Friday, December 19, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma

This post originally appeared on Have Your Health, a past blog of mine active from 2013-14.


Last month I finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural history of four meals—named one of the top 10 books in 2006 by the New York Times.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Fascinating Read

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Just like Pollan's other books I've read this year (In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and Cooked), The Omnivore's Dilemma was a fascinating read. Pollan is a gifted writer who conveys important information in a clear, honest, and entertaining way. What I love about Pollan is that he always dives right in and gets involved with the source of whatever he's researching, learning first-hand from various people. Living and working on a "grass farm" and learning to hunt wild boar are just two examples of such involvement from this book.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is split into three sections: industrial corn, pastoral grass, and the forest; with their accompanying four meals: fast food, grass-fed, industrial organic, and hunter-gatherer. I never knew reading about corn or the word "organic" could be so interesting! Throughout the book, Pollan points out the problems with the modern American diet, and how they came to be. In the introduction, he writes that this book is the answer to the question "What should we have for dinner?," as well as an exploration of how this basic question became so complicated.

I highly recommend this book for any American eater. Since a summary could in no way live up to or correctly explain concepts learned through reading the whole book, I'll just share some of my big take-aways using quotes that I highlighted while reading. (Note: Book quotes are italicized and blocked.)

Big Take-aways from The Omnivore's Dilemma

The problem with corn

I mentioned earlier that it was so interesting to read about corn in the United States (though also a bit depressing and hopeless). Pollan introduces that section by going through a grocery store and common American food items, tracing each back to the same origin: corn. Basically corn is overproduced and also subsidized by the government, and most is used to make high fructose corn syrup, a cheap and unhealthy sweetener for processed foods.
A farm family needs a certain amount of cash flow every year to support itself, and if the price of corn falls, the only way to stay even is to sell more corn. Naylor says that farmers desperate to boost yield end up degrading their land, plowing and planting marginal land, applying more nitrogen—anything to squeeze a few more bushels from the soil. Yet the more bushels each farmer produces, the lower prices go, giving another turn to the perverse spiral of overproduction.
I liked that I had this background before watching "Fed Up," as the book explains in depth how corn became so cheap, which made it the key ingredient in sodas (high fructose corn syrup) and so many processed foods.

What it means to be "organic"

'The organic label is a marketing tool,' Secretary Glickman said. 'It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is "organic" a value judgement about nutrition or quality.'
While some organic foods are made on smaller farms that take into account natural systems, the book also explored "industrial organic" farms, as the author names them. These industrial organic farms cause many of the same problems as industrial farms, and aren't much more humane to animals and the land. Pollan shows with specific examples how the picture painted on many organic food labels can be just as misleading as non-organic labels.

The magic of a grass farm

I loved the chapters that Pollan spends on Joel Salatin's "grass farm" in Virginia, Polyface. It's often called a grass farm because the various species of grass are so important to the overall health of the farm's ecosystem. Everything is connected, and it was a wonderful reminder of nature's beauty to see the interconnectedness of all species and plants, big and small.
The reason Joel moves his cattle at the end of the day is because that's when sugar levels in the grass hit their peak; overnight the plant will gradually use up these reserves. It seems the chickens eschew fresh manure, so he waits three or four days before bringing them in—but not a day longer. That's because the fly larvae in the manure are on a four-day cycle, he explained.
Joel says that this gives the fly larvae enough time to fatten up for the hens to eat them, but not enough time to actually hatch into flies. He explains how the forest on the northern side of the farm impacts all of the plants and creatures, for example, as well as numerous other elements. It was so eye-opening and refreshing to see that nature's default is health. Here's a snippet of what we learn about Budger, a cow on Joel's farm:
Chances are Budger has also chosen exactly which grasses to eat first, depending on whatever minerals her body craves that day; some species supply her more magnesium, others more potassium. (If she's feeling ill she might go for the plantain, a forb whose leaves contain antibiotic compounds; grazing cattle instinctively use the diversity of the salad bar to medicate themselves.)
We also see how this drastically contrasts to cows raised in industrial farms, which are force fed corn (their stomachs are specifically meant to digest grass) which basically kills them. They have to be kept "healthy" by so many antibiotics and shots (there goes big money to the pharmaceutical companies) which in turn gets absorbed into your body when you eat meat from an industrialized farm. It is absolutely cruelty to animals what happens on such farms, and while it's certainly not pleasant to read the details, I'm really glad that I did and am no longer living in ignorant bliss. Without even consciously deciding to change anything, I haven't been ordering meat at restaurants nor buying it from the grocery store.

The environmental impact of industrial farming

I think the biggest thing most people think about when it comes to industrial farming is the negative impact on animals. What I had never given much thought to before reading this book is the entire environmental impact, and how farming is connected to global warming.
For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road. We seldom focus on farming's role in global warming, but as much as a third of all the greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow.
It was also important to see how these impacts, both environmental and human health-related, aren't taken into account at all when pricing food items.
The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost—to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of  food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves. If not for this sort of blindman's accounting, grass would make a lot more sense than it now does.
I think many people don't buy organic or grass-fed items because you can get off-brands cheaper, but Pollan makes the point that as a consumer, you can choose to either pay for "honestly priced" or "irresponsibly priced" food. I now keep this in my mind when I'm grocery shopping.

While shopping I also remind myself that Americans spend the lowest percent of their paychecks on food compared to any other country, which always gets me to go for the better option. I'm paying for my current and future health when I make good food choices, as well as helping the environment and reducing our country's future health care costs.

Read The Omnivore's Dilemma This Month

I highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma; why not pick it up from your library this week and start reading it? While the book communicates must-know information about America's food sources, it's engaging and fun to read at the same time.

Has anyone else read The Omnivore's Dilemma? What did you think?
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