Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Dilly of a Dilemma

After months of waiting to get my hands on it, plus a couple of weeks to work my way slowly and thoughtfully through its pages, I've finally finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and can highly recommend it.

Like a number of other recent books, Pollan puts on his investigative journalist's hat and tracks back along the food chain to find out where our food really originates. The striking thing about Pollan's effort is that not only does he explore three different ways of bringing food to the table (industrial agriculture, local and sustainable agriculture, and hunting and gathering), he actually gets his hands dirty along the way.

In his overview of industrial agriculture, Pollan tracks his meal from an Iowa cornfield to a McDonald's takeout bag. While he covers points others have made -– such as the enormous amounts of chemicals and other petroleum products used to sustain the industry, the dangers of monoculture, the appalling conditions of factory farms, and the health consequences of eating a highly processed diet dependent on these points –- he goes into more depth and ties it all together, showing what this demand for and reliance on cheap food has gotten us:

One reason that obesity and diabetes become more prevalent the further down the socioeconomic scale you look is that the industrial food chain has made energy-dense foods the cheapest foods in the market, when measured in terms of cost per calorie. (p.107)

...farmers who get the message that consumers care only about price will themselves care only about yield. This is how a cheap food economy reinforces itself. (p.136)

For those of us who would prefer to see this industrial food system diminish through greatly decreased subsidies and provide fewer of our dining options, Pollan indicates that it's not so easy to break away from this unsustainable form of agriculture:

In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, Detroit, pharmaceuticals (without which they couldn't keep animals healthy in CAFOs), agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Growing corn helps drive the very industrial complex that drives it. No wonder the government subsidizes it so lavishly. (p.201)

So even though the McDonald's meal for Pollan, his wife, and his son came to only $14 overall, he notes that the true cost of a fast food meal will be paid in taxes to support environmental cleanup, subsidies, legislation; rising health care costs; and greater reliance on all the products that sustain industrial agriculture.

After exploring this track, he turns his attention to the local and organic and sustainable agriculture movements, noting the overlap and the conflicts between all of them. He spent a week working at Polyface Farm, getting his hands dirty both in the soil and the slaughterhouse and coming to understand the appeal of local agriculture:

...a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore. (p.259)

As part of this research, Pollan chose to become a vegetarian for a temporary period, trying to understand how meat-eating contributes to environmental and health problems, but also learning how conscientious meat-eating can support good agricultural practices. This section of the book was especially eye-opening for me, even though I've never been a dogmatic vegetarian, because he made some compelling points that have caused me to examine my own choices more deeply:

What troubles me most about my vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this might sound, from a whole dimension of human experience. (pp 313-314)

The notion of granting rights to animals may lift us up from the brutal, amoral world of eater and eaten –- of predation –- but along the way it will entail the sacrifice, or sublimation, of part of our identity –- of our own animality. (pp 314-315)

...it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature –- rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls –- then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do. (pp 326-327)

Finally, the author decides to learn how to hunt and forage in order to provide a meal for which all the "karmic" cost is paid up front, connecting him as intimately as possible with the organisms he intends to eat. While he admits that for most of us, such a meal is rarely possible and such a way of eating is not sustainable on a global scale, he makes a compelling argument for learning how to gather wild foods and understanding "the true costs of the things we take for granted" (p.409).

Is any one way of food production the only true way? Pollan thinks not, and his even-handed research makes it hard to argue with his conclusion. Still, we can all benefit from knowing more about where our food comes from: "To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction" (p.11).

Maybe that's not such a dilemma after all.

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