Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.
The Penguin Press, New York, 2006. 450 pp., hardcover, $26.95.
We humans consume food many times throughout each day, even those of us on the verge of starvation. Therefore, our decisions about what to eat, however meagre the meal, have a huge economic and social impact. Normally, most of us aren’t too conscious of our choices, which makes them no choice at all. Michael Pollan invites us to be aware of those choices, and with his skilful coaching the potential impact of such awareness could be both subversive and enormous.
Pollan hangs the arguments of this book on four meals that he bought and (mostly) prepared for himself and for his family and some friends. The first meal was of the fast food industrial variety, the second, industrial organic. The third was small scale organic. The last meal was literally hunted and gathered by Pollan himself.
The arguments are complex and many-layered. Pollan didn’t stay at home to write this book; he participated in its subject matter. For example, he bought a steer that was to be factory-farmed, and he worked – hard – on an organic farm for a week in southwestern Virginia. He is careful to underline the social as well as the culinary context of each of the meals – whom he invited to each meal and why, and what the conversation was about.
Much of Pollan’s attention is on how cheap corn underpins the industrial food system of the United States. Here’s how it works. In the early 1970s, a spike in food prices, especially of grain, was shaping up to be politically damaging to the Nixon administration (who knew what was coming?) Nixon told his Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, to deal with it. Butz responded by finishing off a partially dismantled New Deal program. This program had helped farmers financially when corn prices were low but discouraged them from growing more corn until prices rose.
Instead, Butz simply paid the farmers directly the difference between the actual price and what it cost them to grow corn, plus a modest profit. This policy ensured the production of huge amounts of cheap corn for exporters and especially for processors of corn products. (Large scale distribution systems with centralized ownership made it almost impossible for farmers to diversify and grow different kinds of vegetables and grains.)
“So,” writes Pollan, “the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn.” He means huge companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Coca-Cola, which sweetens its drinks with high fructose corn syrup now.
According to Pollan, cheap corn has literally fuelled the processed and fast food industries. They found so many ways to use corn by-products, from sweeteners to “natural flavours” and “stabilizers”, that almost every processed food in North America contains substantial amounts of corn derivatives.
Cheap corn caused another revolution. It transformed the meat industry. While pigs and chicken thrive on rooting around to find what makes up their widely varied diet, cattle are designed to digest grass. They even have a special organ for the purpose (the rumen). The advent of oceans of cheap corn made it possible to take the cattle out of the pastures and the pigs and chickens out of the barnyards and herd them into huge feedlots and buildings. Once the animals were all in one place, all you had to do was shovel in the corn-based feed, which fattens up animals very quickly. The factory farm had arrived, with a vengeance.
The health of the animals was another story. The close confinement of the normally free-foraging pigs and chickens made them neurotic and sickly. The cattle, forced to eat only corn in the last five months of their 15-month life, suffered predictably. Antibiotics and other chemicals quickly appeared to stave off disease and to deal with digestion problems – but the result was, among other things, manure classified as toxic waste. Pollan’s investigations even revealed that “organic” chicken and milk were distinguished only by the fact that the chickens and cows ate organic corn and soybeans.
Artificially cheap corn clearly emerges as one of Pollan’s chief villains. It has generated not only factory farms with chemically-laced meat products from unhealthy animals, but also all the sickness and obesity now linked to processed and fast foods. Why are we doing this? Pollan says corn was used this way because “our civilization…[is] organized along industrial lines.” (201) In this sense he identifies a prior, cultural bias as the key to our noxious food system – a mechanical worldview.
The NPK Mentality vs. Real Organic Farming
In the case of agriculture, the mechanistic mentality showed up in the writings of a 19th century chemist who asserted that if soil had the right balance of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), that was all a farmer needed to ensure his soil’s abundant fertility. Sir Albert Howard, the philosophical father of organic agriculture, excoriated this “NPK mentality” as the reason for Western agriculture’s destruction of the soil and ecologically disastrous use of artificial fertilizers – followed by chemical herbicides and pesticides. In fact, the character of soil fertility and health is so complex as to be essentially a mystery and certainly incapable of being modelled in a mechanical way. “The NPK mentality,” Pollan writes, “represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst.”
With considerable prescience, Howard predicted the adoption of synthetic fertilizers would damage the health not only of the soil but also of the plants, the humans, and other animals who ate those plants. Pollan presents convincing contemporary scientific evidence that Howard was right – even before the food is subjected to further indignities from the processing and fast food industries.
The irony is compounded, Pollan shows, by the fact that the industrial food system, despite its claims, is also monstrously inefficient. It uses seven to ten calories of energy (mostly from oil) to produce one calorie of food energy on the farm. Then the distribution and processing systems use up four times the energy used on the farm. Because of its farm practices, industrial organic food, which is also mostly processed, is just as wasteful as conventionally produced food.
Proponents of industrial farming are right that its corn and soybean yields per acre are higher, for the most part, but that argument assumes one field, one crop. Many farmers (and Pollan) argue that authentic organic farms rotate animals around cropland so that animals and plants feed each other. Pollan spent a week with organic farmer Joel Salatin, who works with grass and grape crops and with the natural eating and defecation habits of half a dozen kinds of animals.
Drawing on many years of experience, Salatin taps into an astonishing array of complex cycles of nutrients. Here’s one example. During the winter, the cattle are kept in an open-sided barn, eating hay and producing manure. Every few days, Salatin covers over the manure with straw, a little corn, and wood chips. The “floor” of the barn keeps rising throughout the winter, and it keeps the cattle warm because its ingredients are composting. In early spring, Salatin takes the cattle to pasture and brings in his pigs, who are crazy about the corn that has been fermenting all winter. As they root out the forty proof corn, they aerate the compost so it reaches a high enough temperature to kill all the pathogens. In a few days it is rich and cakey and ready to use.
