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Uh oh: We are what we eat

Michael Pollan's 'Omnivore's Dilemma' challenges our eating habits.
By Kenneth Sutton
Winter 2006 11.1.06

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Journalist Michael Pollan takes an incisive look at four ways to put an American meal on the table in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, examining various chains that our food can follow before arriving on the plate. What he discovers makes for uneasy eating.

If we are what we eat, then surely most Americans are petroleum-soaked corn fritters. Such is the conclusion Pollan draws from tracing a bushel of corn from farmer George Naylor’s Iowa fields through the processing plant and the industrial feedlot to a McDonald’s meal eaten on the road. The most pervasive system of food production in the United States, industrial agriculture, rests upon monocultures of corn and soybeans dependent on heavy additions of petroleum-based fertilizers, chemicals, and fuel. Corn and soybean products provide most of the feed for the cattle, pigs, and chickens we eat, as well as some farm-raised salmon. After processing, compounds from these two crops make their way into (and onto) our food, health products, and even packaging. Reading about America’s dominant system of food production does not stimulate the appetite.

Pollan turns next to what he calls “the pastoral” or agrarian food chain—alternatives to industrial food and farming.

He explores two kinds of “organic” agriculture: the “industrial” organic of Whole Foods and its ilk, and the “beyond organic” of local farmers like Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia. Pollan’s interactions with Salatin are the heart of the book, yet Salatin’s story raises difficult questions. Salatin endorses the local food economy, describing why he calls himself “beyond organic”:

I would much rather use my money to keep my neighborhood productive and healthy than export my dollars five hundred miles away to get “pure product” that’s really coated in diesel fuel. There are a whole lot more variables in making the right decision than does the chicken feed have chemicals or not. Like what sort of habitat is going to allow that chicken to express its physiological distinctiveness? A ten-thousand-bird shed that stinks to high heaven or a new paddock of fresh green grass every day? Now which chicken shall we call “organic”?

Pollan contrasts Salatin’s grasslands-based, management-intensive diversified farm with what he calls “industrial organic”: the organic of Whole Foods and similar chains. Industrial organic doesn’t come off well. This organic, increasingly controlled by large corporations and government regulation, makes many compromises in order to accommodate the large scale required by supermarket chains, and petroleum continues to play a large part in the distribution system. Yet in his evaluation of large-scale organic Pollan makes one of his best exercises in point-of-view. Is organic better?

Better for what? . . . If the answer is “taste,” then the answer is . . . very likely, at least in the case of produce—but not necessarily. . . .

If the answer is “for my health” the answer, again, is probably—but not automatically. . . .

Is it better for the environment? Better for the farmers who grew it? Better for the public health? For the taxpayer? The answer to all three questions is an (almost) unqualified yes.

While Whole Foods and Joel Salatin are sandwiched into one section of the book, there’s a hole in the middle: If a consumer is dissatisfied with some of the compromises made by industrial organic, there’s an enormous gulf between what they need and what Salatin is offering. Pollan writes:

I realized with a bit of a jolt that his [Salatin’s] pastoral, or agrarian, outlook doesn’t adequately deal with the fact that so many of us now live in big cities far removed from the places where our food is grown and from opportunities for relationship marketing. When I asked how a place like New York City fit into his vision of a local food economy he startled me with his answer: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?”

It is in creating more local food economies that the real alternative to corporate food chains lies, yet Pollan’s book can only hint at the possibilities.

The final section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the most personal, the most satisfying, and the most impractical: the neo-Paleolithic food chain. Pollan gathers, forages, and hunts—and as he does so he considers the ethics of eating animals. While Pollan does in the end remain an omnivore, he makes an eloquent plea for us to eat with our eyes open.

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Also of note:

The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans. Patricia Klindienst. Beacon, 2006; $26.95. Klindienst, a master gardener, travels around the United States and shares stories of truly grounded people in touch with their food.

Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It. Michael Ableman. Chronicle, 2005: $35. Ableman, also a farmer, travels from his home in British Columbia across the United States. This beautiful book is full of stories, photos, and recipes.

The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements. Sandor Ellix Katz. Chelsea Green, 2006; $20. Katz, a New York City native now living off-the-grid in Tennessee, provides context and contact information for grass-roots food activism.

Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm and Against Industrial Food. George Pyle. Public Affairs, 2005; $25. Pyle, a newspaper, radio, and television journalist, covers much of the same ground as Michael Pollan, but with a wider, and less personal, lens.

See sidebar for links to related resources.

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