miles per year).
Two evolutionary biologists at the University of Oregon, William
Bradshaw and Christina Holzapfel, have been studying Wyemyia smithii, a
small mosquito, for many years. These mosquitoes base much of
their activity on the total length of time sunlight is available.
However with global warming, temperatures are such that
mosquitoes can be active earlier in the spring and later in the fall.
But to use this additional time the "programming" of the
mosquitoes must change. They were able to show that global
warming is starting to drive evolution for this particular species.
The Golden Toad was discovered in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in 1964.
The toad lived at the top of high mountain ridges and laid its
eggs in small puddles kept filled by the clouds enveloping the tops of
the mountains. In 1987 a researcher came to study them and
counted 1,500 in temporary breeding pools. However the spring was
unusually warm and dry and most of the pools evaporated before the
tadpoles in them matured. The next year 8 males and 2 females
were seen and the following year only a single male was found.
None have been seen since. This is all consistent with
reduced rainfall and the raising of the cloud levels. Kolbert
discusses several other species in danger of extinction due to rising
temperatures and lowering rainfalls on the tops of mountains due to
Part II: Man
C5 The Curse of
Some 4,300 years ago between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers the
world's first empire was established. The founder was called
Sargon of Akkad and he presumably turned it from an independent
city-state to an empire by conquering the other city-states in the
area. He supposedly ruled for 56 years, his sons for another 24
years and then a grandson ruled for a short period of time.
According to "The Curse of Akkad" which was written about 4,200
years ago the grandson plundered the temple of the god of wind and
storms and the god decided to destroy the grandson and his people by
sending a drought to the region. The author repeats a part of
"The Curse of Akkad" which was assumed to be purely fictional.
Then in 1978 the archaeologist Harvey Weiss a promising looking
mound in the area. After receiving permission he worked for over
10 years on the site. Everywhere he looked he found a layer of
soil about 3 feet thick corresponding to the years between 2,200 and
1,900 B.C. In 1991 he sent soil samples in to a lab for analysis
and they found that around this this time even the earthworms had died
out. This was a drought so severe and so prolonged that it
qualified as "climate change." He published his theory in 1993
and since then many other examples have been discovered that show
cultures that have collapsed because of similar changes. The
author lists a number and Jared Diamond's book Collapse details a number.
Kolbert then switches to the present day and interviews with James
Hansen, the Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS),
a subsidiary of NASA which is located at Columbia University.
Their main mission today is making long term climate forecasts.
Hansen became interested in climate in the mid 1970's. In
1981 he publicized his model predictions that carbon dioxide based
global warming would become important by 2000 and in 1988 he testified
before a Senate subcommittee that he was "99 percent" sure that "global
warming is affecting our planet now." His model divides the
earth's surface into 3,312 rectangular boxes each duplicated 20 times
as the pattern moves up through the atmosphere. Each box
represents 4 degrees of latitude by five degrees of longitude and the
height of the boxes depends on the altitude. Other climate
researchers studying ocean cores have collaborated the data discovered
by Harvey Weiss relating to the drought in Akkad in 2,200 BC.
The Dutch have been reclaiming land from the sea for over 100
years. Recently they have begun to remove protection (dikes) from
some areas to all more rapid draining of rivers so that catastrophic
flooding will not occur. Analysis of ice cores from Greenland and
Antarctica has shown that the earth is currently as warm as it has been
for the last 450,000 years. With carbon dioxide based global
warming increasing the temperature we are moving into climate regimes
that modern humans have never experienced. Meanwhile the Dutch
have stated building floating homes and there are plans to build
floating roads and greenhouses.
C7 Business as
Robert Socolow, a professor of engineering at Princeton was
appointed as a codirector of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative. He
was having a hard time understanding all of the research and literature
in the area. He came up with a measure, he calls it a
stabilization wedge, which is the procedure needed to prevent a billion
metric tons of carbon per year from being emitted by 2054. He and
a colleague, Stephen Pacula came up with fifteen different wedges,
these would theoretically be enough to reduce our carbon emissions to
safe levels. Their findings were published in Science, vol 305
(2004). There are other methods but these would need huge amounts
of research funding, like broadcast energy from satellite solar
C8 The Day After
The Kyoto Protocol went into effect on Feb. 16, 2005. As it
happens, Kolbert had an appointment that day with the Under Secretary
of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky.
Among her duties is explaining the Bush administration's position
on global warming to the rest of the world. Her report of the
interview was hilarious. Dobriansky clearly had an impossible
task and she ended up repeating herself over and over. It was
clear that the Bush administration just wanted to duck the issue.
The rest of the chapter is a sorry history of the recent
political events surrounding the debate on global warming.
chapter discusses private and local governmental approaches to reducing
carbon emissions. Burlington, Vermont has perhaps done more than
any other city to reduce emissions.
C10 Man in the
In 2002, Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winning chemist coined a
new term, Anthropocene - an epoch "defined by one creature - man - who
had become so dominant that he was capable of altering the planet on a
geological scale." The chapter is a review of the methods by
which humans are modifying the climate and what this may mean for human
Chronology Three pages of
chronology of the significant events in the causes and understanding of
global warming and carbon emissions.
The book ends with 9 pages of selected bibliography and notes on the chapters and 6 pages of index.
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in the Flesh
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
How does one discuss a 600 page book that covers the major philosophies
that have shaped western thought for more than 2,500 years, discusses
many of the details of the ideas of many of the major philosophers,
explains how they have gone wrong in one or more critical points, and
offers the beginnings of a philosophy based on scientific facts that
attempts to correct these errors and that can be used to used to
create a philosophy based on empirical knowledge.
answer is very simple -- poorly and by leaving out a great deal.
They begin by stating three major findings of modern cognitive science:
With these findings in mind they begin Part I by discussing the methods
and findings of cognitive science and cognitive linguistics.
- The mind is inherently embodied.
- Thought is mostly unconscious.
- Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
II uses these methods to evaluate the basic concepts of any philosophy,
time, events, causation, the mind, the self, and morality.
III evaluates a number of philosophical viewpoints (pre-Socratic,
Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, faculty psychology, analytic
philosophy) as well as several modern viewpoints which shape our
current thought and policy (contemporary philosophy, linguistics,
social science, Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Chomskyan
linguistics, and the rational-actor model used in economics and foreign
policy). They explain that even though these philosophies
perfectly reasonable to their developers they are based on incorrect
ideas (metaphors) that are simply not true for flesh and blood humans.
Part IV (only one chapter) summarizes the book and shows how
philosophy can be developed based on an empirical understanding that
the mind is not disembodied, it is an integral part of the body, it is
embodied. Such a philosophy could be called philosophy in the
flesh and takes into account of what we most basically are and can be.
Selected points in the
book that I found to be important.
If you wish an evening of light reading, don't pick up this book.