Using many such methods, at the end of the growing season, Salatin’s 100 acre (40 hectare) farm has produced (222)
10,000 broiling chickens
800 stewing hens
50 beeves (25,000 pounds of beef)
250 hogs (25,000 pounds of pork)
Although Pollan doesn’t write about them, other farming systems use similar complex interdependencies to grow multiple crops such as corn, beans, and squash (Weatherford) or rice and barley (Fukuoka), often without the presence of animals.
A major question dealt with in the central portion of the book is whether industrial organic farms should be called organic at all. The evocative connotations of “organic”, informed by counter-cultural ideals of the 1960s, have been appropriated by large corporations, in order to market their food grown without pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. “Organic milk” comes from factory farms where thousands of cows are fed organic grain that gives them the same indigestion as that experienced by milk cows of conventional factory farms. Earthbound Farms in California produces 40% of the organic salad mix grown in North America, having perfected a system of growing greens on laser-leveled beds that can be harvested by machines – 2.5 million pounds a week. By the time the pre-packaged salad mix reaches a supermarket in New York, 57 calories of fossil fuel energy have been used to produce a single calorie of food energy.
As the example of Salatin’s farm shows, authentic organic farming is as complex and subtle as Nature herself, who weaves together multiple layers of interdependence and has a fine appreciation of scale. Salatin tells Pollan that his farm could not be any larger and still be organic. Tell that to Earthbound Farms.
It might be time for the real organic growers to find another adjective for themselves, perhaps something like “natural farming”. Pollan suggests that local should now trump organic in choosing tasty, fresh, and ecologically sensible food. In any case, he left me wondering whether the term industrial organic is not just oxymoronic but also moronic.
Shooting the Pig
The final section of the book takes a new direction: hunting and gathering. Having left these methods of obtaining food a mere 10,000 years ago, says Pollan, we humans still have hunter-gatherer bodies that thrive on wild food. He actually stalks and kills his own wild pig and gathers wild mushrooms for a hunter-gatherer dinner – the climax of the book. His descriptions of these excursions, laced with numerous philosophical musings, are definitely interesting, but rather long – there’s a repetitiveness that gives one the feeling he was being paid by the word. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the detail, because it is clear that the whole process of going into the wild was emotionally charged for him.
Never mind. This is a marvelous book, on many levels. One marvel is Pollan’s wonderfully participatory approach to his topic, which gives his argument great integrity. He doesn’t just visit Salatin’s farm. He works on it for a week, during which time he swallows his disgust and takes part in “processing” chickens, i.e., killing a score of them himself. He follows his industrial steer right to the door of the slaughterhouse, where he is pointedly refused admission. The son of a “devout indoorsman”, he’s never shot a gun, let alone hunted; but he nevertheless undertakes to hunt the pig.
Another marvel of the book is how effectively the author’s passionate engagement drives the reader to examine his or her own choices about food. He prods us by saying that North Americans have few traditional food rules or practices. On the one hand, such rules might be seen as limiting in a society where “choice” is glorified. But the implications of this culture of choice, which of course is not limited to food, are that we are susceptible to all sorts of outside influences.
For example, the Omnivore’s Dilemma’s opening paragraphs describe the food fads that have shaped the eating habits of millions of North Americans – avoiding red meat in the 1970s, fat in the 1980s, and carbohydrates in the 1990s. (My father-in-law is skinny as a rail at 92 and says he wants to gain weight, but he still buys only skim milk.) These fads have been fuelled by highly publicized scientific reports and by dozens of popular books advocating certain kinds of diets. Another case of manipulation, exposed by Pollan and others, is Industrial Food’s lie that it is providing us with a cornucopia of choices. “Choice” is a slippery word. If the choosers are unaware of alternatives, they imagine they have “freedom” of choice – among, say, five different brands of chemically-laced peanut butter in plastic “jars”.
If this is the smoke-and-mirrors landscape of our food “choices” in North America, then some “traditional” food rules – no pork, periodic fasting, vegetarianism – start to look more attractive and less arbitrary. Those rules also remind us of the social dimensions of eating our meals, with families and with celebratory purposes.
Pollan points out that omnivores such as rats and humans, simply because they have to make a choice, need to exercise their brains much more than organisms that eat only one or two things. Coming across an unfamiliar food we must ask, Is it poisonous? Is it tasty? Can I digest it? According to Pollan, research indicates that omnivores’ brains are larger and more intricate because of this culinary angst. (Perhaps we are more neurotic as well!) Without stretching matters too far, it is plausible to suggest that being omnivores gives us the potential for evolution beyond the 17th century mechanistic trance we are stuck in.
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Throughout most of this book, I kept feeling that its title was a poor one. It sounded overly erudite. It did not truly reflect what the author was doing. His message was articulate and clear: oil- and corn-based industrial food is ruining our land and our health; industrial organics are not far behind; and wherever possible we should choose fresh, local food. There’s no dilemma at all, or at least one of its horns was exposed as an imaginary one.
By the final chapter, however, Pollan had actually demonstrated just how many more choices – even dilemmas – we have when we try to eat responsibly, with an awareness of the true costs of each ingredient of our meal and with gratitude that we always eat by the grace of nature. Spreading this awareness must be one of the most important strategies for meaningful social change, I believe, because that awareness carries with it the withdrawal of support for many powerful institutions and corporations that are causing harm to the biosphere. These institutions and corporations have persuaded us that we do not have any dilemmas at all, as long as we remain docile, ignorant consumers. Omnivore’s Dilemma invites us to participate, bite by bite, meal by meal, in transforming both the economics and the social meaning of food.
“Food and the Realities of Choice,” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma) Green Horizon Quarterly, No. 16 (Summer 2007), 9-11