Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

It all comes down to a meal.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes four specific meals but they collapse into one: what you are eating tonight.

Pollan asks the question, where does my food come from? In this amazing book that defies an easy cataloging, he does his best to discover the origins of four different meals, progressing from the "industrial" to the foraged (hunted and gathered).

He discovers that "industrial meals", including fast food, come from corn. The many uses to which corn is put is flabbergasting by itself. Following its trip from a farm in Kansas to a McDonald's in Berkeley, though, is disturbing.

He follows the corn to the beef cow that first spends an idyllic six months, more or less, living on grassy hillsides, but then is introduced to the corn mixtures at a factory farm, in an environment that words cannot adequately describe. Cows are not meant to eat corn, so the grain is sliced into wafers to make it more digestible and the cows are bred to tolerate it. The small saving grace here is that the life of this animal isn't long.

Pollan looks at the other parts of the meal as well, but not so intensely. In fact, it is the meat part of the meal that seems to interest him most throughout this book. Which is not to say that we vegetarians need not read this book. It has a great deal to say to all of us.

After eating a McDonald's meal on the road, Pollan moves to Big Organic, and shows us how organically-raised animals differ little in their experience of life from their industrial counterparts. Similarly organic crops are raised in a manner similar to large non-organic produce. The benefits are still there for humans, however. These fields don't contaminate water or air with toxic chemicals and our bodies get more nourishing food (Really. Several studies have now shown that organically-grown food has greater quantities of antioxidants and other nutrients that ward off disease). The down side is that "Big Organic" is not sustainable organic. Small Organic can be. And the animals are not treated as we'd like them to be treated. "Free range eggs?" If you get a chance to see one of these operations you'll laugh at the term.

The third meal comes from a "Beyond Organic" farm where cattle, chickens, turkeys, and other animals are raised in such a sustainable manner that their existence actually enhances the quality of the land. This remarkable farm is run by Joel Salatin, a third-generation beyond-organic farmer. The farm doesn't run itself. The workers spend long days moving animals, cutting hay, processing chickens, doing whatever needs to be done, and something always needs to be done. But the result speaks for itself: a farm run on almost nothing beyond human labor and some power for some equipment. What is especially notable is that the farm's products are so desirable that people drive many miles to get them (Salatin refuses to ship anything because he doesn't want to add the cost of pollution to his bill). Polyface (the name of the farm) also supplies many top restaurants in the area and is sold at farmers' markets.

An ideal farm if it could be replicated all over this country. However, such farms must be run by knowledgable "grass farmers", which is antithetical to the common model for large farms. Factory farms rely on cheap, ignorant labor. Polyface relies on committed, intelligent management. Could be done, though. Salatin feels that when enough people "opt out" of the current mode then factory farms really could become extinct.

The fourth meal is one that Pollan prepares from food he hunted or gathered himself, with a few exceptions. All local, regardless. He spends months learning how to forage and to hunt and finally pulls it all together in a meal he serves to special friends who helped him along the way. This one he dubs "the perfect meal". Not because it tastes better than all the others but because he feels it expresses his gratitude for every item in it. In eating this meal it appears that Pollan reached back into pre-history and felt at home.

I had some quibbles with a segment on vegetarianism and animal rights, because, contrary to how generously he treats others with differing points of view, Pollan actually ridicules animal rights people. Because I am one myself, I was offended not just because of his attitude but because he failed to realize that we are not all the same. Some of the arguments he made against vegetarianism can easily be refuted, but I won't go into that diversion here. Enough to say that he doesn't get much of it right, although he gets more right than many others I know.

This one quibble, which looms rather large in my mind, still did not affect my overall impression of the book. I believe that anyone reading this book will have the tools to make intelligent decisions about how they eat. More, I believe that there are some simple changes that can be made to the law to discourage the production of cheap corn and its trail of toxicity. Knowledge is power.
4.5 out of 5 stars


MyUtopia said...

That sounds really interesting

Dewey said...

I interviewed Athena about this book here if you'd like to read it. I can't wait to read it myself.

Judith said...

Dewey, that's an excellent interview. You can only go into so much detail in a book review but in the interview format you can get at a lot more. And you did.