[Note: this was written several years ago. The thinking that started here has since led me to experiment with eating humane and sustainable animal products, so I’m not vegetarian anymore.]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an utterly fascinating book if you’re interested in where your food comes from. Michael Pollan traces the origins of four meals: a McDonald’s meal, a Whole Foods meal, a pasture-farmed meal, and a meal hunted and gathered mostly by him (with the help of people he knows). He describes our choice of what to eat — the choice whose effects he traces — as the “omnivore’s dilemma”: in a world full of things we can eat, what do we eat? And what are we doing when we eat it?
The book has gotten a lot of attention. He’s been on NPR and a bunch of other stuff. And fairly so. It’s well-written: packed with information without being too dense, personal without being particular, philosophical and political without being a polemic. It’s a bit expansive and rambly in places, but not very often.
This book has probably had a more profound effect on my thinking than any book I’ve read recently (Animal Liberation and The Mindbody Prescription are the only more profound influences that come to mind). I had started to suspect that a lot of issues that seemed kind of unrelated at first — obesity, processed food, factory farming, farming subsidies — were really connected, and that they all went back to corn. I had started to look beyond being a vegetarian and trying to eat organic to really think about whether the food I was eating made sense environmentally and economically.
The book answered a lot of my questions about that. The entire first part about the industrial food chain was mainly about corn, and corn policy, and feeding corn to animals, and processed corn marketing (aka the food industry). Corn, one single monocultured grass, is everywhere. And it’s not really benefiting the farmers: they don’t make enough to support themselves; they see very few cents of the dollars that we pay for the food made from their corn. One memorable fact from the book is that breakfast cereal is four cents worth of corn turned into four dollars of food. The government has to pay the farmers subsidies because the price of corn is less than the cost to grow it.
This situation is not really benefitting us, either. We eat way too much corn in the many forms, especially high-fructose corn syrup, which is basically sugar but uses up corn instead of sugarcane. It’s in bread, it’s in ketchup, it’s in pickles. Why do I need sugar in my pickles?! We eat a lot of food that’s just corn, processed, with other food as filler. Who is it benefiting? Big agricultural companies, big processed-food companies, and big factory farms (they feed cheap corn to animals mostly not designed to eat it). I was aware of some of this before, but the book really helped me connect the dots. This is not a food chain I really want to be part of.
If not corn, then what?
But what are the alternatives? Organic started out as an alternative. Whole Foods used to buy organic from small farms. Organic stuff used to get out through co-ops and food stalls. But it turns out that once it became marketable — big and national, with a demand — a lot of organic is basically industrial without the chemicals. Organic cows eat organic corn in organic feedlots. Organic chickens are still kept densely packed indoors with only notional access to outside. Organic lettuce is grown in monoculture in the Salinas Valley, fertilized with compost trucked in from far away, and sprayed with plant-derived pesticides. The soil is tilled frequently to kill weeds, and loses much of its natural nitrogen. It still takes more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy (though the ratio is a bit smaller).
After finishing this part of the book, I concluded that I would still rather eat organic than not. At least many of the dangerous chemicals aren’t involved. But eating organic doesn’t seem like enough anymore.
A real alternative?
The best part of the book is the time that Pollan spends at Polyface farm in Virginia. Polyface is a “real farm” in the way most of us think of farms. They raise cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals, mostly on grass with a small ration of grain for the chickens, and they grow many different vegetables and fruits. They eat some of their farm’s products, and sell the rest locally (the farmer, Joel Salatin, refuses to FedEx Pollan a steak, which I think is awesome both for principle and because it led to this being the best section of the book, because Pollan actually goes and works on the farm, which is way more interesting than FedEx).
It’s an amazing description of the many different loops on the farm that exemplify the way things are supposed to work in agriculture and animal husbandry. The earth, being a closed cycle, gets energy from sunlight, and that energy is used to create products we can eat, instead of just grass, which we can’t. In the course of becoming products, waste is produced, but is not wasted. Chicken droppings and cowpats, instead of languishing in manure ponds that leak and pollute, become natural additions to the grass pasture’s growth. The land is enriched by use, not degraded, because grazing is carefully controlled. Turkeys mow weeds in the orchard; chickens eat grubs that turn rabbit waste into something non-toxic (it normally contains so much ammonia that rabbit hutches can’t be enclosed).
