Bend the Round

…where the madness is recorded.

Book 22: The Omnivore’s Dilemma May 19, 2008

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 6:56 pm
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It’s a wonderful thing to find a book that really strikes a chord. The Omnivore’s Dilemma sure did for me – so much so that it’s a little difficult to find a place to start. There’s a lot to say about it.

First off, I have to admire Michael Pollan’s writing. He does a remarkable job exploring and explaining inter-related topics ranging from bio-chemistry to the politics of agriculture to the experience of hunting to the rudiments of environmental toxicology and endocrine disruption. I say remarkable because I was so engaged by what he was saying, and the connections were so natural. The subject matter could have easily felt fractured and confusing. Instead, the overall feeling of the book was almost like a finished jigsaw puzzle – each piece fit together neatly and the sum total was orderly, entirely comprehensible, and beautiful.

OK, onto the content of the book.

The book is broken into three main parts. Each part examines a different food chain and ended with a meal made entirely of foods from the system examined. The three food chains examined were the industrial agriculture, organic industrial & whole food (these turn out to be vastly different, but because of the nature of the organic industry and the hopefully emerging trend of what I would consider “whole” farming, it felt natural to group these two together), and hunting/gathering. The parts were presented in that order, but I’d like to address them out of order based on the personal impact of each section on me. Each part had distinct value, but I definitely feel more strongly about certain sections and it’s just too much to tackle them en masse.

Hunting/Gathering

Pollan openly admits that this particular food chain is no longer viable for the vast majority of people living in the US – if it’s a viable option to anyone at all if it’s chosen as the sole means of feeding oneself. (Freegans don’t count in this one – by hunting & gathering, he means hunting animals and gathering plant material straight from nature…not from Dumpsters.)

At first, I couldn’t imagine how Pollan was going to pull off creating a meal from found food, which just goes to show you how long I’ve been away from rural culture. Pollan opted to hunt for wild pig and go mushroom hunting. He also gathered some “wild” fruit (from a neighbor’s cherry tree) and made bread using wild yeast. (Side note: I had never heard of “wild yeast.” The very phrase brought up images of herd animals galloping across the savanna. So wrong. Apparently, if you put out flour, etc, the yeast will come. I always wondered how the heck you got the stuff.) He did have to make some exceptions to the rules he set up for the meal, but under the circumstances he did a great job of getting what he needed straight from nature.

Pollan starts out this section by acknowledging that he needed help to do this safely. He wasn’t terribly familiar with firearms, and he was nervous about his ability to avoid poisoning himself with the mushrooms he found – so he needed a mentor. The man he found and befriended sure sounds like a remarkable person. With his guidance, Pollan was eventually able to hunt for two types of mushrooms and kill a wild Californian pig and butcher it.

There’s a significant section of this part that discusses the morality of eating meat, too. My personal feelings on the subject has always been that nature made me an omnivore, an animal designed to eat a variety of things – including meat – so dammit, I’m going to eat meat. The book supplies the arguments of the leaders of both schools of thoughts – vegetarians/animal rights activists vs non-vegetarians – which was VERY interesting and thought-provoking. What I took away from the discussion is that it’s a personal decision, and one that should be made mindfully instead of by default.

Some time ago, I wanted to know if I could still eat meat if I faced the reality of the death that is made necessary by my choice. I went with my sister to a cousin’s place and took part in the slaughter, cleaning, and cooking of a chicken. (Read To Henry… if you’re interested in the experience.) While I was not the one who actually swung the hatchet, I was instrumental in that rooster’s demise. In the end, I was alright with it, which came as a bit of surprise considering I have never in my life seen anything as horrible as the severed head frantically writhing on the ground. I feel like I’ve made a conscious decision on the subject of eating meat instead of eating it by default.

Industrial Agriculture

I grew up in a pretty rural area. There was (and still is) a cornfield directly across the street from my parent’s mailbox. The area elementary, middle, and high school was about a mile or more away and the only things between the schools and my house were cornfields and cows. One of the largest and most active extracurricular group in the high school was the Future Farmers of America – they grew flowers in the green house for sale, sold citrus fruit, and ran the pig farm located behind the school. You read that right – pig farm. There were regular sales of pork from the farm, too. In short, I grew up at least passingly familiar with agriculture in the US.

