No recent writings on food politics have been as influential as those of Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley. Perhaps on account of Pollan’s uncanny ability to make anything from agricultural policy to moral philosophy seem exciting, his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008), as well as his writings in The New York Times Magazine, have opened the eyes of millions of readers to the ills of the modern food system — everything from the feedlot steer sleeping in a pile of manure to the baleful influence of the food industry on our agricultural and public health policies. Too often, however, the same works vilify and otherwise misrepresent science, drawing from selective readings of sources and an overly simplistic view of scientific inquiry to attribute the poor health of modern society and the environment to shortcomings inherent in the scientific method.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan suggests that developments in the field of agricultural science have been detrimental to our “national health.” In particular, Pollan cites Baron Justus von Liebig’s 19th century discovery that plants need only nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to grow as a possible reason for our society’s poor nourishment. Leaning heavily on Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament (1940), Pollan criticizes the practice of substituting these three nutrients for biologically-rich humus (the decomposing organic matter in topsoil), a practice rooted in what Howard called the “NPK mentality” after the symbols for those three nutrients:
To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.
Reading Pollan’s summary of An Agricultural Testament, one might easily be led to believe that Howard’s book was some kind of anti-science screed. However, although Howard devoted a full chapter to criticizing agricultural science as it was typically practiced in his day, criticism of the scientific method more broadly is nowhere to be found in the work.
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