It covers a lot of ground, it covers it fairly thoroughly,
doesn't take the time to explain every confusing point. The
ends with a 14 page Appendix on the Neural Theory of Language Paradigm,
17 pages of references and a 21 page index.
- Biology forces us to categorize. Example: A human
about 100 million light-sensing cells but there only about 1 million
nerve fibers leading to the brain. The information in each
must be reduced by at least a factor of 100 by the time it reaches the
brain. This forced categorization exists all through the
Much of this is "hard-wired" and not under conscious control.
- Learning is the process of associating a new experience
old experience. The authors call this metaphor. It
same as discussed in English class but viewed as a process.
examples are: Affection is Warmth - "They greeted me warmly."
More is Up - "Prices are high." Time is Motion -
flies." Knowing is Seeing - "I see what you mean." Simple
metaphors are learned starting at birth (before?) and many (most) are
internalized before we learn language although they can be later used
- Simple metaphors can be linked together to form complex
metaphors. Important features of our lives are commonly
using many complex metaphors - a complex of metaphors that are all
- We all learn our metaphors independently but many of them
shared because of similarities of our bodies and of our experience -
- The authors discuss the major topics of philosophy: time,
and causes, the mind, the self, and morality with respect to the new
findings of cognitive science. Lakoff has written extensively
political morality (see books under Politics, Religion, etc).
They see morality as a strictly human issue - others see it
extending over many genera, families, etc. They also see
as primarily a family issue - it is within the family that a child's
moral sensibility and understanding are first formed. For an
infant and young child morality is family morality. All
subsequent moral learning is filtered through the child's family
- The authors break family morality into to major poles,
Father Family Morality and Nurturant Parent Family Morality.
These are ideals and most people incorporate aspects of both.
Also both have pathological states. For Strict
children can be disciplined so harshly that they are injured or killed,
for Nurturant Parent permissiveness can go so far that children never
learn responsibility or self discipline. There are both
Father and Nurturant Parent versions of Judaism and
(and presumably other traditions but no evidence is presented).
- The Greek philosophers up through Aristotle did not make a
to separate the body and the mind. Descartes did, (perhaps
because of religion?) This is where western philosophy went
- Kant's philosophy comes from the Strict Father tradition.
He was a very bright man but his reasoning was based on false
- Modern philosophy is typified by trying to quantify
and linguistics but the authors find that they are all based on the a
priori assumptions of Descartes and Kant and not on any empirical
science. Their techniques can sometimes be useful.
particularly interested in his comments about Noam Chomsky as my first
contact with linguistics and machine translation used many of Chomsky's
ideas. I had some problems with it at the time and this book
- The authors break the Traditional Western Conception of the
Person into four parts: Disembodied Reason, Literal Reason, Radical
Freedom, and Objective Morality. They break their Conception
an Embodied Person into five parts: Embodied Reason, Metaphoric Reason,
Limited Freedom, Embodied Morality, and Human Nature Beyond
Return to Top
E. O. Wilson
Subtitled: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
Part I: The Creation A call for help and an invitation to visit the embattled natural world in the company of a biologist.
C1 Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor: Salutation
As the chapter title says, the book is written in the form of a
long letter written to Southern Baptist Pastor. Wilson grew up in
Alabama and baptized as a Baptist. He is writing to someone who
could have been his Pastor. Wilson has since left his church but
he increasingly feels that religion and science must work together to
prevent the destruction of the earth as we know it by the hand of
C2 Ascending to Nature
Wilson believes that our "original sin" if you will was committed
around ten thousand years ago when we first created civilization.
The sin was our forgetting the reality that we could live without
nature. Before that all of our food, tools, clothing, etc. came
directly from nature by personal effort. After that these requirements
for life increasingly came from the hands of other people and most of
us forgot that it the origin of all of this was still nature.
Many of us are content in our synthetic ecosystem, but so are
cows and chickens in their feedlots. We need to roam the world
again although much of it will be in our minds. Even in more
recent times, say 2000 years ago and less, young people have "gone into
the wilderness" to think things out and gain a different perspective on
C3 What is Nature?
Nature is that part of the original environment and its life
forms that remains after the human impact. Nature has no need of
us and can stand alone. Much of our earth bears the specific
signs of human impact but still most of it would thrive if humans were
to disappear overnight. Some would not, they became extinct by
the hand of man and will never come back. Man does not have an
even hand, the big, the dangerous, and the tasty disappeared early.
The small were harmed less. Thousands of insects, mites,
and bacteria live in an abandoned vacant lot. We have killed
many, but many remain; no more mastodons. It is possible for some
habitats to come back. He uses the example of the Boston Harbor
Islands. Only recently, in 1985, Boston Harbor was not much
more than a huge sewage lagoon. In the 1990's it was cleaned up
and it is now a national park within easy reach of a major metropolitan
C4 Why Care? Nature is not
only an objective entity, but vital to our physical and spiritual
well-being. Humans, Homo sapiens, is a species confined to an
extremely small niche. Only a very few humans have traveled as
high as the top of the tallest mountains and survived without
artificial support, none can swim down more than 100 beneath the sea
level and survive. Anything we do to damage this thin film of
biosphere can and probably will make our survival less likely.
Our slow moving biological evolution is being threatened by our
rapidly moving cultural evolution. Wilson predict the dire
consequences if a single group, the insects were to vanish. Be
very careful in letting any species become extinct, it may play some
critical role that we do not recognize.
C5 Alien Invaders from Planet Earth
Humans have carried many species of plants and animals around the
world with them. This is documented more fully in the Western
Hemisphere than anywhere else. And these invading species have
caused many problems. One of the first was fire ant that caused
severe crop devastation in the early 1500's on Hispaniola. The
fire ants protect sap-sucking insects that actually damage the crops.
C6 Two Magnificent Animals
Two of his favorite animals, the Wolverine and the Pitchfork Ant.
"The Creation, whether you believe it was placed on this planet
by a single act of God or accept the scientific evidence that it
evolved autonomously during billions of years, is the greatest
heritage, other than the reasoning mind itself, ever provided to
C7 Wild Nature and Human Nature "Biophilia
(defined in 1984 by Wilson): the innate tendency to affiliate with life
and lifelike processes." Environmental psychology and
conservation psychology both study biophilia and conservation.
Example: researchers all over the world have found that when
people can select their own settings for homes and work places they
select an environment that combines three features. They wish to
be on a height looking out and down, they wish to scan a parkland with
mixed trees and grassland, and to be near a body of water like a lake,
river, or sea. They like a wall or cliff or something solid at
the rear, they want a view of fruitful terrain in front, they want
large animals scattered about, and they like trees with low horizontal
branches and divided leaves. In short they like to duplicate the
savanna of Africa with protection from predators and abundant prey
animals. Water serves as boundaries and an additional food
source. Studies of hospital patients, prisoners, dental patients,
and others support this hypothesis.
