Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Omnivore's Dilemma
© 2007 Michael Pollan
450 pages


What to eat, what to eat? Between our robust physiologies and intelligent, creative minds, there's little on Earth that we human beings cannot eat or somehow convert into food. The entire planet is one big smörgåsbord  for H. sapiens, but such a plethora of choices overwhelms our hunter-gatherer instincts. We are no longer creatures of the plains, but of the cities: a relative few grow food for the masses, and they can do so only by being highly efficient. Such efficiency allows for cheap food, but in Michael Pollan's eyes there's no such thing as a free lunch. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan digs into four possible meals of the modern era to find out what it means -- and costs -- to eat in the 21st century. On the menu: fast food from McDonalds, an organic supper from WholeFoods,  a hearty banquet at a local farm, and a meal foraged from the wild.

Pollan begins with the most typical American cuisine: fast food from McDonalds, which despite being advertised as beef and potatoes, contains an awful lot of corn. Corn allows cattle companies to raise their beef to market quickly and efficiently, and it's also processed into virtually every food staple sold in American market. Efficiency is the watchword for industrial agriculture, which feeds its corn to cattle and pigs on vast feedlots, which are a far cry from bucolic images of cattle lowing out on the plains. Efficiency's allure has not been lost on organic business, which -- while decrying pesticides and other 'necessary evils' of big agriculture -- is forced to pursue the same basic business model, as Pollan finds out when he follows the ingredients of his WholeFoods-purchased meal from the farm to his plate.  His organic chicken ("Rosie") may be a free-range animal, but her living conditions are roughly the same as KFC's birdies.  From here, Pollans goes off the grid and into a family farm, one which takes an entirely different approach to producing food.  Polyface Farm, in fact, does not produce food: it grows it. It cultivates it. Instead of using fossil fuels to process food, Polyface's owner simply manages nature,  putting ecology to work for him. Why fill animals with antibiotics when you can have chickens peck through cow manure and eat the bugs which would cause sickness later on? Finally, Pollan leaves the farm for the wild, gathering mushrooms and hunting for boar to create an authentically human meal, with every ingredient on the plate made by his own hands.

The great theme of Omnivore's Dilemma is awareness -- food mindfulness, if you will. We can buy cheap food and enjoy foods out of season, but at cost:  beef is so cheap because it's raised on heavily-subsidized corn, and has been since the 1970s when Nixon decided to take food off the political-issues menu. But that same subsidization encourages farmers to drive themselves into financial ruin by planting more and more corn (and seeing increasingly marginal returns for their investment). It's not a sustainable system, but taxpayers cover the gap.  Although Pollans never mentions it, there's a similarity between the birth of agriculture thousands of years ago and the growth of corn-based agriculture only a few decades ago: both allow us to feed many more people cheaply, but at the expense of quality. Uncivilized hunter-gatherers enjoyed a diet far more varied and healthy than that of the medieval peasant and possibly even ourselves.  The quantity-quality dichotomy divides the book's four chapters into two portions:  the first two meals use society's industrial infrastructure, while the latter focus on on the quality of food rather than increasing profit. At one point the owner of Polyface farm notes that while he could add more cattle to his farm, it would throw off the ecological balance he cultivates.   He thus spurns economic growth for sustainability, a philosophy I wish more businesses, people, and governments shared. Growth without sustainability is nothing more than a market bubble waiting to be popped. Pollan's last story (the boar-hunt) takes a completely different tack, focusing on the morality of eating animals and the meaning that can be found in gathering one's own food, and thus in interacting with the world in which we live instead of passively consuming foodstuffs.

Dilemma will raise difficult questions for virtually everyone who reads it, unless they live on a farm like Polyface,  and the issues are varied. Yes, we can dine cheaply -- but only if we do not take into account the nutritional, moral, political, and societal costs. Those who try to buy to satisfy their conscience and palate both by moving to organic don't get off as easily as they might think. Judging from the book,  the ideal foodsource is local, natural, and sustainable -- but  the majority of us do not have the luxury of being able to buy or eat responsibly-produced food from places like Polyface farms, either out of location or finances. As much as I would like to see feedlots give way to the Polyface approach, I think this is as realistic as hoping for the return of Mom and Pop general stores on Main Street in a world dominated by big boxes. As hideous and artificial as those box stores are, they're simply more economically competitive and will continue to increasingly dominate our society without the appropriate legislation. The solitary reader need not despair, however:  while society at large may continue to go its processed-food way, those who read this or a similar book can be provoked to change our lives and our culinary habits -- and just as I have decided to avoid Wal-Mart and buy from local businesses, I can decide to avoid processed food in favor of items from the farmer's market whenever possible.

Given the questions Dilemma raises, I highly recommend it -- though I would prefer more substantial evidence (like raw data on what percentage of cattle are raised on feedlots) to back up his anecdotal conclusions.

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