“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan

Okay, this is a book about food.  Might not sound too interesting at first take, but I must say I was fascinated!  It definitely made me think about where the food I eat comes from.

The title refers to the eating situation that we, as humans, and other omnivorous creatures face.  Since we can eat just about anything, what should we eat?  Many animals do not have to worry about this problem as they are “hard-coded” by instinct to eat one or a limited variety of things, for example koala bears eat only eucalyptus leaves.  The fact that we have to choose what things are good to eat and what things are bad was an important evolutionary driver for our intelligence and social culture, Pollan says.

Pollan traces the origins of three meals, the industrial, the organic, and the hunted/foraged.  Much of the perceived variety in a typical grocery store today is an artificial product generated by the complex industrial machine and derived from a monoculture-oriented agricultural system consisting primarily of corn.  After World War II, the chemical industry, which had hitherto focused on munitions, did not (obviously) want business to diminish and so began developing artificial fertilizers from fossil fuels.  This led to bumper crops for American farmers, particularly for corn.  Large surpluses forced corn prices lower, which led the farmers to plant more corn….  With a surplus of corn, food scientists devised ways to break it down and reconstitute it into unrecognizable parts.  A good number of the mystery ingredients on the label of any processed food label (“xanthan gum”) are really from corn.  Some corn is fed to chickens and cows, so most of the meat you eat is from corn, too.

The industrial system comes off sounding pretty bad in the book, particularly the description of “CAFOs” (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), although its rise has literally made possible the very existence of a good portion of today’s human population.  As someone who believe in having moderation in all things, our reliance on corn and other monocultures does not seem like a good idea for our country’s health, as indeed it is not.

The next meal is organic, which actually has two parts.  The first is the Whole Foods style of organic – food grown with no pesticides, but mimics the industrial food supply chain otherwise.  This kind of organic is likely healthier for us to eat, but in the end probably not a sustainable or perfect food solution as it stands right now.  The second part involves the author’s trip to the Polyface Farm in Virginia.  (They have a website if you want to Google it.)  The proprietors of this farm embrace the interconnectedness of life.  Cows eat grass in (temporarily) fenced-off pastures.  As they eat, they, um, naturally fertilize all over the place.  The cows are only allowed on the patch of grass for a day or so before being moved to another pasture.  This is in order to prevent them from destroying the land.  A few days after the cows, chickens are let loose on the pasture.  They like to eat the grubs and flies that have been forming in the cow pies, as well as nibble on the grass stalks cut down to their level by the cattle.  They also fertilize the land with their, um, offerings.  All this natural fertilizer causes grass grown to skyrocket, and soon it is ready for the cows again.  This intricate dance of nature is beautiful; the farmer is like a “conductor who just makes sure everyone is playing the right part at the right time.”  This makes much more sense and is much more sustainable than the industrial solution — for example, animal operations are separate from the agricultural, so corn growers use dangerous chemicals to fertilize their crops while the cattle growers are drowning in manure.

The final meal was hunted or foraged, like our ancient ancestors did.  Pollan hunts a pig, finds some mushrooms………  I don’t think I was as interested in this section of the book as the others, probably because it is too disconnected from my experiences with food.

All in all, great book though that really made me think about my food choices.

One response

  1. Very nice article, thank you!

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