Part II: Decline and Redemption
Blinded by ignorance and self-absorption, humanity is destroying
the creation. There is still time to assume the stewardship of
the natural world that we owe to future generations.
C8 The Pauperization of Earth
In the last 500 million years the Earth's living species have
been devastated 5 times, the most recent being the meteorite that hit
the Yucatán peninsula 65 million years ago and caused the
extinction of the dinosaurs. Now humans have started the sixth
devastation. The causes of the decline in biodiversity can be
summarized by the initials HIPPO: Habitat loss, Invasive species, Pollution, human overPopulation, and Overharvesting.
Usually two or more factors are responsible when a species
declines towards extinction. He discusses a number of examples
from around the world.
C9 Denial and Its Risks
"Dear Pastor, what I fear most is the pervasive combination of
religious and secular ideology of a kind that sees little or no harm in
the destruction of the Creation." He calls this a philosophy of
exemptionalism, which exempts humans from the laws of nature. We
are not exempt, if nature dies, we die. He ends the chapter with
a homily of his own: "Save the
Creation, save all of it! No lesser goal is defensible.
However biodiversity arose, it was not put on this planet to be
erased by any one species. ... It is true that nonhuman life preceded
us on this planet. Whether by a literal day, according to
Genesis, or by more than 3.5 billion years, as the scientific evidence
shows, it is still true that we are a latecomer. ... this planet can be
paradise. But only if we also take the rest of life with us."
C10 End Game "The
human hammer haven fallen, the sixth mass extinction has begun. ... We
have done it all on our own, and conscious of what was happening.
God's will is not to blame." The first five spasms of
extinction took on an average ten million years to repair by natural
evolution. We won't be around when nature repairs this one, the
only solution is to stop it now. He offers some suggestions.
Part III: What Science Has Learned
Arguments for saving the rest of life are drawn from both
religion and science. The relevant principles of biology, the key
science in this discourse, are explained here.
C11 Biology Is the Study of Nature "In
my opinion, Pastor, the ascent to Nature and the restoration of Eden do
not need more spiritual energy. ... Rather, spiritual energy must be
more broadly applied, and more exactly guided by an understanding of
the human condition." He defines how science operate and what
scientists do, then he tries to determine where biology is headed.
C12 The Fundamental Laws of Biology
There are two fundamental laws of biology, the first is that all
the known properties of life are obedient to the laws of physics and
chemistry. The second is that all biological processes, and all
the differences that distinguish species, have evolved by natural
selection. He breaks biology into three dimensions, the first is
the relationship of organisms to their ecosystem, the second is
biodiversity, and the third is evolutionary biology. Currently we
are still studying mostly physics and chemistry, we are starting on the
first dimension and the second and third dimensions are primarily
C13 Exploration of a Little-Known Planet
As a nation, we spend only a tiny portion of our national income
on basic biological science, probably only between $150 and $200
million a year. Over the geological record species probably went
extinct at the rate of one species per million species per year.
Right now we are probably at a rate of 100 species per million
species per year and we are heading towards 1000. As mentioned
above, for the mass extinctions that occurred in the past, it took
approximately 10 million years to recreate the biodiversity that
existed before. It is estimated that between 1.5 and 1.8 million
species have been discovered and documented. Estimates of all
species range from 3.6 million to 112 million. With the recent
discovery of SLIMES (Subterranean LIthoautotrophic Microbial EcoSystems)
which range from just below our feet to at least two miles deep our
knowledge of the extent of life took a huge jump. Linnaeus, who
introduced scientific nomenclature, recommended a complete exploration
(and description) of life on earth. Wilson thinks that we now
have the knowledge and technology to build such an Encyclopedia of
Life. It would contain the complete information that we have for
every known species. Note: this has been started at the US National Museum of Natural History.
Part IV: Teaching the Creation The
only way to save the diversity of life and come to peace with nature is
through a widely shared knowledge of biology and what the findings of
that science imply for the human condition.
C14 How to Learn Biology and How to Teach It
"The basic ingredient for a love of learning is ... passion
for a particular subject. ... Rote learning, in contrast, fades quickly
into a jumble of words, facts, and anecdotes." As examples he
uses three teachers of his at the University of Alabama. He
states five examples of successful teaching:
C15 How to Raise a Naturalist
The easiest way is to let your child out of the house, early and
often. Take him outdoors, go to zoos and museums. Have
field guides, binoculars, and perhaps even a microscope available.
Provide opportunities for collecting including insects and small
live animals. Ant farms are good. Seashores and aquariums
are wonderful. With a slightly older child you can go to a zoo
but instead of a quick walk through, spend a lot of time with a
particular group or species and observe them in depth.
- Teach top-down, start with the general and go on to the specific, start with the big questions and go to the small.
- Reach outside biology, rapidly expanding fields are branching out and using information from many areas.
- Focus on problem solving, the old discipline-oriented studies cannot keep up with modern knowledge.
- Cut deep and travel far, pick a particular branch of biology to specialize in and treat the rest as general education.
- Commit yourself, when you have found a passion, commit your entire life to it.
C16 Citizen Science
How can citizens who are not professional scientists get involved
and contribute to scientific discovery? His primary
recommendation is an all-species inventory for a limited geographical
area. He discusses several of these, the ATBI for All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory
in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the first was at Walden
Pond in Massachusetts, one in New York's Central Park, and many others.
One of the activities was to collect mitochondrial DNA samples
from 642 species. A 700-base-pair section from each sample was
entered into a "Barcodes of Life" website for later comparisons.
Part V: Reaching Across Science and religion are the two most powerful forces of society. Together they can save the creation.
C17 An Alliance for Life
The foundation of reference for the book has been the culture of
science and some of the secularism based on science. The focus
has been on the interaction of three problems that affect everyone: the
decline of the living environment, the inadequacy of scientific
education, and the moral confusions caused by the exponential growth of
biology. To solve these problems it will be necessary to find
common ground on which the forces of religion and science can be
joined. The best place to start is the stewardship of life.
Some have proposed the idea of Intelligent Design as a possible
compromise. It is not, at its best it just puts off the
inevitable day of reckoning. At its worst it would stop
scientific progress and move us towards collapse. But these
arguments have little effect on the conduct of our lives. We can
celebrate a reverence for life and work toward sustaining it without
compromising our values.
The book ends with four pages of notes.
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The Omnivore's Dilemma
Subtitled: A Natural History of Four Meals
In one very short sentence, this is the book. The author
prepares, to the extent possible, four meals - but first he explores in
depth how the food came to be. The first is a trip to McDonalds
with industrial foods. The second he prepares using so called
"organic foods". The third uses food produced on Polyface farm in
Virginia, one of many farms using the principles of sustainable
agriculture. The fourth is prepared using the (modernized)
methods of hunter/gatherer food collection. A remarkably simple
premise for such a complex book.
Introduction Our National Eating Disorder What should we have for dinner?
