Another critique by Julie Guthman

(Updated 7/20/2010 to fix a typo and 9/15 to fix another typo.)

Now that I’ve finished with my detailed reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m working on writing a review of the book. Whereas my posts so far have been more detail-oriented, my aim is for the review to be relatively concise and include links to existing posts that go into more detail. That post should go up this week, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.

In the mean time, I want to write about a piece by Julie Guthman in the journal Agriculture and Human Values titled “Commentary on teaching food: Why I am fed up with Michael Pollan et al.” You might remember Guthman as the author of the article about Pollan’s treatment of obesity that I blogged last month. She also wrote Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, a work included in Pollan’s list of resources for Chapter 9. Compared to the obesity piece, the Agriculture and Human Values piece takes a broader look at The Omnivore’s Dilemma and (to a lesser extent) works of a few other authors. Having appeared in a scholarly journal, it isn’t available without an institutional subscription, but if you have access, I’d recommend taking a look.

I’ll summarize what I think are the main points here, but I have to offer a reminder that it’s a scholarly work on a subject on which I’m not particularly informed. I’ll try to let Guthman’s words stand for themselves as much as possible, but it may well be that my choice of quotations betrays my own ignorance.

Guthman writes,

Pollan displays a marked weakness at acknowledging intellectual debts…Pollan borrows liberally from data, arguments, and occasionally even phrases I used in Agrarian Dreams (2004). He has very similar things to say about organics: its movement origins, its tendencies toward input substitution, the entry of the big guns into the sector to name a few. Unless a reader was already familiar with my work, this close connection between the two works would not be remotely apparent…I then begin to wonder how many ideas less familiar to me are employed in the book with similar treatment. So, while Pollan must be commended for bringing arguments from agrarian theory to a wider audience, he does so at the expense of codes of scholarly conduct that sets a poor example to our students.

Undoubtedly Pollan’s sins of omission will be defended as reflections of different standards for journalistic versus scholarly writing…Nevertheless, considering how knowledge is a central theme of the book, this oversight is not insubstantial. The entire premise of the book is that if one traces a meal from its biological origins to its ingestion, one will make better decisions as to how to eat….

While I cede the problem of dense scholarly writing in reaching a popular audience, there is a politics of citations of which we all should be mindful. Failure to acknowledge the origins of important ideas reflects disregard for collective efforts in producing them; perhaps it also suggests a disregard for collective action writ large.

I think that Guthman’s point about “disregard for collective efforts in producing [ideas]” is an important one, and I would add that citations (when present) do more than just give credit where it is due. Citations also give readers a place to look if they want to check facts or learn more about a subject. As Guthman points out, the book traces meals back to their “biological origins,” but Pollan makes it very difficult to trace ideas back to their intellectual origins. Even as a layperson, I’ve found numerous factual errors and misrepresentations of sources, and I have to wonder what somebody who was more knowledgeable on the subject matter might find.

Guthman also takes issue with the substance of Pollan’s argument:

I, in large part, agree with Pollan’s critiques of the food system and the places we must get to. I even share Pollan’s foodie predilections: eating at Chez Panisse, buying almost all of my produce at the farmers market, and steering clear of industrially-produced animal products. I recognize that my food tastes derive from disgust at many contemporary food production practices but also a particular sensibility born of privilege and cultural milieu. Thus while I grant that I take my personal eating choices seriously, I see them more as ways to opt out, than a road to change. In other words, I don’t harbor the fantasy that individual, yuppified, organic, slow food consumption choices are the vehicles to move toward a more just and ecological way of producing and consuming food. To the contrary, I think that structures of inequality must necessarily be addressed so that others may eat well.

She further explains that “Pollan’s overall point…is to bring together two current day justifications for localism.” These two justifications are the failure of regulation and the idea that “we are naturally predisposed to unite [the producer and consumer] sides of ourselves, as reflected in our omnivorous digestive systems and teeth.” Guthman opines,

That Pollan merges a naturalistic argument (nature as a model) with a political one (failure of regulation) so seamlessly is the most troubling aspect of the book. Just as “community” obtains pre-political status (Rose, 1999; Joseph, 2002), the local does so doubly, a a place of both biological and social organicism. Pollan’s critique of corn subsidies drops out soon enough in the text, and the book never again considers policy…Pollan seems to accept the idea that the food system can be changed one meal at a time.

In her conclusion, she writes,

What is so painfully evident here…is how food politics has become a progenitor of a neoliberal anti-politics that devolves regulatory responsibility to consumers’ via their dietary choices…I am fed up with the apolitical conclusions, self-satisfied biographies of food choices, and general disregard for the more complex arguments that scholars of food bring to these topics. In fact, I wonder why our voices — those of us who are deeply engaged in scholarship of food and agriculture — are so absent from these treatises.

Regarding the “apolitical conclusions,” I don’t know to what extent I’d fault Pollan for this. Much as I agree with her assessment that policy has to be part of the solution, people are always going to want to know what to eat. I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize an author for writing a book that aims to help them navigate the choices that exist in today’s policies. Of course, there should be no pretense that this kind of individual action is going to solve the problem. It should be made clear to readers that the best they can do on an individual level is to “opt out” of the broken system. I don’t think Pollan does terribly here; he quotes Joel Salatin using precisely those words: “Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians — we just want to opt out” (132).

However, he also seems to agree with Salatin’s opposition to animal slaughter regulations. Moreover, he tells us that “the decision to eat locally is an act of conservation, too, one that is probably more effective (and sustainable) than writing checks to environmental organizations” (258). Such a statement might lead a reader to believe that eating local is an effective conservation mechanism, when the more realistic assessment is that individual actions are, in general, not very effective. Perhaps where he goes wrong, then, is in not making this point more explicitly.


  1. C. Wenner said

    Guthman likely wrote “disregard for collective action writ large.”

    Keep up the great work, I love reading your posts.

    • Adam Merberg said

      Thanks. You’re right. I’ll fix that.

  2. Jessica L said

    Julie Guthman is BOMB!!!!!!! Love her work. She speaks the truth.

  3. […] article is less important than writing something the average reader actually wants to read. Other academic-types have been less generous to Pollan, dissing him for failing to cite sources in much the same vein […]

  4. […] before, I’ve featured the work of Julie Guthman, an associate professor in the  Community Studies […]

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