Michael Pollan gives a plant’s-eye view

Waking up in the Hunter Valley this morning, I was inspired to search TED for talks related to food and wine. The former revealed speakers on everything from sustainable seafood to gardening in Brooklyn. I chose this topic by Michael Pollan because I was interested in some of the key points from his talk in the Opera House a few months ago.  
Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist and professor at UC Berkeley. He is a frequent critic of modern agri-business and an advocate for sustainability who has written eight books. In this TED talk he presents a case for us to see the world from the point of view of plants and animals.   
All sounding a bit hippy? Don’t dismiss it. Pollan begins with the story of the bee, which like us humans, feels it has a place of high standing in the food chain. It goes about its business of collecting pollen from the flowers which attract it and generally must feel it’s the boss. But what about the process of evolution whereby the flowers attract the bee? Could the bee, like us all, be part of some grand plan?   
While humans are blessed with consciousness, plants have biochemistry, a system which has been developing for possibly even longer. When approached by spider mites, lima beans release a chemical to attract a different type of mite, protecting them from attack. There are apparently 35,000 genes in rice. Who can say we are more developed? It is ultimately our consciousness which tells us that consciousness is better!  
 Pollan argues that abandoning the cartesian viewpoint and looking at the world in this manner can change us. It contradicts the notion we have that for us to get what we want, nature must be destoyed, reminding us that we also are just a part of the bigger picture.  
I found his points hugely interesting. I recently read that my adopted country, Australia, has the highest percentage of organic farms per capita in the world. Yet organic food is still under-available and expensive. Pollan suggests that even most organic farming is cartesian in its approach. As an example of best practice he discusses a farm he found in Virginia, whose owner practices a form of permaculture, that is, each species provides an ecological function for the other. One such example is of cattle who graze an entire field before being moved on. Three days later the farmer introduces 350 chickens to the field, who eat the nicely fattened larvae from the cow-pats just a day or two before they hatch into flies. Happy with their favourite dish, the chickens also serve a vital function in helping to fertilise the field, both through their own defacation and the fact that they spread the cow manure about. Four weeks later, the field is green again and can be used for a multitude of processes. For anybody assuming that sustainable, organic farming cannot feed the world, the volumes of produce from this 100 acre farm are also provided and they are more than adequate.   
An internet search reveals a number of criticisms about Pollan. He is said to fly and drive frequently, despite his preachings about sustainability. The farmer he backs in Virginia has been accused of xenophobic tendancies. Yet he is a fantastic speaker and this topic is well recommended for anybody with an interest in where the food of tomorrow comes from.


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