That's what this book is all about. The authors attention
was captured when in 2002 carbophobia replaced lipophobia which had
been with us since 1977. Why do we have all of these fads?
Strict herbivores and carnivores don't have this problem. They
either find the right food or they go hungry. Omnivores like us,
rats, bears, etc. have to make many more choices. Life is simple
for a koala or a panda, if there is a eucalyptus leaf or a bamboo they
eat, otherwise they starve. We omnivores have a more complex
life. If one food isn't available, we can eat something else.
However many potential foods have problems, they may be
poisonous, they may need special preparation, etc. We have to
continually make choices. It is potentially worse for Americans,
we don't live in a single culture with predefined answers to most
questions. We need to choose between Midwest, coastal, French,
Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc. food styles. With this level of
confusion built in we find ourselves at the mercy of food scientists
and marketers. Is it any wonder we are well fed, with many
choices, and have poor diets, and an epidemic of overweight.
Part I Industrial Corn
C1 The Plant: Corn's Conquest When you enter a
supermarket you notice the produce, hundreds of kinds of fruits and
vegetables fresh from the farm. However the farther back you go
into the store the more you discover other items that are made
partially or completely from one species, corn. The meat, eggs,
milk, and even the fish were raised on corn. Many of the
processed foods contain corn, syrup, starch, and many other chemicals
derived from corn. Why? Corn is remarkably efficient in
converting sunlight into carbohydrates. You can get more food per
acre of corn than from almost anything else - unfortunately it is
greedy, it requires vast amounts of water and fertilizer.
C2 The Farm The
author spends several days with a corn farmer in Greene County, Iowa.
He describes the process, biology, the economics, and the
politics of raising corn.
C3 The Elevator The
farmers corn it taken to the local elevator where it is combined with
corn from many other farmers and it becomes a commodity. Pollan's
original plan was to follow the corn from the field to the plate.
Unfortunately for his plan the step beyond the elevator enters
the realm of the corn giants, Cargill and ADM. Neither company
sells directly to consumers and they have no interest in talking to
journalists. He couldn't follow the farmers grain, but he could
follow the commodity.
C4 The Feedlot: Making Meat
Much of the corn, 3/5, is literally consumed by feed lots that
fatten beef. This story really begins on a cow-calf operation
outside of Sturgis, South Dakota. The author purchased a steer
from the cattle ranch and followed its life from birth, being on
pasture with his mother, branding and castration, and shipping to the
feedlot. He goes into detail about the coevolution of grass and
cattle, how they both benefit the other. In the past overgrazing
harmed rangelands but now with proper management many ecologists
believe that range is healthier with cattle grazing on it.
Pollan compares a feedlot with a premodern city, "teeming and filthy
and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads, and choking air rendered
visible by dust." Why aren't feedlots as plague-ridden or
pestilential like medieval human cities - simple, modern antibiotics.
The animals are raised in manure, dust in the summer and slop in
the winter. They are fed huge amounts of grain, mostly corn, many
chemicals and byproducts of industrial processes, and they evolved on
grass. Even with large amounts of antibiotics they can only
survive for slightly more than 150 days, the average length of time in
feedlots. Even then between 15% and 30% have abscessed livers and
in some pens up to 70%. Most of the antibiotics sold in America
end up in animal feed. According to most experts (outside of
agriculture) this has produced antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
One of these bacteria bred by the huge changes that this
artificial diet makes in cattle is the strain of E. coli known as
0157:H7. It was unknown before 1980 and is now endemic in feedlot
cattle with 40% carrying it in their gut and manure.
The direct costs of this method of producing beef make it very
cost-effective but the indirect costs of human infections, waste
processing, damage to ecosystems far downstream, and the costs of
petroleum ( 1/5 of America's oil use is for transportation and
production of food) make this a very expensive steak.
C5 The Processing Plant: Making Complex Foods
Since neither Cargill nor ADM would allow him to look at the
processing of corn he visited the campus of Iowa State University in
Ames Iowa to see their experimental processing facility. Corn is
"wet" milled in a process resembling digestion to produce the many
industrial chemicals from corn. Then these chemicals are either
added to other foods or put together in new ways to create new
marketable food products. A recent advance is the creation of a
totally indigestible starch. This when included with indigestible
sugars and fats would create the perfect fast food. Eat all you
want and never gain weight.
C6 The Consumer: A Republic of Fat
In the early 1800's corn was easy to grow and difficult to
transport, the solution - make corn whiskey. This had the easily
predictable result. In the 1970's with a cheap food policy (thank
you Earl Butz) the price of food declined rapidly. The result -
the population gained weight. The cheapest food is corn, and corn
prices dropped and corn by-products began entering hundreds of foods.
The low price along with marketing strategies (supersized meals)
have fueled the boom in overweight Americans.
C7 The Meal: Fast Food The
meal at the end of this food chain was prepared by McDonald's and eaten
in a moving car. His 11 year old son was happy with his, he
ordered Chicken McNuggets, shake, and large fries followed by freeze
dried ice cream pellets. His wife was not. She had the
$3.99 Cobb salad, the most expensive item on the menu. The author
had classic cheeseburger, and a large coke (32 oz, thanks to
supersizing it only cost 30 cents more than the 16 oz size). Many
choices for all the demographics of a household and marketed for each.
He spends about 2 pages describing the nugget, all 38
ingredients. The most interesting was the tertiary
butylhydroquinone or TBHQ. The FDA allows no more than 0.02% of
the oil to be TBHQ. Probably a good thing since 1 gram can cause
a number of serious symptoms and 5 grams can kill an adult. One
additive that sounded good was dimethylpolysiloxene which is a
suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and
reproductive effect which is also flammable. He reported that it
tasted like chicken bouillon flavored salt.
The authors cheeseburger had only six ingredients, all fairly
reasonable except the "grill seasoning". He reported that the
condiments tasted pretty good but the gray patty was mostly tasteless.
The processed corn content of the foods ranged from 100% (soda),
78% (milk shake), 78% (chicken nuggets) down to only 23% (fries).
The three of them consumed 4,510 calories. All in all a lot
of food for very little direct cost. The indirect costs include
obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The costs to society
include soil fertility, water quality, community health (lack of
people), biodiversity, and the health of all creatures living on or
downstream of the corn field.
Part II Pastoral Grass
C8 All Flesh Is Grass
Pollan spent a week at Polyface Farm in Virginia. This farm
is documented by the owner/operator Joel Salatin in several books.
On 100 acres of pasture plus another 450 acres of woodland
Salatin raises chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, pigs, tomatoes,
sweet corn, and berries using a complex rotational schedule.
Pollan describes the farm in rapturous detail.
C9 Big Organic The author enjoys shopping at Whole
Foods, an organic food store near his home. It is also a literary
experience. The food is generally of high quality but the
evocative prose describing each item makes it really special. He
calls it "cutting-edge grocery lit." The more he shopped at Whole Foods
the more he thought that this was a place where the skills of a
literary critic might come in handy. Most non-organic markets
label foods on a single basis, price. The more time he spent
looking at packaging in organic markets the more cynical he became.
