The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I stayed up late last night reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is quite a superb book. I would highly recommend that those of you who haven’t read it, do so–even if you don’t think of yourself as being very interested in food. (Although if you’re not into food, I’m not sure what you’re doing here.)

I already have an appreciation for Michael Pollan, after reading The Botany of Desire, and this only cemented my respect for his writing style and journalistic skills. The premise of the book, for those with their heads in the ground, is that he wanted to track the natural history of four meals–a fast food lunch, a corporate organic dinner, a beyond organic meal, and a wild-crafted dinner party. The book traces the roots of all these food experiences in that order, and it’s quite revealing.

Talking about fast food and industrial agriculture, Pollan taught me a lot about the history and biology of corn, along with the inner workings of the ruminant digestive system. Much of the information in this chapter was known to me, but some of it wasn’t, and it was quite eye opening to see industrial agriculture laid out in this way, from the subsidies we pay for corn to the beef we fatten on it in overcrowded feedlots. Everything is connected.

The next section of the book concerned itself with “industrial organic,” the widespread commercialization of “organic” agriculture, and what exactly the word organic means. This seems especially relevant given the explosion of organic produce in the grocery store, and the growing debate over organic labelling. Can you really call food “organic” when it requires extensive petrochemicals to transport to your dinner table? When it’s actually harder on the land than some industrial agriculture, thanks to intensive management practices required to eliminate pests without the use of chemicals? When it’s owned by huge corporations, like General Mills? Surely every little bit helps, but as Pollan points out, depending on the source, “organic” may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Which is what brought him to the next section, on a movement one might call “beyond organic,” which is focused on producing food in a natural way, on small farms, with sustainable management practices. The farm he writes about, Polyface, is a perfect example of an essentially self-sustaining farm. Cows are moved from pasture to pasture while free range chickens follow in their wake. A wide variety of vegetables are produced, in season, while turkeys keeps pests out of the orchard and pigs root around in the woods. Unlike corporate organic, the farmer doesn’t need to truck in compost and manure–he produces it all right on the farm, with a complex and interconnected web of systems which cooperate to produce delicious, local food. (Truly local–the farm won’t ship, because they believe there should be a focus on locally produced foods and knowing your farmer.) This is the sort of thing most of us envision when we hear words like organic, free range, and cruelty free.

This was the most interesting chapter, to me, because I too believe in buying local, in knowing your farmer, and in transparency about the source of your food. In an ideal world, this is how all of us would live, but as Pollan points out, many people live in dense urban areas, where it might be impractical. Hence the rise of CSAs–community supported agriculture, where city dwellers buy “shares” in a farm and in return receive boxes of fresh produce every week. Beyond organic is the new organic, and sadly with our mushrooming population, it may never be achievable for all of us.

There’s another reason farms like this face significant challenges–because they are self sustaining, there are no profits in them to be had by the petrochemical industry, big pharma, and other corporations which profit, in a big way, from industrial agriculture. As a result, these farms are constantly under fire–not allowed to slaughter their own meat for commercial sale, for example. Even industrial organic feeds the beast to some extent, since it utilizes migrant labour, chilled packing rooms, combine harvesters and refrigerated trucks, and many of the other sundries of large scale agriculture.

The final chapter deals with hunting and foraging for food, and in many ways was the least interesting to me. Perhaps because I grew up in the woods eating things I hunted and harvested–his tortured prose and agonies over the moral dilemma of killing a pig were, to be blunt, rather boring. The whole thing felt very artificial and cutesy to me, which is odd, since I thought I was all about people foraging for their own food and getting connected with their dinner. I think I still am, I just don’t need to read about it.

Especially the moral agony over hunting. I fail to see why anyone who eats meat should have a problem with killing, skinning, gutting, and butchering an animal. I don’t want to hear about it. The neatly packaged meat in the grocery store comes with a much higher price, most of the time–a lifetime of suffering in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, wallowing in piles of manure and misery, and inefficiently butchered by uncaring (and sometimes sadistic) employees in unclean environments (which are guaranteed to spread disease, so the meat is irradiated). Killing an animal which has lived a normal life in a clean and efficient manner, with respect, seems like a situation that shouldn’t result in a moral quandry, especially if you were shovelling down cornfed feedlot steak the night before.

The book is certainly food for thought, and I know that it’s stimulating a lot of discussion about what we eat, and where we source it, and that’s a good thing. Brick by brick, the wall of industrial agriculture may fall…

[The Omnivore’s Dilemma]