michael pollan

‘Farmers facing lower prices have only one option if they want to be able to maintain their standard of living, pay their bills, and service their debt, and that is to produce more.’ A farm family needs a certain amount of cash flow every year to support itself, and if the price of corn falls, the only way to stay even is to sell more corn. Naylor says that farmers desperate to boost yield end up degrading their land, plowing and planting marginal land, applying more nitrogen—anything to squeeze a few more bushels from the soil. Yet the more bushels each farmer produces, the lower prices go, giving another turn to the perverse spiral of overproduction. Even so, corn farmers persist in measuring their success in bushels per acre, a measurement that improves even as they go broke.
—  Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Books Read in 2015

1.   Dune by Frank Herbert
2.   Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland
3.   Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
4.   We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
5.   Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
6.   The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
7.   Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
8.   Cooked by Michael Pollan
9.   Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz
10. Last of the Breed by Louis L’Amour
11. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
12. Gumption by Nick Offerman
13. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
14. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
15. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway


Is sourdough bread actually healthier than other breads?

In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan, acclaimed food journalist, logged the process of making sourdough bread. It begins with a yeast starter, which creates microbes  that will soon be mixed with flour to become bread. Compared to eating white bread, Pollan believes that sourdough bread is superior. Medical professionals, however, suggest a different alternative altogether.

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Traditions survive because they are adaptive. They’re the result of a kind of cultural selection, like natural selection. They survive because they help keep people healthy and happy- and to throw that away, wholesale, is very often to loose things that are critical to our well-being. The meal is an incredible human institution- one of the most important things we can do is to reconnect to its sources.
— 

Cooked, Netflix original documentary narrated by author Michael Pollan

(I am now very, very hungry.)

The discovery of synthetic nitrogen changed everything—not just for the corn plant and the farm, not just for the food system, but also for the way life on earth is conducted. All life depends on nitrogen; it is the building block from which nature assembles amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids; the genetic information that orders and perpetuates life is written in nitrogen ink. (This is why scientists speak of nitrogen as supplying life’s quality, while carbon provides the quantity.) But the supply of usable nitrogen on earth is limited. Although earth’s atmosphere is about 80 percent nitrogen, all those atoms are tightly paired, nonreactive, and therefore useless; the nineteenth-century chemist Justus von Liebig spoke of atmospheric nitrogen’s ‘indifference to all other substances.’ To be of any value to plants and animals, these self-involved nitrogen atoms must be split and then joined to atoms of hydrogen. Chemists call this process of taking atoms from the atmosphere and combining them into molecules useful to living things 'fixing’ that element. Until a German Jewish chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to turn this trick in 1909, all the usable nitrogen on earth had at one time been fixed by soil bacteria living on the roots of leguminous plants (such as peas or alfalfa or locust trees) or, less commonly, by the shock of electrical lightning, which can break nitrogen bonds in the air, releasing a light rain of fertility.

Vaclav Smil, a geographer who has written a fascinating book about Fritz Haber called Enriching the Earth, pointed out that 'there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen.’ Before Fritz Haber’s invention the sheer amount of life earth could support—the size of crops and therefore the number of human bodies—was limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning could fix. By 1900, European scientists recognized that unless a way was found to augment this naturally occurring nitrogen, the growth of the human population would soon grind to a very painful halt. The same recognition by Chinese scientists a few decades later is probably what compelled China’s opening to the West: After Nixon’s 1972 trip the first major order the Chinese government placed was for thirteen massive fertilizer factories. Without them, China would probably have starved.

This is why it may not be hyperbole to claim, as Smil does, that the Haber-Bosch process (Carl Bosch gets the credit for commercializing Haber’s idea) for fixing nitrogen is the most important invention of the twentieth century. He estimates that two of every five humans on earth today would not be alive if not for Fritz Haber’s invention. We can easily imagine a world without computers or electricity, Smil points out, but without synthetic fertilizer billions of people would never have been born. Though, as these numbers suggest, humans may have struck something of a Faustian bargain with nature when Fritz Haber gave us the power to fix nitrogen.