There’s a HELL of a lot to say about the most common form of farming in the US – industrial farming. First, it’s heavily based on oil and petrochemicals. The fields are worked using huge (incredibly expensive) machines, and the soil is doused in petrochemicals to fertilize it and kill everything that isn’t the crop. Runoff is a serious concern. It’s hard work and it’s thankless work – at least monetarily. Most farming is done by HUGE mega-farms instead of smaller family farms – smaller farmers are constantly staving off bankruptcy for a whole slew of reasons. I was mostly aware of this when I started reading the book.

What I DIDN’T realize was just how corn-based nearly all our food is, and I sure didn’t realize why. I wasn’t far into this part before I was seeing processed corn eeeevvvverrrywheeeereeee. Sweet jeebus, once you realize how much stuff is made from corn, from corn flakes to soda (high fructose corn syrup [HFCS] is in EVERYTHING), it’s almost a little scary. If you start counting the food animals that we feed corn diets, it gets even worse.

Which brings me to the phrase “corn-fed” – as in corn-fed beef, pork, chicken… I always had the vague idea that “corn-fed” equals “tastier” or maybe even “better.” Well, no, not really. It just means “corn-fed.” Apparently, cows and chickens in particular aren’t cut out to eat corn. They CAN eat it, but if it’s all they’re eating, they get sick. People only feed it to them because it’s cheap and, because it’s a high-energy food, it gets them ready for slaughter faster. Because the food makes them sick, the animals are jammed full of antibiotics in hopes of keeping them on their feet long enough to grow big enough for slaughter. It’s kinda like force-feeding cheese and pepto-bismal to a lactose-intolerant person. Ick.

That’d be bad enough, but the living conditions these animals must endure are legendarily terrible. Animals jammed in cages and pens shoulder to shoulder. So many chickens to one cage that they often have to stand on top of each other. Chickens have their beaks cut off so they can’t peck each other. Pigs have their tails cut, not to prevent them from being bitten – they’re cut so that it’ll hurt more when their bitten so that the pig will kick the biter to prevent him from biting again. The concentrated animal population produces waste so thickly that it’s toxic.

In short, the only positive of these operations seems to be that they produce meats that are affordable enough for the masses. I personally find it hard to say that it’s really worth the level of suffering and pollution caused by concentrated animal farming for cheaper meats. I can’t get all self-righteous, though, because I still do buy chicken and sometimes beef that certainly comes from these operations. The fact that I don’t feel too good about it when I stop to think about it doesn’t count for a whole lot.

Interestingly, it seems that research is starting to show that eating corn-fed meats might be bad for us anyway. Granted, nutritional science still has a long way to go in understanding ALL the ins and outs just what’s good and bad for human beings, but it’s getting there. The book discusses the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, for example. We’ve known for a while that both are needed to keep us healthy, but it seems that more specifically, we need a balance of the two. And it’s looking like eating corn-fed animals throw that balance off quite a bit (which *could* account for the spike in cardiovascular disease in countries that adopt the Western diet).

Industrial Organic & “Whole” Farming

Had I ever taken the time to really sit down and think about it, I might have figured out that “organic” is a different animal from “sustainable.” I think a lot of us have wound up with the idea that these words are inter-changeable. This part was really all about how they’re really not inter-changeable at all.

The industrial organic industry has really taken off in recent years. People WANT to do better, after all. There’s quite a bit written about it in the book, and while it’s interesting, I think I’ll boil it down to this: it’s better than regular industrial agriculture, but it’s not the full answer. Industrial organic agriculture still depends on monocultures, for one thing. For another, the exact definition of “organic” is much more flexible that you might imagine.

I’m going to skip over the rest of the bits about industrial organic farms in favor of talking about “whole” farming – the Polyface farm in particular. The Polyface Farm is run by a man named Joel Salatin, who comes out of this book looking like a combination of a genius and a prophet. He calls himself a grass-farmer because the entire farm system he and his family (he’s the third generation to work the land) have built is based on the grasses growing on the farm’s property. Every facet of the farm is intimately inter-connected with other facets. So much so that that farm seems darn close to a closed system. His wife joked that if they could figure out how to make toilet paper, she’d never have to go to the grocery store at all.

