Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Nook - The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, written by Michael Pollan:

As I was reading this book, I kept saying to myself four little words:

I had no idea!

I had no idea how pervasive corn (and corn by-products) are in our society.  I had no idea that Chicken McNuggets, or the box they are sold in, contain TBHQ (a form of butane....lighter fluid).  I had no idea if you rotate your cows to graze just the right amount of grass, and then let your chickens into the field a few days later to eat the fly larvae on the cow poo, you are creating a symbiotic relationship between cow, chicken and grass, one where all involved benefit.  I had no idea the actual cost to the environment if you buy organic asparagus grown in Argentina.  I had no idea that wild boars will adopt another sow's piglets if she's no longer around.  I had no idea that morel mushrooms grow in areas where there has recently been a forest fire.

The book is set up into four different meals: a meal the author and his family have at McDonald's (actually, in the car - "eating it at fifty-five miles per hour seemed like the thing to do"), a meal created by all organic items purchased at Whole Foods, a meal created from a local food chain, with chickens that Pollan helped slaughter on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm, and a meal that the author hunted and gathered in his home state of California: wild Sonoma County boar, morel mushrooms, bread made with gathered wild yeast and dessert made with Bing cherries from his sister-in-law's back yard.

And each meal actually caps off Pollan's adventures into exploring all components of that particular food chain that feeds us.  For example, on the McDonald's meal, Pollan visits George Naylor's Iowa farm and drives the 1975 tractor to help plant corn.  He purchases a steer for $598, and pays for "his room and board (and all the corn he could eat) and meds."  He visits his steer, Steer Number 534, in the Poky Feeders CAFO - Confined Animal Feeding Operation.  Here, the author is still following the corn trail, from being grown on Naylor's farm to becoming feed for a steer that is meant to eat grass, not corn.

Digging deeper into the McDonald's meal, the environmental problems with all this corn are an issue which Pollan discusses, starting with synthetic nitrogen. "When humankind acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel."  Synthetic nitrogen "evaporates into the air, where it acidifies the rain and contributes to global warming........some seeps down to the water table."  Here's another great quote: "So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it) degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn."  Maybe you read this and think you don't consume much corn, but in the one meal Pollan and his family ate (a family of 3) he figured they consumed 6 pounds of corn total (factoring in things like the High Fructose Corn Syrup in the soda, bun and ketchup, the corn that the was fed to the steer and chickens, the emulsifiers, corn sweeteners and corn starch in the meal).  "To grow and process this 4,510 food calories took at least ten times as many calories of fossil energy, the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil."

And this is what the book is really about - tracking each of these meals, these food chains, and investigating the real cost of the meal.  If Michael Pollan tackled food and how it affects our health in In Defense of Food, then The Omnivore's Dilemma  looks at food and how it affects our environment.  And the real cost of our food, which is not always reflected in the price tag.  Sometimes this real cost comes at the expense of the environment.  Sometimes the real cost is at our own emotional expense, or the expense of our own labor.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was that it not only provided the reader with a great amount of information, but the author also provided a lot of philosophy and insight.  I loved reading his thoughts on hunting and eating animals.  In every aspect of the book, Pollan writes from an insider's view, and is not afraid to share his own fears & trepidations.  I also love that he leaves his comfort zone for the sake of his research.  He learns to hunt.  He helps with slaughtering chickens on Polyface Farm.  "Gathering abalone was the most arduous foraging I did for my meal, and quite possibly the stupidest.  I learned later that most Californians are killed gathering abalone each year - by getting dashed on the rocks, attacked by sharks, or succumbing to hypothermia - than die in hunting accidents."  He's not only talking to farmers and trying to get a tour at Cargill - he's in the trenches, investigating, living - and eating - his way through these four food chains.  His personal experiences made this book much more relatable than one with only lots of facts and interviews.

The only thing I would have loved to see was a few pictures.  He mentions someone taking a picture of the trunk of the car he and his fellow morel-foragers filled.  There is also mention of some hunting pictures (although those might have been too gruesome).  I would love to see the faces of the people at Polyface Farm, or some of their contented cows.  Or the fields of corn in Iowa.  Pollan brings the book to a very personal level, and pictures would have enhanced that even more.

If you eat food, you must read this book!  You owe it to yourself - and the environment - to be an informed consumer.  In an article for the New York Times, Pollan said the industrial food chain "depends on our ignorance of how it works for its continued survival" (and the same idea is in The Omnivore's Dilemma, though I can't find the quote for the life of me).  (Here's the link to the New York Times article.) 

This book is a must-read in this age of supermarkets and fast food chains.  You are sure to come away from it with a better appreciation for local farmers and sustainable practices.


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