Would you like corn with that? (You may not have a choice...) [CREDIT: SXC]
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
By Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, 2006 ($26.95)
Walking into a supermarket and encountering aisle after aisle of food stacked beyond reach can be overwhelming. What to eat? Our sense of taste and our brushes with foods that taste bitter from spoiling or that have made us ill have guided our selections for thousands of years. But in approaching the “omnivore’s dilemma” today, Michael Pollan poses a few key questions for the modern muncher: What exactly am I eating? Where did it come from? What is its true cost? As he travels through four food chains—detailing in each chain where the food originated and the steps that brought it to the dinner table—Pollan provides insightful answers to this problem. He explores food originating from industrial farms, industrial organic and local organic farms, and modern foraging.
Determining what one is eating seems easy enough: It’s pasta, a hamburger, yogurt, salad. But when Pollan traces the natural history of his family’s typical American fast-food meal from McDonald’s (eaten in a car, of course), he learned that most of the food included some form of corn. Corn travels through a maze of feedlots, processing plants, and chemistry labs before it turns up in sweeteners, packed as a filler in meat, and as an oil coating for vegetables. This serpentine food chain disguises exactly what we are eating, Pollan convincingly argues, separating us from our meals, and giving us less control over our health.
Even the origin of a supposedly healthy meal can be deceiving. Large, monoculture industrial organic farms that supply Whole Foods and similar organic mega-stores market to the conscientious eater but look closer, as Pollan did, and you may be surprised by where this food is coming from. “Free-range” chickens are housed by the thousands and, even though they do have access to a 15-foot-wide grass run for a few days of their short life, Pollan says “free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for those chickens as a two-week vacation option.” In contrast, Pollan’s account of a small, sustainable, organic farm in Virginia reveals that truly free-range chickens are ecologically linked to almost everything on the farm, from the trees in the valley to the grass in the meadow where they live.
How much did dinner cost? Whereas the industrial food chain’s product is downright cheap for the consumer, Pollan explains the hidden costs of industrial agriculture that make sustainable, organic food an economically reasonable alternative. Government subsidies encourage a surplus that drives the price of corn-based food down. But citizens’ tax contributions, the environmental costs due to water pollution from fertilizer run-off, and the health effects associated with antibiotic resistance that results from routinely dosing farm animals and epidemic obesity from eating high-calorie fast food, aren’t factored into that paltry shelf price.
Beyond the economic costs, Pollan points out that the omnivore also faces a moral dilemma. When Pollan hunts, gathers, and grows an entire meal, he is forced to confront the ethics of eating animals. Though killing the wild boar for his main course was a jarring and gruesome experience, Pollan persuasively insists that killing animals for food is morally sound, especially in comparison to industrial agriculture practices. The high walls of slaughterhouses and the long industrial food chain make it difficult for consumers to realize (or easy for them to ignore) the issues of animal rights in conventional agriculture.
Pollan’s thorough reporting and insightful writing encourages his readers to be thoughtful eaters. While Pollan clearly encourages subsisting on sustainable, organic foods, he also recognizes the difficulties of feeding our nation on local food. He notes the importance of diversified food economy and urges consumers to look closer at whatever they decide to eat. Knowing exactly what our meal contains and how it got to our plate may make us and our environment healthier.