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21 April 2010

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan 

This was exactly what I thought it would be; an exploration into from whence our food comes. As William Inge wrote, "The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive."

I can sum up this book in the convoluted phrase "You are what you eat. AND you are what what you eat eats too." This was the big enlightening discovery of
In Defense of Food but it is detailed very completely here. Corn. And more corn. And still more corn. Why corn? Because we have a lot of it. So we designed a system based entirely around our surplus. Even though that system makes very little sense.

"As productive and protean as the corn plant is, finally it is a set of human choices that have made these molecules quite as cheap as they have become; a quarter century of farm policies designed to encourage overproduction of this crop and hardly any other. Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country but not carrots ... guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest."

The most useful section, in my opinion, was the section describing Pollan's time on Polyface farm, a "pasture-based, beyond organic, local market farm, mimicking natural patterns on a commercial, domestic scale." A brilliant way to farm. Brilliant because nature is built to function in a complicated symbiosis and much of our agricultural history has been spent manufacturing shortcuts to that symbiosis, to no good end except having more and have that more really be less in the long run. Cheap industrial food is subsidized so that its real cost is not reflected in the supermarket. So we buy cheap food. And the government supports this, making it hard for farms like Polyface to function (weighing it down with rules, regs and roadblocks).

But it makes so much sense. Using manure and compost instead of artificial pesticides and fertilizers (pests are nature's way of telling you you're doing something wrong) in a delicate dance of cows, pigs, chickens, plants, forest, all working together. It's an intense way to farm but completely sustainable. “We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.” Joel Salatin (owner of Polyface).

I rather lost my way in the third section, regarding hunting and gathering. But perhaps that is just because I'm not quite ready for that yet. I'm ready to continue to change my eating habits (kicked fast food and mass produced food some time ago ... now trying to be much more local and sustainable, which means kicking my Whole Foods habit, which is extremely difficult) but I'm not ready to try and opt out to the point that I'm interested in hunting wild boar. Not yet, at least.

What I really want to read is a concise "how to buy food" based on discoveries and research revealed in this, and other, books about our American propensity to support unsustainable systems. I thought
In Defense of Food would be that book. It was not. I'm still waiting ... ;)

"You have just dined and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity." Emerson