The question, "Just how well does Supermarket Pastoral hold up
under close reading and journalistic scrutiny?"
Most of the $11 billion dollar organic industry doesn't hold up all
that well. Most organic milk comes from cows fed on dry lots
eating organic grain. Much of the milk is "ultrapasturized" to
keep it unspoiled while shipping it it long distances. Most
organic food is processed in the same manner as "normal" food except
only certified organic feeds are used. Rosie, the organic free
range chicken is raised in a standard chicken pen, fed organic feed,
and a door is opened to a mowed lawn for the last two weeks of her life
but she never goes out.
The organic movement is traced from 17th century England with the
Diggers to the publication Organic Gardening and Farming in the 1940's
to Peoples Park in Berkley in 1969. Many of the founders of the
current organic movement were at Peoples Park or directly influenced by
them. It would appear that the only difference between normal and
organic foods is in the type of fertilizers used, only organic inputs
are allowed, and hormones and antibiotics are not used. The rest
is pretty much the same. Is it better? Yes. Is it a
lot better? No.
My Organic Industrial Meal
He did all the shopping for his Organic Industrial Meal at Whole
Foods Market. He had roast chicken (Rosie) with roasted
vegetables (yellow potatoes, purple kale, and red winter squash from
Cal-Organics), steamed asparagus (air lifted in from Argentina), and a
spring mix salad from Earthbound Farm. Dessert was organic ice
cream from Stonyfield Farm toped with organic blackberries from Mexico.
He had earlier decided that his Cascadian Farm organic TV dinner wasn't
quite up to prime time. Compared to other TV dinners it wasn't
too bad. The creamy sauce was probably xanthan gum or possibly
carrageenan since no dairy products were listed on the ingredients.
It looked and tasted a lot like airline food. Rosie and the
vegetables were quite good. Neither Cal-Organics nor their owner
Grimmway Farms were originally organic. They were started by
conventional growers who were worried that California might ban certain
key insecticides and they wanted to be ready.
His $6 per pound asparagus that was airlifted 6,000 miles tasted like
damp cardboard. The salad as with the vegetables was very
good. It was suggested that produce raised without excess
nitrogen fertilizer grows slower, has thicker cell walls, and looses
less water. Slow growth coupled with less water concentrates the
Was it better than conventionally grown food? It was fairly
pricey, $34 for a family of three for 2 meals. The taste was good
but some of that was attributable to freshness. As far as healthy
goes, remarkably little research has been done regarding continued
exposure to low levels of pesticides and hormones on children.
(Perhaps General Foods doesn't want this research done?)
The USDA used to test for nutrient quality of foods by region but
when Florida carrot growers routinely were surpassed by Michigan carrot
growers somehow the USDA stopped doing this testing. Recent
research done at the state level suggests that some organically grown
foods have higher levels of micronutrients than conventionally grown
foods but there presumably is no USDA research. As far as farm
laborers, fossil fuel usage (other than fertilizers and pesticides)
there seems to be no difference.
C10 Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture
What is Polyface Farm? Joel Salatin is a grass farmer.
He raises grass, animals are just his harvesting devices.
Grass grows following an "S" curve. If grass and associated
forb species are harvested at the rising top of the curve they stop for
a few days and start again. If they not harvested they get woody,
if they are harvested again before they are well into a new growth
cycle they start to die. This requires intensive management.
Using this technique Salatin has been able to increase the
production on his acreage by more than a factor of 5. This level
of management is totally beyond current industrial farming.
Salatin bases his pasturing technique on the wild herbivore
populations. They are tightly packed because of predators and
they continually move because they run out of food in their small area.
They continually move off their own manure. He uses
portable electric fences to mark off small pasture areas and changes
them every day. Pasture managed in this way uses a higher
percentage of the solar energy than corn and it is all useful instead
of just the seeds. It is just not as profitable to the
C11 The Animals: Practicing Complexity
Chickens 70 chickens are
housed in 50 10x12 ft pens for a day, then they are moved 10 feet to
new pasture. These are the broilers. The Eggmobile is a
rickety covered wagon holding 400 laying hens providing perching for
the night and nests for eggs. The whole assortment is towed each
morning to a new cattle pasture. The pasture has been vacant for
3 to 4 days and by now the fly larvae are now fat, tasty (to chickens)
grubs almost ready to hatch. The chickens convert them to eggs
instead of flys. His customers pay a premium for high protein
eggs. If he had more chickens they would produce more waste
(fertilizer) than the pasture could use.
Rabbits They are either
in a pasture in portable hutches or in cages suspended over wood chips.
Earthworms grow in the wood chips and chickens scatter and eat
Turkeys Turkeys are
raised around a Gobbledy-Go. This is a portable shade
device which keeps them cool under it and to roost on at night.
Turkeys eat grass and bugs and work very well in orchards and
around grape vines. Each can only be stocked at 70% but you get
Cattle and Pigs Cattle
are wintered in a barn. The manure is left in place and every few
days a layer of straw or wood chips and corn is spread over the manure.
This generates heat warming the cows. In the spring after
the cows are on pasture pigs come in. They love 40 proof corn and
the "pigaerators" turn and aerate the compost. The anaerobic
decomposition turns aerobic, heats up speeding the process and killing
all pathogens. In a few weeks it is ready to spread on fields.
All of this takes careful monitoring. "Part of the problem is,
you've got a lot of D students left on the farm today." "The guidance
counselors encourage all the A students to leave home and go to
college. There's been a tremendous brain drain in rural America.
Polyface is a very productive farm of 550 acres, 450 of which is
woodlot. In a year it produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 10,000
broilers, 800 stewing hens, 25,000 pounds of beef (50 beeves), 25,000
pounds of pork (250 hogs), 1,000 turkeys, and 500 rabbits. It is
very healthy, no medications and no harsh fertilizers.
C12 Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir
Killing chickens: If you have done this before, I have -
just not every task, you will smile a little at his big-city queasiness
but agree that it is a smelly, messy job that has to be done before
fried chicken. Collecting eggs is not so messy but sometimes the
hens take exception. For precise details, see the book. To
me the main points are political. Done in small numbers,
butchering animals can be very clean and result in much less potential
for disease. Entirely justifiably safety considerations have been
bastardized by the meat industry and the USDA to attempt to outlaw any
interference from any other than huge industrial operations. They
want to make it illegal for any small operators to prepare and sell any
food. If it was strictly for safety I would agree, but almost all
studies show that careful small operations produce much cleaner and
safer food than large industrial plants. If you want arguments to
use for discussing farm policy, I highly recommend this chapter.