Fritz Haber? No, I’d never heard of him either, even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920 for 'improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.’ But the reason for his obscurity has less to do with the importance of his work than the ugly twist of his biography, which recalls the dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture. During World War I, Haber threw himself into the German war effort, and his chemistry kept alive Germany’s hopes for victory. After Britain choked off Germany’s supply of nitrates from Chilean mines, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of explosives, Haber’s technology allowed Germany to continue making bombs from synthetic nitrate. Later, as the war became mired in the trenches of France, Haber put his genius for chemistry to work developing poison gases—ammonia, then chlorine. (He subsequently developed Zyklon B, the gas used in Hitler’s concentration camps.) On April 22, 1915, Smil writes, Haber was 'on the front lines directing the first gas attack in military history.’ His 'triumphant’ return to Berlin was ruined a few days later when his wife, a fellow chemist sickened by her husband’s contribution to the war effort, used Haber’s army pistol to kill herself. Though Haber later converted to Christianity, his Jewish background forced him to flee Nazi Germany in the thirties; he died, broken, in a Basel hotel room in 1934. Perhaps because the history of science gets written by the victors, Fritz Haber’s story has been all but written out of the twentieth century. Not even a plaque marks the site of his great discovery at the University of Karlsruhe.

Haber’s story embodies the paradoxes of science: the double edge to our manipulations of nature, the good and evil that can flow not only from the same man but the same knowledge. Haber brought a vital new source of fertility and an awful new weapon into the world; as his biographer wrote, ’[I]t’s the same science and the same man doing both.’ Yet this dualism dividing the benefactor of agriculture from the chemical weapons maker is far too pat, for even Haber’s benefaction has proven decidedly to be a mixed blessing.

When humankind acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel. For the Haber-Bosch process works by combining nitrogen and hydrogen gases under immense heat and pressure in the presence of a catalyst. The heat and pressure are supplied by prodigious amounts of electricity, and the hydrogen is supplied by oil, coal, or, most commonly today, natural gas—fossil fuels. True, these fossil fuels were at one time billions of years ago created by the sun, but they are not renewable in the same way that the fertility created by a legume nourished by sunlight is. (That nitrogen is actually fixed by a bacterium living on the roots of the legume, which trades a tiny drip of sugar for the nitrogen the plant needs.)
—  Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
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Food Inc. is an excellent film, that I think everyone should watch. It discusses our food system and the way it works. Alternative methods such as Polyface Farm are also mentioned. Take a look!

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“There’s something about the idea of cooking through an entire cookbook that’s very appealing. Like you’re going to culinary school for $30. BuzzFeed asked chefs to pick what cookbooks they’d recommend cooking through and explain why. Michael Pollan, author of Cooked, recommends In The Green Kitchen by Alice Waters among others to help change cooking from an occasional thing into a gratifying routine.”

The great turning point in the modern history of corn, which in turn marks a key turning point in the industrialization of our food, can be dated with some precision to the day in 1947 when the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, switched over to making chemical fertilizer. After the war the government had found itself with a tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principal ingredient in the making of explosives. Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Serious thought was given to spraying America’s forests with the surplus chemical, to help out the timber industry. But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: Spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, ‘We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.’
—  Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Fritz Haber? No, I’d never heard of him either, even though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920 for “improving the standards of agriculture and the well-being of mankind.” But the reason for his obscurity has less to do with the importance of his work than the ugly twist of his biography, which recalls the dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture. During World War I, Haber threw himself into the German war effort, and his chemistry kept alive Germany’s hopes for victory. After Britain choked off Germany’s supply of nitrates from Chilean mines, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of explosives, Haber’s technology allowed Germany to continue making bombs from synthetic nitrate. Later, as the war became mired in the trenches of France, Haber put his genius for chemistry to work developing poison gases—ammonia, then chlorine. (He subsequently developed Zyklon B, the gas used in Hitler’s concentration camps.) On April 22, 1915, Smil writes, Haber was “on the front lines directing the first gas attack in military history.” His “triumphant” return to Berlin was ruined a few days later when his wife, a fellow chemist sickened by her husband’s contribution to the war effort, used Haber’s army pistol to kill herself. Though Haber later converted to Christianity, his Jewish background forced him to flee Nazi Germany in the thirties; he died, broken, in a Basel hotel room in 1934. Perhaps because the history of science gets written by the victors, Fritz Haber’s story has been all but written out of the twentieth century. Not even a plaque marks the site of his great discovery at the University of Karlsruhe. Haber’s story embodies the paradoxes of science: the double edge to our manipulations of nature, the good and evil that can flow not only from the same man but the same knowledge.
—  The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Michael Pollan)
The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.
—  Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals