Monday, August 9, 2010

My inspiration Mondays - The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma is another thought provoking read by Michael Pollan (the author of In Defense of Food).
I found it similar in style to Animal Vegetable Miracle, in that Pollan has intertwined facts about the food industry with a personal story - his exploration of where our food comes from.

Pollan originally planned to divide the book into three parts - industrial, organic and personal meals, but discovered the label 'organic' is not all it seems in the United States, so split that category into industrial organic and local sustainable.

Apparently America is now a nation of corn eaters, whether Americans realise it or not.

This is because of a legislative change that occurred during the Nixon administration. Where corn supply had been regulated so farmers got a fair price and there was a steady supply onto the market, now farmers are encouraged to sell as much corn as they can. The result is a continuous surplus of cheap corn for buyers, and too low a payment for farmers. (I've given a really simplistic explanation here. For more detail you'll need to read The Omnivore's Dilemma.)

To stay afloat, corn growers try to produce more and more corn every year, using things like chemical fertilisers and pesticides to maximise production. This is doing irreparable damage to their soil. It's also a way of farming that's reliant on ever-depleting fossil fuels.

And then there's the problem of what to do with all that corn, which isn't the juicy sweet corn you're probably imagining, but rather a maize-like corn that has to be processed to be made "edible" for humans.

This corn is turned into High Fructose Corn Syrup, thickeners, preservatives, vegetable gums and many of the unpronounceable ingredients you'll have seen on packet foods. It's also processed into things like breakfast cereals and breads.

And it reaches people via animals, because to ensure a continuous supply of cheap meat in the United States, corn is fed to chickens, cows and pigs. That's fine for the chickens and pigs (or at least it would be if they weren't housed in the appalling conditions they are), but not so good for cows, which are designed to eat pasture. Eating corn makes cows sick, so they are also fed a steady diet of antibiotics alongside it to keep them functioning.

In his investigation of industrial food, Pollan visited a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), where cows are kept penned up in close quarters and fed a diet of mainly corn and antibiotics. Pollan manages to keep his description of this visit light, although I can imagine it would have had his stomach heaving to see and smell what he did.

I came away from reading this section thinking what a mess the United States food industry is in, and as a result, the health of its consumers. It will really be up to those consumers to try and make educated decisions about the food they buy, in order to support the industries that aren't caught in an awful petrol - corn - processed foods cycle.

Which is why Pollan investigated other ways of sourcing food.

Industrial organic
As Pollan points out, you would think the ideas 'industrial' and 'organic' could never fit together the way they now do in the States, but it's a way that food processors have managed to take some of the ideals of organic food production and mix them with the efficiencies of industrial processing and transportation to form profitable organisations.

Industrial organic has it's benefits. It avoids synthetic fertliser and pesticide use, and animals are kept healthy without the use of antibiotics.

But it doesn't fully live up to the ideals of true organics: For efficiency, food is still grown in monocultures, reducing the interaction of nature and the benefits of crop rotation and companion planting; It is still shipped and processed around the country, using large amounts of fossil fuels; And there is a disconnect between how it is marketed to customers and the reality, ie. an egg carton picture of free range chickens foraging in the grass is nothing like the barn where they spend their lives.

Local sustainable
In comparison, local sustainable does live up to the original vision of organic foods.

To research for this section Pollan spent a week working for Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms, seeing for himself how a truly organic and sustainable farm is run. Originally Pollan asked Salatin to send him one of his chickens; Salatin refused because he thinks food should be eaten in the area it's grown - shipping it is wasteful. This piqued Pollan's curiosity, which is how he ended up on the farm.

This was my favourite section of the book; so rich were Pollan's descriptions of animals getting to live out their true desires and eat their natural diet.

I loved reading about the ingenious way Joel Salatin's rotates his animals around the farm at exactly the right time to get the best from each of them. Chickens are housed in large open-floor, moveable pens. They are brought onto a paddock three days after the cows have been moved off that paddock. That gives maggots in the cow patties enough time to plump up so the chickens will want to eat them. Pollan describes how the chickens do a sort of backwards dance over the patties, scratching into them to get at the juicy maggots (and simultaneoulsy spreading fertiliser around the paddocks). When we had chickens I saw them do this very dance, so I smiled reading Pollan's description of it. By spreading out the patties and eating maggots, chickens help keep parasites out of the pasture, which would otherwise bother the cows when they came back onto it. This keeps Joel Salatin's health bill down.

Pollan gives example after example of how Salatin's farm is better off for having several species of animals on it, than it would be if he just had one. Salatin has orchestrated a clever symphony that uses the natural habits of all his animals to get the best from the land. Doing this has built back once-eroded land into a rich and high-producing farm.

For the last section of The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan sets out to make an entire meal out of food he has either grown, hunted or foraged himself. For this meal he hunted pigs, foraged for mushrooms, made sourdough bread using wild yeast and grew beans in his garden.

This section is somewhat philosophical as Pollan asks the hard questions about whether we should eat meat at all, especially if we haven't slaughtered the animals ourselves. I think by the end of it he has come to the same conclusion I have, that if we do our best to ensure the animals we eat have lived well, it is OK to eat them.

However, it is difficult to know this without visiting the places our animals are raised, which is why we have organic regulations that are meant to provide us with some assurance. On top of buying organic, I'm a fan of buying home kill from people I know, and of shopping at Farmers' Markets where you can ask farmers directly how they treat their animals.

Final thoughts
If you're at all interested in the food industry, The Omnivore's Dilemma is a must-read. Although it's written about America's food industry, there are warnings for others eating industrially produced food. Reading this book has further motivated me to source as much locally grown and organic food as I can.

It's also shown me things to be grateful for, such as the fact that New Zealand cows are raised on pasture. You just need to drive State Highway 1 to see that.

And, speaking from experience, New Zealand food tastes so much better. I lived in the States for a year and could not believe how bad the food tasted. Especially bread and meat. I never got used to it. Reading this book has helped explain why it tasted so bad to me - most of it was just not natural.


  1. Hi Emma, just been reading through the archives and wondered if you've read Fatland by Greg Critser? Another fascinating book that also charts the HFCS story and other additives, and the resulting boom in obesity over the past thirty years in the USA. Great read. I have Omnivore's Dilemma and Animal Vegetable Miracle on the bedside at the moment, and also Slow Death By Rubber Ducky, about toxic chemicals in every day household items.

  2. Hi Moira, no I haven't read Fatland. Sounds like it would be right up my alley though. Thanks for the suggestion. What's Slow Death like?


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