C13 The Market: "Greetings from the Non-Barcode People
Another political chapter. Pollan follows the products from
Polyface farm to the consumers. Many people travel directly to
the farm to by their meat and eggs. The farm participates in
farmers markets, metropolitan buying clubs, and a few small shops in a
nearby town. The final way is weekly deliveries to area
restaurants. A problem is educating people to want good, safe,
and locally prepared food. The other half of that equation is to
keep government regulators from designing regulations which only allow
C14 The Meal: Grass-Fed
At the end of his week at Polyface, Pollan took with him two
chickens, a dozen ears of sweet corn, and a dozen eggs. He
purchased some locally grown salad, a bottle of Virginia wine, and some
Belgian chocolate. He prepared these for dinner at the home of
some friends. With the minor difficulty that one of his friends
children had become a vegetarian the meal was a complete success.
He mentioned that the source of the fat in a meal makes a big
difference. Seeds produce omega-6 fats and leaves produce omega-3
fats. Animals eating these pass them on - therefore animals
eating seeds produce more omega-6 (bad unless balanced with -3),
animals eating leaves pass on omega-3 - good stuff. Corn, wheat,
barley = bad.
Part III Personal The Forest
C15 The Forager He
wanted his last meal to be one that he had gathered, foraged for, and
hunted himself. He found someone who could be his guide (he was a
New Englander recently transported to Berkeley) and set up a tentative
date for foraging and hunting. Just this act alone got him
noticing more about the world around him. Where would pigs live,
is that a berry bush, could I find a mushroom around here. He
became much more aware. Then he found his first edible mushroom
C16 The Omnivore's Dilemma
One of the most elemental facts about human eating: is it good?
is it dangerous? Species that eat only one kind of food
don't have to think about it. There is evidence that suggests
that koala's once had a more varied diet, and their brains no longer
fill their brain cavity. Our ancestors used a lot of brain power
in learning and remembering just which foods were good and which were
not. Is this the reason humans now have a big brain?
Americans tend to obsess about their food causing much stress and
large number of food fads.
C17 The Ethics of Eating Animals
Pollan devotes a number of pages discussing the morality of
killing animals. Probably a worthwhile discussion but I have
already made my decision, besides I grew up on a cattle ranch and we
butchered our own meat. I understand the problem, I have come to
terms with my solution.
C18 Hunting: The Meat
After agonizing on whether or not to kill, he finds walking
through the woods with a rifle thrilling. Ain't it the truth!
Again he spends a whole chapter agonizing over his decision,
describing his feelings, and comparing them to he-man hunters like
Hemingway. Again, I was raised this way, not a dedicated hunter,
but animals are for eating. It all strikes me as very
C19 Gathering: The Fungi Again,
big city boy comes to the country. He is absolutely right about
the secretiveness of mushroom (and berry and gold) hunters. A
good location or patch or claim is something to be defended from all
except close kin and perhaps (just maybe) very good friends. Here
in the inland northwest you do not tell or ask where a Huckleberry
patch is, you just admire and compare bear stories. We know that
the Worlds Best Berry is hiding in our hills, and we will share our
huckleberry pancakes. I am not much of a mushroom hunter but the
fanatics are just that. I noticed that he didn't tell where his
spot was, he's learning. Meat hunters are much more open.
C20 The Perfect Meal The
meal was excellent. A few planned items didn't turn out. It
is sometimes possible to collect salt at the south end of San Francisco
Bay, not that year. The abalone was very difficult to collect and
he didn't get enough to serve. He had help with many items
including the cherries that were hanging over a fence. The
cooking, serving, and dining went extremely well. There are too
many people and not enough wild to do this as a regular thing but it is
worth doing at least once. The flavor of many items cannot be
matched by the most caring farming techniques and the knowledge of how
the food was found, hunted, and prepared adds a whole new element to
what might have been a very good but average dinner.
The book ends with 19 pages of sources arranged by chapter and 14 pages
of index. My only complaint about the book was the lack of an
overall bibliography and the completeness of the index. If I
wasn't sure of the chapter it was difficult to find a source and the
index just wasn't complete. It took me a long time to check a
reference to Hemingway. He was mentioned in the book but did not
appear in the sources or the index. Many others were, but he
wasn't although a reference did appear in the book - Chapter 18.
Return to Top
In Defense of Food
Subtitle: An Eater's Manifesto
7 Words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly
Intro: An Eater's Manifesto
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. A little
meat is OK but approach it as a side dish not a main dish. Eat
whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. It used to
be that food was all that you could eat, now there are thousands of
edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. A symptom of our
modern condition is that we now feel that we need to consult a
journalist, a nutritionist, a doctor, or a government food pyramid to
determine what we should eat. In the past we had culture (a fancy
word for mother) to tell us what to eat. We ate what our mothers
ate - or at least we did until the age of our mothers, grandmothers, or
great-grandmothers. We no longer do. Why not?
One reason is the thirty-two-billion-dollar food-marketing machine that
thrives on change for its own sake. Another is the constantly
shifting ground of nutrition science. Unfortunately the level of
"science" in this endeavor started somewhere between the level of
alchemy and astrology and still isn't much farther than 1750's
chemistry. We are finding out new things but unfortunately much
of what we are learning is how wrong our earlier ideas were. Our
main problems today, at least in westernized society, is that we are
that we are eating too much, over nutrition, and much of our food is
nothing that our ancestors would have recognized as food.
We are in the grip of Nutritional Industrial Complex whose goal is to
sell us more foodlike substances. Traditionally eating was as
much a complex activity, pleasure, community, family and spirituality,
our relationship with the natural world, and our identity.
The Nutritional Industrial Complex would have us believe
that eating is about nutrition (the Restaurant industry sells many of
these other things). Americans worry more about the health
consequences of our food than any other peoples. We are becoming
a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with
healthy eating. This is not yet a formal mental disorder but
academic investigation is ongoing.
Four of the top ten causes of death are chronic diseases with
well-established links to diet: coronary heart disease, diabetes,
stroke, and cancer. These changes are primarily due to the
industrialization of food: highly processed foods and refined grains,
use of chemicals to raise crops and animals in huge monocultures,
superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat, and the narrowing of
biological diversity of the human diet. The human animal is well
adapted to a great many different diets, the Western diet is not among
Pollan's goal is to give us a fuller understanding of the Western diet,
understanding it physiologically and also historically and ecologically
so that we can find a way out of our dilemma. Human diets have
been healthy while eating a great many different foods and we can
escape the damage to our food and health caused by the Western diet.
He does not do this by expanding nutritionism but by including
common sense, tradition, testimony of our senses, and the wisdom of our
mothers and grandmothers.
By the late 1960's it had become almost impossible to maintain
traditional ways of eating. Now we are entering a postindustrial
era of food. With many options, farmers markets, organic foods,
and others new possibilities are opening up.
Part I: The Age of Nutritionism
C1 From Foods to Nutrients In the 1980's food started
disappearing from supermarket shelves. It was replaced by
"nutrients" (cholesterol, fiber, and saturated fat). If you
avoided some and ate lots of others you would magically live longer,
avoid chronic diseases, and lose weight.
