Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Finally, I'm getting around to reviewing a book that I read two years ago, although if you're a regular reader, you've heard me quote Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" more than once. In a nutshell, the omnivore's dilemma is answering one simple question: what to eat? The answer for cows and coyotes is pretty simple. They're hard-wired to eat very specific foods. If you're a coyote, you eat whatever is smaller and tries to run away. If you're a cow, you eat whatever you're standing on.

For centuries, culture provided the answer to this question for humans, but Americans have no food culture, and corporations have muddied the field even more. When you think of food in France, Italy, India or China, the choices seem obvious, but when you think of food in America, you think of what? We gave the world McDonald's, KFC, and a host of other fast food corporations that dish out food-like substances with 40 ingredients, lots of fat, and no fiber.

The book is divided into three sections -- or possible answers -- to the question of what's for dinner. First choice is the fast food meal, provided by conventional agriculture. Second choice is organic, which Pollan quickly learns is not as simple as it used to be. Third choice is foraging and hunting.

The conventional agriculture answer to the question is a fast food meal, and it all goes back to corn. The burger comes from corn-fed beef. The fries are fried in corn and/or soybean oil. McNuggets contain corn starch, are breaded with a mixture including corn flour, and may be fried in corn oil. The soft drink and dessert are sweetened with corn syrup. And the list goes on. Although we grow lots of corn in this country, it is not edible by humans. It is either broken down into food additives, fed to livestock, or increasingly used for ethanol production.

The organic answer to dinner got pretty messy when Pollan realized that there was a difference between industrial organic and sustainable organic. Industrial organic would be the frozen dinner at Whole Foods. The sustainable organic comes from the local farmer. Pollan visited both types of places, and after reading about Rosie the organic chicken, I'm glad I've never given in and eaten an organic grocery store chicken. The industrial organic chickens are raised in a manner that is very similar to conventional chickens, but they are given organic feeds and provided "access" to the outdoors during the last couple weeks of their very short lives (less than two months). I'd love to meet the brilliantly unethical genius who came up with the phrase "access to the outdoors" when crafting the US organic legislation. What this means for organic chicken factories is that they open a tiny door in the big building, and since the little chickens have never been outside the building in their entire lives, they don't think about going out now.

For sustainable organic, Pollan spends a week on the farm of Joel Salatin in Virginia. Those of us who are into sustainable practices have known about and duplicated Salatin's practices for many years, and it's great that Pollan brought Polyface Farm into the limelight. Salatin's chickens are put on pasture, and his farm has an open-door policy, so his customers can see exactly what they are buying. They can even watch butchering.

The section on hunting and foraging for food was very informative since I've never foraged for mushrooms or hunted a wild boar. It is, of course, the least feasible meal for most Americans, but it was interesting to me from a historical perspective.

Ever since reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" two years ago, I've been saying that everyone who eats should read this book, and I still say that. Unlike most Americans who think that the government is taking care of everything, I think we are responsible for something as simple as what we eat. And while government might approve of a food additive that was just invented five years ago, who knows what it will do to the human body in 20 or 30 years? It might scare a lot of people even more to know that most food substances don't need government approval.

While this book didn't change a lot about the way we do things, it did reinforce some of my beliefs -- like not buying industrial organic meat. After church on Sunday, a librarian friend (thanks, Renee!) gave me an advance reading copy of the young reader's edition of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is due to come out in October. It is considerably shorter, although still almost 300 pages, and it has pictures. I especially liked the picture from the Salatin farm, as I always enjoy learning more about how they do things. I also got to see a picture of the inside of a chicken factory. So, if you're not up to reading the full-length Omnivore's Dilemma, I'd urge you to buy a copy of the young reader's edition for your kids or grandkids -- and if you just happen to read it before you give it to them, that's okay.

2 comments:

Jannette Johnson said...

Great post. I agree with you. I think everyone who eats should find out just where their food is coming from and how it's processed.

There's another book out called the No-Nonsense Guide To World Food.

Bottom line is, we need to take back our food

Jenny Holden said...

Really enjoyed this interesting post thanks. I too had this concern about industrial organic foods, thinking that they are barely better than the conventional. I might even have to read the book!

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