4 October 2012

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Posted by Callan Bentley

In the delivery room last week, while we waited for Lily’s labor to ramp up, I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. I think it was one of the most insightful, important books I’ve ever read. I was pre-disposed to like it, because I really enjoyed Pollan’s earlier book The Botany of Desire, which served as four botanico-cultural “micro-histories” in one book (one on apples, one on marijuana, one on tulips, and one on potatoes). You should read it if you want to know where apples come from, and why their seeds are basically worthless vestigial traits. I also enjoyed Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery, which explore some overlapping territory with this book.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan charts the natural and artificial processes that are required to generate four meals: a take-out fast food meal from McDonald’s, an “industrial organic” meal from purchases at Whole Foods, a local organic meal made mostly of ingredients from Polyface Farm, a successful and highly-lauded operation in Swoope, Virginia, a little less than 2 hours southwest of my home, and a hunted-and-gathered meal from the natural areas near Pollan’s house in the Bay area of California.

The first section, on industrial farming, is distressing on several levels. Pollan focuses his attention on corn, grown unsustainably in both the ecological and economic senses, and the sad scene of an industrial feedlot where cattle are fed corn and bits of other cattle, standing in mud and kept topped off with antibiotics. It’s also insightful to read about all the different corn derivatives present in our foodstream, sometimes in places you don’t really expect them. As someone who avoids industrial foods as much as I can, this section affirmed my decision in a big way. Factory farmed meat is unethical, disgusting, and risky (because of increased chance of prion diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy as well as facilitating antibiotic resistance among pathogenic microbes).

The “industrial organic” section was equally fascinating, as I’m representative of exactly the sort of market that Whole Foods pushes its wares toward. I love going to Whole Foods; it feels like heaven to walk around in there, looking at all the healthy, nutritious food. But in order to produce all that healthy, nutritious food, some weird compromises have to be made. There are still factory farms involved, for instance, but a visitor like Pollan has to wear a biohazard suit to enter them (because no antibiotics are used on a crowd of closely-packed chickens, for example). To the Whole Foods food chain, “free range” means that the factory farm has a door that goes outside to a small paddock, but it is only available to the chickens for a week or two at the end of their two-month life, by which point they’re accustomed to being indoors, and won’t use it out of habit. It’s a symbol, but not a reality. Of course, that’s not the story they sell you, and Pollan examines the importance of origin mythology in Whole Foods marketing strategy. Another chapter examines the saga of organic lettuce (most of which is grown in California, slightly inland from Monterey), is a story of mechanization of a product with a high rate of quality and quantity that is matched only by its carbon footprint: that same Monterey lettuce shows up in my grocery store in Front Royal only a day or so later! There are some serious inconsistencies, in short, with “industrial organic” of the Whole Foods variety.

Pollan spends time in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley for the third part of the book, about pastoral farming on an intentionally small scale, using Joel Salatin’s oddly-named and quirkily-run Polyface Farms as his exemplar. The book paints a very holistic, closed-loop portrait of this operation, where the cows eat the grass (but don’t overeat it), and plop down their cowpies. Three days later, when the fly maggots in the cowpies are at their fattest, Salatin brings in the chickens, which harvest the maggots and turn their maggoty goo into robust, flavorful eggs, meanwhile laying down nitrogenous chicken waste of their own – which helps the grasses grow. This sort of cyclicity is the guiding principle of Polyface and many other sustainable organic farms in the Shenandoah Valley (I think in particular of my good friend Forrest’s operation up near Berryville: Smith Meadows. Check it out: they even have a blog.) This is where I want my food dollars to go – to support men and women and families that are nurturing rather than raping the land, and that’s why Lily & I patronize our local farmer’s market and roadside produce stands. The Fort Valley honey I bought there a few weeks ago is my new favorite condiment – it’s got a rich spiciness without being cloyingly sweet. I want to brew mead with it! Anyhow: Reading this section of the book affirmed the decision to buy local and seasonal whenever possible.

The final section, about hunting and gathering, is not pitched as a “solution” to the food “issue,” but is instead presented as a whimsical, somewhat self-indulgent exercise in “let’s see if I can pull this off.” Pollan gets a hunting license, shoots a wild boar, harvests chantrelles and morels in the woods, dives for abalone along the shore, gleans fruit from a neighbor’s tree, and grows tomatoes in his own garden before innoculating a batch of sourdough from free-range yeast (right out of the air). It’s cute, and fun, and the description of the final meal made my stomach growl, but it’s clearly not the way an industrialized society can ever eat. A tremendous, months-long effort goes into making that one meal, with some dicey situations encountered en route. It’s not sustainable. Pollan also includes a chapter meditating on the ethics of eating animals, which if you haven’t thought about it before, may prove interesting. I’ve been in and out of vegetarianism for many years, including almost a year as a strict vegan, but now I include meat in my diet, trying to be conscious about where it comes from. I’m fortunate to have a brother (who lives 45 minutes north of us, up near Forrest’s place) who’s way more into guns than I am, and every year he shares the largesse of his deer kills with me. I’ve got a freezer full of venison, and cook it instead of beef in many dishes. (I made a South African bobotie with it the other day, for instance. It makes an excellent chili, too.) In short, this final chapter elaborates on the overall theme of the book, which is to be thoughtful about the food you consume.

We all eat. As a burgeoning population of ever-more-consuming individuals, we eat a lot, and more every day. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a major work that should be considered when making choices about what kinds of food we buy and eat. You should read this book, if you haven’t already.