Here’s an example of the inter-connectedness that makes the farm so remarkable. Salatin’s cows are put out to pasture in a fenced off area for a couple of days – just long enough for the cows to eat from the grass ONCE. (If you let them, cows will eat the grass down to the dirt, apparently.) Then they are moved to the next pasture. The moves are timed to the growth of the grass – after the grass has been grazed once, it needs time to grow back a bit…but not too much time or it’ll get “woody” which isn’t optimal for the cows. The pasture is left alone for two or three days to let the manure left behind rest. In that time, bugs infest the manure and hatch into larva. When two or three days are up, chickens are let loose into the pasture. The chickens scratch through the manure to eat the bugs, at the same time spreading the stuff around to fertilize the grass. They’ll eat the bugs out of the grass while they’re at it. This diet makes for eggs that are legendary in the area – incredibly rich. They’re so rich that the chefs that prize them have said that they have to modify their recipes because they need fewer of them. So, by cleverly timing the movement of his animals around the farm, Salatin never has to fertilize anything, his pastures are incredibly healthy, his animals are both incredibly healthy and being treated humanely, and he winds up with superior products. All by moving his livestock around in a particular way.

The book described one inter-connected system after another on the farm until I wound up wondering A) how the hell Salatin figured all this out to start with and B) why there aren’t more farms like this…why is this the exception rather than the norm?? The system on Polyface Farm is FAR more productive than a monoculture farm. It’s not only non-polluting, but it actually improves the land – it’s more fertile the longer this system of farming is in place. And, the animals that are raised are raised humanely.

A few notes about the slaughter of animals on the Polyface farm… Salatin says that if the government would allow it, he’d do all the slaughtering and butchering on site. As it is, he can only get away with slaughtering and cleaning chickens there, and that’s only because of a loop-hole in the laws that lets him sell live chickens. Pollan is on the farm to help with the slaughter and cleaning of the chickens. The whole operation is done in the open air where customers can see that everything is being done cleanly and as humanely as possible.

He must send his pigs and cows to a government inspected slaughterhouse, which adds at least a dollar a pound to the final cost of his pork and beef. He’s tried to get an inspector to come out to him, but the government doesn’t consider it cost-effective (it’s probably not from their perspective), and has so far met with a great deal of resistance.

This part of the book is filled with quotable quotes from Salatin. The one that struck me hardest was this:

“It’s a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons.” ~ Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm

Salatin was commenting on the brain drain happening in rural America for the past generations. This is something that I’ve not only witnessed, but been an active (if unaware) part of. My high school was (and still is) set up to foster generations of little brilliant Salatin-like farming geniuses. Instead, anybody with a glimmer of promise is strongly pushed away from the ag program and toward traditional college. The kids with behavioral problems, the ones with no interest in education of any variety, the ones with more enthusiasm than talent or intelligence were dumped in the ag building. In retrospect, the best I can say about my thinking of the program is that I seem to recall thinking that if I wanted to be an intellectually big fish in a small pond, the ag program was the way to go. I didn’t go that way. I was (and still am) fascinated by the biological sciences and knew for a fact that I had to go get a degree in Biology or Pre-Med to work with that interest. I was wrong. Agriculture is an incredibly practical place to go if you’re interested in biology. Still, if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure that I would have accepted the Ag program at the high school. I suspect that I would have done just as well to study AP Bio and entered an Ag school with that background instead of soaking up the culture of failure that was (and still is) fostered in the high school program. It’s a goddamn shame.

(None of this is said to bust on anybody who actually IS passionate about agriculture. I thank goodness that there are people out there who are passionate about cows and corn and wheat and chickens. Billions of people are fed because of you!)

Final Thoughts

I’ve obviously got a lot to say about this book. It’s thought provoking, VERY well-written, and timely. It’s a wonderful jumping off point for a great number of conversations that are important to have, even if they’re only with yourself.

Ultimately, to me, this is a keeper. As many books as I read, I buy very few – only the ones that mean something to me and/or the ones that I’ll read periodically. I plan on buying this book at some point, and I’ll be reading Pollan’s follow-up to this book (In Defense of Food) as soon as possible. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a must read for anyone interested in the food system in the US – if asked, I’d recommend this one to anyone who liked Fast Food Nation. It’s probably not for everyone… it *could* come off as being a tiny bit preachy if you’re not comfortable with some of your dietary choices.

Overall, this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year so far. Kudos, Mr. Pollan, kudos.

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