I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few evenings ago. (I love my library!) What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this book? For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, he takes a very engaging look at the natural history of four meals. (Yep, that would be the sub-title, right there…) He starts his story in the enormous world of commercial, conventional, processed corn-based food, moving on to the "conventional organic" realm, then on into alternative farming and finally ending up hunting, gathering and growing most of the ingredients in his final meal.
Pollan is an engaging writer and a competent storyteller and he makes the world of food come alive while imparting a great deal of knowledge. I imagine if this was one’s first foray into the world of this type of food writing, it would be incredibly eye-opening – I’m somewhat familiar with his topics and I still found it very interesting and informative. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, I nodded in agreement… It reinforced that the food choices I have been working my way toward for the past ten years or so have been the right ones.
My life has almost completely followed the "story" arc of this book. I started out as a "typical" American eater as a child, teenager and college student – fast food wasn’t really a problem for me, though I never ate large quantities of it; I ate lots of highly processed foods; I didn’t really think twice about where my food came from. I always knew that it wasn’t the best way, but I wasn’t really willing to put in the effort to find anything out about what would be a better way. After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I am intensely glad I no longer participate (at least mostly) in that way of eating. The positives associated with it (convenience, low up-front cost) do not, in my opinion, nearly outweigh the negatives (health problems, environmental degradation, animal cruelty, mistreatment of farmers, farm workers and slaughterhouse employees…I could go on). I know more about corn now than I ever thought I would and it astonished me to learn about the government subsidies that enable the cheap flood of corn to continue. It also amazed me, though it shouldn’t have, if I’d stopped to think about it for a moment, how much corn is in our food…and other products! Corn oil, corn syrup, ethanol, corn starch and many more substances that are derived from corn are ubiquitous in most people’s lives. The amount of corn we eat fresh each year is a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to everything else.
The other thing that was not altogether shocking, since I’d done a bit of reading on it before, but still difficult to comprehend, is the state of our meat industry. It just amazes me what we’ll put these animals through for the sake of cheap meat. Fattening them up on cheap corn (there’s that corn again!) that they were never meant to eat, pumped full of chemicals so they can live too close together in conditions that we ourselves would never even dream of, deprived of any way of manifesting their sheer animalness. It really made me reconsider my status as a meat eater. Ironically, I was actually a vegetarian for most of the time that I more or less fit into the stereotype of the typical American eater. I have only in the past few years begun to eat meat again, and I must say that I really enjoy it. But I don’t enjoy what goes into a factory farmed piece of steak or chicken. I have no intention of become vegetarian again, but I do think that from now on I will really try to make the investment in meat that has been raised responsibly and sustainably.
The next section of the book focuses on organic foods. This seems to be the trickiest section of all, because people want to believe that organic foods are the answer to all our food worries. But they’re not…necessarily. Organic foods can be as highly processed as conventional foods. And is it really any better to eat organic vegetables, if they end up traveling further around the world than you have? I’d say not. But there is the undeniable fact that organic farming does keep vast quantities of fertilizers and pesticides out of the environment. In that way, it is leaps and bounds better than conventional farming. Unfortunately, just because the apple was grown organically, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have exactly the same post-harvest path to your table as a conventionally grown apple. And that’s the part I came to next in my life, and am currently still wading about in. I began to realize that organic food was better – for me, for the environment, for the people who grow, harvest and process it. But that’s not all there is to the story and I began to realize, even more recently, that there is an alternative to "industrial organic." (My favorite example.)
Which brings me to the next part of the book – alternative farming methods. Without even realizing it, I had read much of the source material for this chapter just before I started this book. While looking for a book called Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin, which the local library didn’t have, I stumbled across another book of his – You Can Farm. Michael Pollan spends a significant amount of time discussing his week at Polyface Farm, which is where Joel Salatin lives and works his land, along with the help of his family. They practice a method of farming based on nature’s processes. Bizarre, I know! With intensive grazing and management, they have manged to build a stronger piece of land than what they started with, and it’s very productive and whole. It’s the type of farming that you or I probably thinks of when we think "farm." It’s ultimately better for everyone, including the plants and animals, and more sustainable than many other models. (Joel Salatin is a character with loads of one-liners and a strong opinion on just about everything.)
The last chapter discussed what a small, but seemingly growing, amount of people like to do – hunt, gather, forage and grow their own food, the way our ancestors did many millennia ago. It’s simply not possible for everyone to do that anymore – there are too many people and not enough wild environments, particular where the people can get to them. But there’s something infinitely satisfying about knowing that you were directly involved in gathering every aspect of your meal, which is what Pollan tried to do for his last one. He was only somewhat successful, but not for lack of trying. It’s the ethic behind this that prompts me to make my own bread, preserves, etc. and grow some of my own vegetables. (I’d have chickens in a heartbeat if I could…but I get the impression our landlord is definitely not chicken-friendly.)
All in all, I highly recommend the book, it’s a good read!