Starting in the 19th Century with the discovery of protein,
fat, and carbohydrates and then the discovery of the importance of
nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N, P, K). Many thought that
this answered the mystery of life. When foodlike substances were
concocted using just these three babies, sailors, etc. didn't thrive.
Then in 1912 Casimir Funk discovered he first set of micro
nutrients which he named "vitamins". These cured many illnesses
such as scurvy or beriberi and quickly came into vogue. The next
major step in this line was the report of the Senate Select Committee
on Nutrition and Human Needs in January 1977. This committee,
chaired by Sen. George McGovern, released a report recommending a
prudent diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products.
The beef and dairy industry immediately jumped on this and the
report was re-written to "choose meats, poultry, and fish that will
reduce saturated fat intake." The staffers on this committee
learned a lesson that has never been violated in congressional action, "Speak no more of foods, only nutrients." Pretty much from that day on American industry sold nutrients, not food.
C2 Nutritionism Defined
A term coined in 2002 by sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis. He
characterized margarine as the ultimate nutritionist product, able to
shift its identity from no cholesterol! one year to no trans fats! the next. By giving it a name, the -ism,
he defines it as an ideology. Nutrients, unlike foods, are
invisible and require scientists to explain the hidden reality.
It is quasireligious suggesting that the visible world is not the
one that really matters which implies the need for a priesthood.
He even traces it back to Hippocrates, "Let food be thy medicine."
Like most religions it even invites the need for healthy (good)
and unhealthy (bad) nutrients. And nutritionists have been
selling this difference since Leibig in the 19th century. He
pushed proteins. Then Kellogg pushed carbo's, then bad fats, etc.
It turns into a dualism where for every good nutrient you need a
bad nutrient to excoriate.
He uses "nutritionally complete" baby formula's as a prime example.
No matter what the formula is, babies thrive better on mothers
C3 Nutritionism Comes to Market Margarine was the
first important synthetic food. It is also the best example
because no matter how you criticize it, it could be redesigned to meet
the criticism. There was resistance. In the late 1800's
several states required that "oleomargarine" be dyed pink until the
Supreme Court struck down these laws in 1898. In 1938 the Food,
Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed rules on "imitation" food products.
These were tossed out by the FDA in 1973 due to industry
pressure. Pollen takes this to be the date when the FDA was
completely taken over by the imitation food industry.
C4 Food Science's Golden Age Following the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1982 Nat. Acad. of Sci. report on diet and cancer the processed foods industry took off. New words like low-fat, no-cholesterol, and high-fiber
mushroomed and multiple ingredients exploded. 1988 became the
Year of Eating Oat Bran. Animal scientists began manipulating
beef, pork, chickens, etc. to be more "nutritious". It seems to
be more difficult to redesign plants (especially trees). However
processed foods based on plants can be easily and quickly be
redesigned, and they are at every fad to hit the market. There is
also considerable question about the independents of food science
academics and the processed food industry.
C5 The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis Nutritionism
is good for the food business. But is it good for us?
Probably not! For 30 years fats (lipids for the purists)
have been bad for our health (heart disease, cancer, and fat). It
would seem that it was all a mistake. The only fat that has been
consistently associated with disease has been trans fats - the stable
replacements for "evil" fats.
C6 Eat Right, Get Fatter The main result of the low-fat fad is that Americans have been gaining weight.
C7 Beyond the Pleasure Principle The main
beneficiaries of nutritionism seem to be food producers. One of
the problems is that Americans seem to be morally opposed to taking
pleasure in eating. The end result has been the idea that food is
fuel to be stuffed into us as rapidly as possible. This all but
guarantees that we will eat more than we need - the natural signals
that tell us when we have consumed enough don't have time to work
properly. He uses many examples from social reformers and
C8 The Proof in the Low-Fat Pudding The proponents
of low carbohydrate diets seem to be using the same "proofs" as their
earlier low fat predecessors did. They have learned some things
(fats are not all bad) but their logic in pushing low carbo diets is
the same as the low fat diet proponents.
C9 Bad Science The science of nutrition is much
harder than many "food scientists" are willing to admit.
Nutrition is a very complex phenomena, it is definitely not a
simple sum of the parts. The sciences like chemistry and physics
have been very successful in developing as they have as reductionist
sciences. They isolate one variable at a time and study it.
They also have the ability to completely control their
experiments. Many sciences - including nutrition - cannot do
this. Imagine a study in which people are fed a diet of zero
calories, 100 calories, 200 calories, ... up to 5000 calories per day
and continuing this for 1 year. Somehow our society would
complain about starving men, women, boys, girls, etc. as our
experimental subjects. You would gain knowledge but some
experiments just can't be done.
We also know that interactions among foods, differences between people,
and individual responses between different cultures towards foods are
very complex. Even if scientists could understand all of these,
the population as a whole seemingly cannot understand the complex
relationships and dependencies among all of these variables. Many
people have difficulties with complex causality.
C10 Nutritionism's Children There has been so much
confusion (and totally incorrect statements from food companies) that
many people have no idea about what foods are valuable and healthy and
what foods are not. It has been seriously proposed that a
disease, orthorexia nervosa, be accepted as an eating disorder, it
could be defined as "an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating."
"Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker,
and more poorly nourished."
Part II: The Western Diet and the Diseases of Civilization
C1 The Aborigine in All of Us In 1982 a group of
ten middle-aged, over-weight, and diabetic Aboriginies living near
Derby, Western Australia agreed to participate in an experiment.
They had all moved to town from the bush, developed type 2
diabetes, showed signs of insulin resistance, and elevated levels of
triglycerides in the body. They agreed to rely exclusively on
foods they hunted and gathered themselves. The researcher went
with them to record their diet and monitor their health.
At the end of seven weeks they had all lost weight (average of 17.9
lbs), their blood pressure dropped, triglycerides dropped to normal,
omega-3 fatty acids increased, and symptoms of diabetes were either
reduced greatly or disappeared. Other similar studies with Native
Americans and native Hawaiians have shown similar results.
C2 The Elephant in the Room Studies of people
consuming a "Western Diet" show that simple manipulation of the diet
doesn't change much in the way of health. It has been observed
all over the world where native peoples start eating the Western Diet
their health goes down rapidly. An early study comparing dental
health of many peoples of the world in the 1930's showed the same
thing, the "aboriginal" diet was associated with much better dental
health. Most of these studies have been ignored because they run
counter to the widespread feeling that technology must be better than
pre-technology in terms of everything including food.
C3 The Industrialization of Eating:
What We Do Know The most important we know about food species and consumer species is their relationship of interdependence. I'll feed you if you spread around my genes.
Over many generations plants that have edible parts evolve so
that animals seek them out and spread their seeds. Carnivore-prey
relationships are a little more complicated but in both the
producer-consumer species tend to evolve together. For some
groups there is only one producer-consumer relationship but for others
such as omnivors like man there are a great many relationships.
