Thursday, December 20, 2007

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Wendell Berry (one of my favorite authors) reminds us often that "eating is an agricultural act."

Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals (2006, The Penguin Press, New York), brings this notion to life, by tracking four meals along three predominant food chains: the industrial, the organic and the hunter-gatherer.

  • He demonstrates the true cost of industrialized agriculture by following a MacDonald's Happy Meal back through the golden arches, a food processing plant, an animal feedlot and a grain elevator – to a 160-acre cornfield in Greene County, Iowa.
  • He explores organic food production via two very different meals: the first comprised of “organic” ingredients purchased from Whole Foods and the second harvested from his labors on an innovative, self-contained family farm in Virginia.
  • Finally, he takes us back to our collective hunter-gatherer pre-history by preparing an entire meal from food he grew, foraged and hunted by himself.

Along the way, he demonstrates that our current food system is broken -- and that we ought to pay more attention to what we eat -- and where it comes from.

Who hasn't -- in a moment of weakness, on an extended road trip or in a multi-tasking meltdown -- opted for fast food? Pollan takes us to MacDonald’s, reminding us that one in three American children eat fast food at least once a day. If that doesn't scare the pants off of you, follow this food chain with Pollan, and find out what you're really eating when you nosh on Chicken McNuggets. Chicken?

Hardly! According to Pollan, 13 of the ingredients that go into a Chicken McNugget are corn based: “the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri- and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leaches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative.” Further investigation reveals that, of 60 items on a MacDonald’s menu, forty-five contain corn – in the form of high fructose corn syrup or other corn derivatives, and out of the 45,000 food items in your average grocery store, more than a quarter now contain corn.

Our current food system, based as it is on commodity monocultures, cheap fossil fuel, chemical inputs and government subsidies, has created a glut of cheap corn -- and the food industry has responded by putting it in practically every processed food we eat and drink. It’s in meats and fish, sodas and fruit juices, ketchup, mayonnaise, yogurt, soup, cereal, and snack foods; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a processed food without it.

Why do we care? Because all of this cheap corn is making us fat. Our food and farm policy is promoting a glut of cheap calories at the expense of our collective health. As Pollan explains: “Since the Nixon administration, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day (up from 3,300, already more than we need.)” The government is subsidizing junk food at the expense of real food (i.e., fruits and vegetables.) Today, you can buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies for a dollar; that same dollar would only buy 250 calories worth of carrots. These economics gave rise to the current “super-size-me” phenomena – offering bigger and bigger portions of processed foods at only incrementally higher prices -- which not only describes current portion sizes, but also their effect. The omnipresence of cheap, processed food has fueled an alarming increase in obesity and related illnesses in the United States.

Pollan exposes other hidden costs as well. Modern farming depends on a ready supply of cheap fossil fuels -- to run farm machinery, manufacture chemical pesticides and fertilizers, transport and process commodities and deliver food to consumers. In fact, when Pollan calculated the energy cost of his trip to MacDonald’s, he found that it took ten calories of fossil fuel energy to process one calorie of food energy. And that doesn’t count the environmental costs of soil depletion or the unrelenting assault of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers on the quality of our soil, water and air; nor does it factor in the cost to our collective health of the gratuitous use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

By the time you finish this “happy meal”, you’re looking for another option.

Pollan then highlights emerging food system models by tracking down two organic meals. For many of us, the word organic conjures up pastoral visions of happy farm animals cavorting in clover and patchwork family farms with healthy vegetables bursting forth from rich, healthy soil. But by tracking “organic” foods from a Whole Foods Market, Pollan reminds us that there are many variations on this theme. It turns out his “free range, organic chicken” was raised in a warehouse shed with 20,000 other chickens in a process reminiscent of a factory farm. These birds qualify as ‘free-range’ because there’s a little door in the side of the shed leading to a grassy area outside. However, as Pollan explains, “since the food and water and flock remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled into their habits…and since the birds are slaughtered at seven weeks, free-range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option.” On the farm he visited, none of the “free-range” chickens availed itself of the option.

His “organic” asparagus came from Argentina; his blackberries came from Mexico – using up gallons of fuel and releasing pounds of CO2 en route. A test organic TV dinner from Cascade Farms turned out to be a “highly industrialized organic product, involving a choreography of thirty-one ingredients assembled from far-flung farms, laboratories and processing plants scattered over half a dozen states and two countries, and containing such mysteries of modern food technology as high-oleic safflower oil, guar and xanthan gum, soy lecithin, carrageenan and ‘natural grill flavor’ (?)” And he learned that “organic” milk often comes from factory farms, where ‘thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced ‘dry lot,’ eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day.”

This is not to disparage the movement toward organic foods, which Pollan concedes is contributing to a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers; but it does serve as a warning that it pays to know your producer if you want to know the truth about your produce.

Pollan then takes us to Polyface Farms, a “radically innovative” 550-acre farm in Virginia that produces chicken, beef, turkeys, eggs, rabbits, pigs, tomatoes, sweet corn, and berries. Technically, Polyface Farms is not an “organic” farm. Joel Saladin, the farm’s owner explains it this way: “We never called ourselves organic – we call ourselves ‘beyond organic.’”

Through a diligent commitment to ecological wholeness -- and by practicing intensive- management (rotational) grazing, promoting polycultures, abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, composting waste and maintaining 450 acres of his farm in woodlands to promote biodiversity – Saladin is able to produce 30,000 eggs, 10,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 50 beeves (representing 25,000 pounds of beef), 250 hogs, 1,000 turkeys and 500 rabbits on 100 acres of pasture every year, without using artificial fertilizer, hormones or antibiotics. And he markets everything locally, via direct to consumer sales at the farm store, farmers’ markets, metropolitan buying clubs, and sales to local shops and restaurants. His farm is a testament to sustainability.

Pollan’s predominantly Polyface-Farm meal (roast chicken with corn, salad, and chocolate soufflĂ©, complimented by a local Viognier) was a fitting reward for his week’s worth of work on the farm. And, it was healthier than other meals – the grass fed chickens and eggs contained less total fat and less saturated fats than the same food from grain-fed animals, as well as higher levels of omega-3s (essential fatty acids that play an indispensable role in human health) and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA (a fatty acid that recent studies indicate may help to reduce weight and prevent cancer).

Pollan’s final adventure, creating an entire meal from food he had hunted, grown or foraged is an entertaining tale of foraging for Chanterelles and hunting wild boar in California’s oak forests, picking lettuce and fava beans from his garden, harvesting salt from the salt ponds of San Francisco Bay and yeast spores from the air outside his kitchen window, and picking cherries from Fulton Street trees. Along the way, he confronts fundamental issues related to food: the vagaries of eating in the absence of a national cuisine, the ethics of eating animals, and more.

At the end of the meal, Pollan acknowledges that he’s not advocating a return to this primitive relationship with food: “This is almost impossible ever to do, which is why I said there was nothing very realistic or applicable about this meal. But as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true costs of the things we take for granted.”

All told, these four meals -- and their respective histories -- give us plenty to chew on. As Pollan concludes: “Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in true accounting, it really cost…. We would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.”

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