By Robert Silvey
Michael Pollan’s delectable new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, examines the wretched state of modern agricultureâ€”and the unhealthy relationship most of us have with what we eatâ€”by tracing the origin and consumption of four very different meals. He concludes that Americans now live in a wasteland of bland, interchangeable commodities, dominated by monocultured corn and fueled by imported oil. It’s not a pretty sight, but Pollan writes with such verve and insight that the book is hard to put down.
For the first meal, Pollen takes his family to McDonald’s; like 19 percent of all meals in the US, this one is eaten in the car. Next, he prepares a meal from ingredients labeled “organic,” a feel-good label that is now often applied to food produced in industrialized, energy-wasteful ways. He then visits a farm in western Virginia where sustainable multicrops, free-range animals, and ecological reuse create a happily updated version of the traditional family farm. And finally, he turns hunter-gatherer to create a meal with ingredients from the gardens and forests of Northern California: he shoots a feral pig, hunts mushrooms, picks cherries and lettuce, and even captures wild yeast for his bread.
As Pollan describes the making of each meal, he examines various aspects of the dysfunctional agribusiness system that feeds us cheap food but extracts the cost in other ways: degraded ecosystems, bankrupt farmers, hollowed-out communities, tortured animals, tasteless food, increased obesity and diabetes, and military expenses to protect our sources of oil. The consequences of how we eat ramify in every direction, affecting economy, environment, psychology, and governmentâ€”and the effects are usually bad.
But there are heroes in the book, notably Virginian Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, who practices a holistic, hands-on “grass farming” that produces large quantities of chickens, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, beef, and pork in a recycling dance of interrelated growth, consumption, decay, and regrowth. He calls his work “grass farming” because most of the energy input is sunlight transformed by chlorophyll into grasses that are eaten by the animals, who in turn replenish the soil with manure. It’s a nearly closed system in which Salatin buys almost everything he needs locally, and he sells all of his output locally.
The lesson, as Wendell Barry once said, is that “eating is an agricultural act.” Pollan adds that is is “also an ecological act, and a political act, too,” and we can do many things to improve our own eating habits that will also improve, bit by bit, the agricultural system that feeds us. He does not suggest that we return entirely to hunting and gathering, though growing a small garden is a feasible gesture even for many urbanites. Buying organic food is also a step in the right direction, though the label often means only that the food is free of chemical pesticides, not necessarily that it has been grown sustainably or humanely.
Buying from a local farmers’ marketâ€”or a local farmerâ€”is the best approach, and the more frequently we can eat locally (and seasonally) the better it will be for our health and for local farmers’ finances. It is a way to avoid wasting energy by transporting food long distances and at the same time to create a living community of producers and consumers who operate outside the industrialized world of big agribusiness. Pollan puts it like this:
[T]here exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized. Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures. This is something nature never does, always and for good reason practicing diversity instead.â€¦
Another theme, or premise really, is that the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.â€¦ Our eating also constitutes a relationship with dozens of other speciesâ€”plants, animals, and fungiâ€”with which we have coevolved to the point where our fates are deeply entwined.
The dilemma of the omnivore? It’s simply that since our bodies have evolved to digest anything from carrots to chicken eggs, from radicchio to seal blubber, we must make decisions every time we eat. Unlike the koala, for whom eucalyptus leaves are in the class of edible things and all else is in the class of inedible things, humans have to choose, and the line can be drawn in many different places. It’s easy enough to rule out poisonous items, but harder to balance more or less healthful, cheaper or tastier, greater quantity or higher quality. And harder still when we begin to consider buying locally, or buying only well-treated animals, or eating only organic foods, or becoming vegetarian.
I can think of no better primer for these vexed questions than The Omnivore’s Dilemmaâ€”Pollan is an engaging storyteller and a challenging thinker. Just don’t try to read him while eating a Big Mac. You may lose your appetite.
[Cross-posted at Rubicon]