Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I recently finished reading (well, listening to) The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The dilemma in question is that, unlike a cow which will generally just eat grass and not worry about it, omnivores can eat nearly anything, and thus have to constantly decide which of the available anythings they should eat. As human beings, we've complicated this even beyond the mere question of whether something will poison or nourish us. With the immense industrial systems we've set up to produce and deliver our food, we also have to (or should) consider the effect our food has on our planet, the morality of how we're treating the animals, and more. As Pollan says throughout, food has to be not only good to eat, but good to think. We should be able to know exactly what went into our meals and still be okay with eating them.

The book is subtitled "A Natural History of Four Meals." The meals in question are "industrial" (most of what we typically buy in the stores these days), two kinds of organic, and directly hunted/grown/foraged (mostly for comparative purposes). The industrial part was the scariest. I hadn't realized what a huge part of our food system is completely based on corn. Corn has basically gotten itself into a symbiotic relationship with human beings, where we help it reproduce and grow as a species far more than it could have managed on its own, all the while scrambling to find more ways to use it all up, and get people to consume more. It was giving me serious flashbacks to Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide (augmented by the fact that this book has one of the same narrators from those). Add to that the mega-corporations running the stuff, not to mention the government subsidies that dig us farther into the corn hole, and the whole thing just looks like an unstoppable behemoth.

In terms of organic, it turns out that industrial organic (e.g. Whole Foods kind of stuff) is nearly as bad. They eschew a lot of the chemicals regular industrial systems use, but since they don't practice any other sustainable techniques, that just makes it harder to protect crops from disease, keep the livestock healthy, etc. There's also a lot of deception, e.g. with "free range" chickens, that basically just have a small door to a bare patch of ground that they never venture into in their few short weeks of life. Plus there's still the issue of transporting all this food around the country or around the world, which adds the same environmental and health costs as hauling around the industrial food.

Pollan's biggest strength, I think, is his ability to convey complete systems in his writing, giving us vivid, and detailed yet panoramic views of how so many pieces are interwoven to make a functional whole. Or, in the case of the industrial food system, a dysfunctional whole. The meat-raising division is completely cut off from the agricultural, and both get heavy doses of chemicals thrown in. Both systems create enormous amounts of toxic waste that would otherwise, in nature, have been recycled to nourish other parts of the ecosystem. One of the book's most memorable moments is when he points out that we've basically used all our wonderful technology and ingenuity to split one simple, elegant solution into multiple complex problems. The best example of the alternative -- that is, keeping a simple, integrated solution in the context of organized farming -- is in his "beyond organic" example, the second of the two organics, after the industrial variety. The farm he describes is completely self-sustaining. The chickens and pigs and cows and grass and trees and everything else are balanced absolutely perfectly, so that every part of the puzzle is beneficial to every other part. It's really beautiful how it all works. The farm also does strictly local business, and refuses to ship its food anywhere it can't easily drive a van around to.

Anyway, the whole thing is rather eye-opening. I highly recommend reading it and considering whether your food is good to eat or good to think, or neither or both.


Anonymous said...

Hurray for truly thinking about food!
(See you in the kitchens at Harmony?)
Can't wait!

Trish said...

You should post this as a review on Amazon!