These relationships are between species, not between individuals
and nutrients or chemicals. The real problem here is how modern
humans can thrive without going back to the bush and becoming a
Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism
- From Whole Foods to Refined
Processing and refining removes much of the food value of foods.
The example given is the removal of bran and wheat germ from
refined wheat. The removed nutrients could of course be put back
in but how do we know what to put in? The simplest solution is
not to remove it in the first place. Also, almost all refined
foods contain much more glucose and fructose than their unrefined
sources because simple carbohydrates and sugars are very cheap to
- From Complexity to Simplicity
The advent of modern fertilizers (NPK) has resulted in much less
complex soils. This in turn leads to chemically simplified
plants. Plants are bread for production, not nutrition, insect
attacks result in more complex plant chemistry. Our food plants
have been reduced dramatically to mainly processed corn, soybeans,
rice, and wheat.
- From Quality to Quality
We have tremendously increased our ability to produce calories from
farmland. Unfortunately this has been matched in an even greater
reduction in the amout of many nutrients. There are two basic
reasons for this. Plants grown with industrial fertilizers are
nutritionally inferior (perhaps because they grow faster and perhaps
because the soils are of poorer quality. The second is that
organically grown crops contain more phyto-chemicals which plants
produce to defend themselves from pests and diseases (and perform the
same type of services to the animals [us] that consume the plants.
Another reason is that "improvements" in plants and animals have
increased yield but reduced nutrients. This seems to have
resulted in humans that are both overfed and undernurished at the same
- From Leaves to Seeds
Most of the crops that we grow for food store their energy in seeds
which are easily stored. Unfortunately seeds contain mainly
omega-6 fatty acids and leaves contain mostly omega-3 fatty acids.
By eating primarily seeds we get overdosed on the omega-6 fats
and not enough of the omega-3 fats. We need a much better balance
between omega-3 and omega-6 fats although the "proper" balance is still
- From Food Culture to Food Science
We used to gain most of our dietary information from our mothers and
grandmothers. Now "food science" is taking over this process.
Unfortunately there is not nearly enough "science" in food
science. The advise we are getting is just not accurate, and even
if it was, the financial interests of the food processors pushes us to
purchase food because of the profit margins of the companies, not the
value of the food in supporting human life.
C1 Escape from the Western Diet All of the theories of nutrition, low fat, high carbo, omega-3 cult,
etc. are supported by specific groups of self designated "experts" on
food. It is Pollen's opinion that the simplest solution is to Stop eating a Western diet. The
problem is how can we do this? Many of our foods have been so
modified as to make this quite difficult. This part of the book
is devoted to his original seven words and three rules, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
C2 Eat Food: Food Defined Pollen
distinguishes between natural food and foodlike substitutes.
Since there is no simple rule to tell which is which he offers
several rules of thumb.
Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
He specifies you great grandmother because quite possibly your
mother and grandmother were themselves confused. Some have
suggested going back much further, the Neolithic Diet but that is
perhaps excessive. A subsidiary rule would be Don't eat anything incapable of rotting.
Avoid food products containing
ingredients that are A) Unfamiliar, B) Unpronounceable, C) More than
five in number, or that include D) High-fructose corn syrup.
None of these characteristics are inherently bad but they are
reliable markers for highly processed food products. He singles
out bread as an example. Bread is made from flour, yeast, water,
and a little salt. Then he lists the ingredients of Sara Lee's
Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread. There are 49 separate
ingredients. Draw your own conclusions.
Avoid food products that make health claims. To make a health claim, the food product must first have a box - bad sign. He evaluates several of these claims.
Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle. Processed food products dominate the center isles while (hopefully) fresh food typically line the walls.
Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. Shop at farmers markets', CSA (community-supported agriculture) and similar outlets. A subsidiary rule is Shake the hand that feeds you.
You can talk to him(her) and find out how the produce was
treated. This takes accountability for food from a regulation or
legal issue to a relationship.
C3 Mostly Plants: What to Eat Humans can
survive quite well eating a huge number of different foods. Most
traditional diets contain a large number of different foods.
Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
Eat as many different types of plants as possible because they
all contain different antioxidants. Many animal species can
produce their own vitamin C. Our ancestors ate so many vitamin C
rich leaves that they didn't need to produce their own, now we can't
produce it. Plant foods with the exception of seeds are not very
energy dense so we have to eat a lot before we gain weight - a good
thing. One of the main problems with meat and seeds is that since
they are so energy rich we eat more than we need and thus gain weight.
You are what what you eat eats too.
The diet of the animals we eat are a part of our diet. Meat
and eggs of animals fed primarily seeds tend to be deficient of
omega-3s, vitamins, and antioxidants. Meat and eggs of animals
fed on grass are much more healthy.
If you have the space, buy a freezer.
Freezers allow you to buy in bulk, at the peak of the season, and
they do not diminish the nutritional value of produce.
Eat like an omnivore. Eat as many different types of foods as possible. Biodiversity in the diet means mor biodiversity in the fields.
Eat well-grown food from healthy soils.
He could have said "eat organic" but many farmers for one reason
or another do not take the time and money to have their produce
certified as organic. Also many organic foods are not much better
than their conventional counterparts.
Eat wild foods when you can.
There are many very nutritious wild plants. Wild animals or
grass-fed beef are much better nutritionally. Wild fish, when
they can be environmentally harvested, are excellent.
Be the kind of person who takes supplements. Supplements, especially vitamins, become more and more important as we age.
Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks.
Many traditional diets are better than the modern Western diet.
These diets are not that wonderful but they have nourished their
populations for thousands of years. They must have something
going for them.
Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.
They may be valuable additions, they may not. You don't
always have to be the first to try out new things. Some of them
may be dangerous.
Don't look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.
There is seldom any one food that is uniquely valuable. The
main benefit is probably in the variety of the whole diet.
Have a glass of wine with dinner. Both
the moderate amount of alcohol and the other ingredients of wine
(polyphenols in red wine) protect against heart disease. The
social aspect probably helps. The maximum benefit seems to be in
drinking between 1 and 2 glasses per day.
C4 Not Too Much: How to Eat Nutritionism
looks at the French diet and sees saturated fat washed down with wine.
It fails to see people with a different relationship to food.
Pay more, eat less. The
American food system has been focused on quantity and price for over a
century. Quality has not been much of an issue. When you
buy expensive food you tend to eat it slower, and the slower you eat
the less likely you are to overeat. Conversly, the faster you eat
the more likely you are to eat too much.
Eat meals. Do all your eating at
a table. Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does.
Try not to eat alone. Consult your gut. Open yourself to more cues about the status of your hunger and fullness. Eat slowly. Cook and, if you can, plant a garden.
The book has 23 pages of sources, 2 pages of resources including a number of books and web sites, and a 14 page index.
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