If you can only bring yourself to try one of my Media Monday suggestions so far this year, you should make it An Inconvenient Truth. If you can manage a work of fiction, you should get Julian Barnes' George and Arthur, the best novel (and it's a page-turner) I've read in a while. But if non-fiction is your thing, or if you can even imagine giving it a try, you should definitely read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma.
The book's premise is a simple one. He sets about enjoying 4 meals: 1) A fast-food meal from McDonald's, 2) A meal prepared from ingredients all grown "organically", particularly at some big industrial organic farms; 3) A meal from items grown at Polyface Farm in Virginia, a "management-intensive grazing" farm; and 4) A meal made entirely of items he hunted/gathered himself. Leading up to each he tells its story, from the ground up. It's a rumination on agriculture and industry, on biology and economy, public policy and the environment, health and ethics, and in the process paints a complex and troubling (for me) picture of the relationship we have to our food--something that is so essential to who we are, and says so much about what we value, and yet is something most of us think little about.
Here are some of the lessons I learned with a few choice quotes:
1. Cheap food isn't so cheap. The food and agriculture industry's ability to deliver modestly priced food--from grocery stores to fast-food meal factories--is built on a complex set of compromises that are not without a price. We're all paying now, or will have to in the future, for the toll our cheap-food obsession has on the public health (in the form of increased diabetes, obesity and heart disease), on the environment (the toxic pollution of pesticides, the soil depletion from an agricultural monoculture that no longer rotates crops), and in lost energy (it takes about 6 pounds of corn to create one standard McDonald's meal for a family of 3, not counting of course the corn that went into the fuel that transported everyone and everything to their golden arches rendezvous point).
And with global warming so much in the forefront, think about this: how much fossil fuel do you think is burned to process/harvest/transport your food from the nether-reaches of the world to your local market? Answer: alot. In the meal I ate last night from items bought at the local Kroger's, the fresh asparagus came from peru, the wild caught salmon from Alaska, and the fruit from California. That's alot of gas burning just so I can have basically low-cost food and a full complement of choices to give me the foolish impression that everything is in season all the time.
The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.2. In terms of direct consumer cost, our cheap food really is cheap. An interesting statistic he throws out: it's estimated that we in the US pay about 10% of our disposable income on food. That's not just low. And it's not just the lowest anybody pays in the world right now. It's the lowest any society has ever paid . So many other things have taken over as necessities to be paid for, we can hardly be bothered shopping for anything but the lowest sticker price, so long as it's basically tasty. He tells the story of Polyface Farm eggs, which sell for about $2.20 a dozen but are by all accounts the most animal-friendly, environmentally sound and indeed tastiest eggs you will ever purchase.
As things stand, artisanal producers like Joel [Salatin, who runs Polyface Farm] compete not on price but quality, which, oddly enough, is still a somewhat novel idea when it comes to food. "When someone drives up to the farm in a BMW and asks me why our eggs cost more,...well, first I try not to get mad. Frankly, any city person who doesn't think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn't deserve my special food. Let them eat E.coli. But I don't say that. Instead, I take him outside and point to his car. 'Sir, you clearly understand quality and are willing to pay for it. Well, food is no different. You get what you pay for.'3. If we would just help, nature has pretty good systems for handling the issue of sustainability. But we don't.
Why is it that we exempt food, of all things, from that rule? Industrial agriculture, because it depends on standardization, has bombarded us with the message that all pork is pork, all chicken is chicken, eggs, eggs, even though we know that can't really be true. But it's down-right un-American to suggest that one egg might be nutritionally superior to another." Joel recited the slogan of his local supermarket chain: "'We pile it high and sell it cheap.' What other business would ever sell its products that way?"
Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms...used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop--what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all).You want beauty? Consider this explanation of what happens to the ground when a cow he follows, Budger, does what he has evolved to do: eat grass.
This biological absurdity, characteristic of all CAFOs, is compounded in the cattle feedyard by a second absurdity. Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us--at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters--to live on corn, for no other reason that it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed.
The moment Budger shears the clump of grass, she sets into motion a sequence of events that will confer a measurable benefit on this square foot of pasture. The shorn grass plant, endeavoring to restore the rough balance between its roots and its leaves, will proceed to shed as much root mass as it's just lost in leaf mass. When the discarded roots die, the soil's resident population of bacteria, fungi, and earthworms will get to work breaking them down into rich brown humus. What had been the grass plant's root runs will become channels through which worms, air, and rainwater will move through the earth, stimulating the process by which new topsoil is formed.But we feed them corn. Because it's cheaper and faster. Lots, lots cheaper. In fact, it's cheaper to buy corn than it is to grow corn. Lots cheaper. So, why would anyone grow corn you ask? Because we pay them to. Just enough. So if they want to make any money, corn farmers have to do the one thing economics 101 says you should never do if your production costs exceed the sale price: make more. Lots more. Guess what that does? Makes it even cheaper. It's a nasty cycle that's given us more corn than we know what to do with. But because it's so cheap, big business is willing to spend hand over fist to devise ways to convince you and me to consume it. So they learned to process it. And we learned to eat it. Your McDonald's meal is over 50% corn.
Along the way, we impoverish the farmer, pollute the land, sicken the consumer, threaten the public health and, at best, agitate, mistreat or torture the animals.
4. There is no utopian answer to the dilemma "what do we eat?" in the real world, but we can do better. Mainly by being more aware of the choices we make in eating, being aware that it is an agricultural act, an ethical act, a political act. We can choose value the land and the sacrifice of animals that went into our meals. We can choose to purchase foods when possible that build a stronger sense of local community, rather than obliterating it in a global food mono-culture.
I should say, even though you can't tell it from this recommendation, that the book is not in the least preachy. It recognized real dilemmas and portrays an honest journey from someone who himself admits he doesn't always have much awareness about his food. It is a powerful and personal meditation on the dozens of issues that arise when considering with some seriousness "what are we eating?"
I haven't yet come to terms with how and whether this book will change my own eating habits (that's a hard thing to do, obviously) but the thoughts it raises will stick with me for a long time.