One main point that Michael Pollan brings up is the general shift from complexity to simplicity. He means that nutritional quality is eventually sacrificed because the complex interactions and combinations of nutrients are being simplified by industrializing and processing food.
Biological and ecological interactions that culminate in the plant and animal products that we consume are very complex and difficult to imitate. But this seems to be the ultimate goal for food science, as exemplified by the several trends in fortifying processed foods with the ever evasive “magic nutrient” that is essential for good health.
To quote Pollan (page 115), “Chemically simplified soil would produce chemically simplified plants.”
These ideas make me question the true feasibility of vertical farming. Reductionist research has brought this concept to where it is today, but what if all of this is in vain because of our lack of understanding? Specifically, our understanding about the complexity of interactions and nutrients that create our food and nourish our bodies?
The foods themselves are being chemically simplified the more they are processed, but also we are eating fewer and fewer different types of living things.
Think about it. How many different types of vegetables do you buy each week? How many of them are available year-round? Even when looking in the organic section of the market, the produce most likely has traveled there from a large industrial organic farm.
Species diversity has diminished with industrialization, to make all processes smoother within the global machine that distributes the food products. While our ancestors used to eat several dozens of different plants when they were in season, we have transitioned to a culture that relies on staples of broccoli, lettuce, potatoes, etc. (Not that there is anything wrong with these vegetables. I myself enjoy them very much.)
Nature does what it does better than anything that we can. I would now be hesitant to put a lot of our chips on vertical farming for just that reason. Plants also don’t grow in monocultures in nature because they have developed as parts of species diverse ecosystems over evolutionary time.
Maybe the best thing to do is to let Nature continue to do it and protect those processes with what little power and resources we have. However, the way the food industry is set up now, there is little help in way of making any sense of all this on your own as a consumer in the supermarket.
Pollan points to the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets as a generally good direction to go, but how can our entire nation take advantage of that? Where do we go from there?
Flickr user: romanlily, “The Christmas Spread”