This is where my ‘vegetarian’s dilemma’ starts to crop up. The general principle about eating vegetables being more environmentally efficient than eating meat is true in our current system of industrial agriculture. But it turns out that overall it’s not quite true, because animals can use land that can’t be used to grow vegetables. The grass grows, the animals eat the grass, and we eat the animals, or eat their eggs or milk. This is possible in areas where agriculture is marginal or impossible.
And the animals at Polyface are arguably very well-treated until they die. They live in the pastures, they scratch or graze to their heart’s content, and eventually they are, in a brief moment, humanely killed and eaten.
I’ve never had a problem with meat-eating of this type, for sure, but now it’s abundantly clear to me that anyone who eats this way (not a lot of people, sadly) eats better than I do. Their food isn’t stained by the petroleum of its growth or transport, because it’s local and sun-fed. It’s not chemical- or waste-stained, because the farm is almost entirely organic (Salatin uses local but non-organic chicken feed — thus illustrating a common tradeoff I’ve also seen at farmer’s markets around here) and uses its own waste effectively.
So I might really be doing better to not be a vegetarian, assuming that there’s some grass-fed beef and chicken around here. Of course, the same method that works in Virgina probably doesn’t work everywhere, but it certainly raises the question of whether something like it would make sense here. And I would certainly do better to really eat locally, which I kind of do, but do badly at, because, like all of us in this industrial society, I’m not trained to. My tastes were partially formed on processed foods: I love Creamsicles and those horrible sugar-wafer-cream things, Fig Newtons and Easy Mac. I’m trained to forage at the supermarket, crave things at arbitrary times not in keeping with their season, and crave things from far away because I’ve always had them. (Though Pollan does note in passing that trade in valued exotics, if available, has always been an exception to local eating.)
“Industrial” and “sustainable”
Reading about our industrial food chain, I realized that I’d honestly never thought that much about what it means to be industrial. I tend to apply the word to big warehouses and factories, and not think about what it means to my daily life. But it does have a daily meaning. Every day I use the products of industry. Every day we think of ways to make things work in a machine-like way so we can make them part of a system. I do this with speech, in a sense. Factory farms do it with animals; vegetable farms do it with soil and plants. It’s intimately tied up with science, and our belief at any point that our science is sufficient to design a good system for something. But we keep learning about new compounds believed to help heart disease or cancer: our knowledge of complex natural systems is not complete. But it’s very hard to get outside the systems to see that this is what “industrial” really means.
“Sustainable” is different. I’d heard some agriculture and some environmental practices called sustainable, and I knew what it meant technically — that it can go on indefinitely because it doesn’t damage the things it needs for survival. Awesome. But Pollan really rang a bell and woke me up when he said that to appreciate what sustainable means, we must consider its opposite: unsustainable. That means it cannot continue forever; at some point it will have to stop, because it will no longer work. At some point, what we are doing with regard to food will no longer work. Our food will fail. And there doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that when that happens, we’ll still have other options. We may have messed things up too badly by then. Industrial society, including industrial food, is unsustainable unless we find a new source of energy, and for food, maybe not even then, because food also depends on the land not being depleted, which is certainly not the current case.
So, it’s a really excellent book that fundamentally changed my perception of one of the central parts of my life — my food. And I think we should know and understand our food, or we can’t make good choices about it. So I think everyone should read it.
No, really. So? What’s going to change?
I don’t know what I’m going to do about all the things that reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma made me realize. Except, for now, try harder to eat local, sustainable, non-industrial. Maybe if we all tried to do that, little by little we’d find out if it could work, if it could feed us all (probably not; the calorie yields we get for crops now are, as mentioned, unsustainable), how it could feed us and how many of us. Can you feed New York that way? Will there be any ability to get land that matches demand? (If land is expensive, as it is near population centers, it may be economically challenging to use it for farming and not new houses.) Is anyone really willing to leave industry for the farm? Would I be? Is there any way to stop the huge food and animal processors from ruling our food policy? Will we quit giving farmers money to grow more of something we don’t need, and get them something sensible to do?
There are lots of answers in Pollan’s book, but the answers just raise more and more important questions, and that’s the sign of a profound and influential book.