Reading: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Finished reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – Another must-read on my list! One of the main food issue books out there by journalist Michael Pollan, who follows the “natural history of four meals” in great detail. Each main section of the book (there are three sections, but four meals, which confused me until I re-read the introduction) attempts to follow the components of a meal from the most basic component (a plant, photosynthesizing energy from the sun) and up through the food chain, culminating in one of four meals: 1) the industrial food chain meal — a McDonald’s fast food meal, eaten in the car, 2) the industrial organic food chain meal — a meal made with organic foods purchased from a Whole Foods store, 3) the pastoral organic food chain meal — a meal with organic foods from a sustainable farm, and 4) the hunter-gatherer food chain meal involving actually hunting a wild pig and gathering fruits and vegetables.

The first section, which follows the industrial food chain, gives a lot of sobering insight into the way Americans “do food” and why we look like “corn chips with legs.” It starts with industrial, mass-produced corn, follows the corn into grain-fed industrial, mass-produced cows or other products (such as high-fructose corn syrup but also including things like food additives (the “natural flavoring” in a product may really come from corn, surprisingly) , ethanol, adhesives, stabilizers, and more), and shows how all those things come back together into a typical fast food meal. The $14 meal, however, doesn’t reflect the toll on our environment, health, and pocketbooks, of which these are just a few examples:

  • Feeding a cow corn instead of what it naturally would eat (grass) makes their stomachs acidic, requiring lots of antibiotics to help buffer the acidity and keep the cows from getting too sick. But this leads to antibiotic resistance, and has resulted in the evolution of acid-resistant E. coliE. coli that can now survive in the more acidic environment of human stomachs. Oops.
  • This system uses up a lot of oil. “One-fifth of America’s petroleum consumption goes to producing and transporting our food.” As one specific example, the “wet milling” process to break down corn into corn oil, animal feed, cornstarch, corn syrup, and the multitude of other products made out of corn takes about five gallons of water for each bushel of corn. “For every calorie of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel energy are burned.” Feeding corn to cows, as well, takes up a lot of oil: about 35 gallons of oil for each cow.
  • To make corn cheaper, we taxpayers subsidize the farmer’s costs at a rate of $5 billion a year. But we’re really helping the big companies that buy the corn, who turn the cheap corn into the highly processed foods that we then pay a [relative] premium for. These foods, with their trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, etc., etc., contribute to our national health crises of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The second section follows the industrial organic food chain and how expanding operations has resulted in a lot of “compromise” for those in the big business of organics. The result? Microwavable organic TV dinners — four words, Michael says, that he never expected to see linked together. Fields that are pesticide free but that are getting overworked because of practices necessary to produce produce on a large scale. Chickens that are marketed as “free range” but who really never see the outdoors (they might get sick; so for only two weeks of their lives they have access to a small door that leads out into a small yard — but they never choose to go out). After reading about “industrial organics,” you’ll have serious misgivings about our capitalistic system that forces the best intentions and philosophies into an industrial process.

Also in this section is a fascinating look at the “pastoral food chain,” epitomized in a unique and innovative farm in Virginia where cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits are raised in a serious symbiotic system, carefully orchestrated by the farmers. While corn is the base of the industrial food chain, grass is the focus here: The cows eat the grass (on a carefully calculated rotational system around the acres of pasture so that the cows don’t over- or under-graze a field) and fertilize it with their manure. The grazing stimulates growth, and the topsoil actually gets enriched through this process. Meanwhile, the cows self-medicate themselves because they can choose to eat the specific types of grasses with the nutrients that they happen to need at any given moment; this means the cows don’t need to be pumped full of antibiotics. Since the cows move around frequently, they aren’t around their own feces, either, which reduces the likelihood of their getting sick.

After the cows are rotated to the next field, the chickens move in, three days later. The cows have cropped the grass to an ideal height for chickens to get around in. The chickens dig happily in the manure, which by this point are full of tasty fly larvae, and get lots of protein (while sanitizing the pasture for the next round of cows). Combined with the grass diet, this means the chickens and their eggs will have lots of nutrients for people who eat them. Scratching at the manure helps it to get broken up around the field. The chickens also fertilize the field with their own high-nitrogen droppings. Rotating the chickens frequently through the fields keeps the fields from getting too much “natural fertilizer.”

Everything is connected. You’ll have to read the book, however, to get the fascinating picture of how cows, pigs, manure, and corn come together in another symbiotic relationship, and how the woodland areas of the farm’s property affect the rest of the farm, as well.

In the last section, Michael embarks on a quest to hunt and forage for his own food. As he procures a hunting license, learns how to shoot, and finds guides who will teach him about foraging for wild mushrooms and hunting wild pig, he also wrestles with the ethics of eating meat, working through Peter Singer’s arguments from Animal Liberation; this is the part that I found most interesting. Others may enjoy his detailed description of his emotions and experiences as he goes on two boar hunts (the second, successful) and then plans an elaborate meal of hunted-and-gathered foods.

Michael Pollan raises a lot of objections to the big-business industrial food chains that other books in this genre raise as well; however, don’t expect to find any “what should I do?” answers. He leaves that part up to you.

With a bookmark: (Books I just started reading, or books I’ve been “reading” for ages. Most recent first.)

  • If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg
  • Birthing from Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz
  • Sacred Attitudes by Erica Ross-Krieger
  • Body, Soul, and Baby by Tracy Gaudet
  • What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee Hathaway
  • The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson

In the library book box:

  • The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.
  • So That’s What They’re For! by Janet Tamero
  • Me, Myself, and Bob by Phil Vischer

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