Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've seen several interviews with Michael Pollan and seen several movies that were inspired by his work, including King Corn and Food Inc. both of which I highly recommend. But I hadn't actually read Pollan's original book on the subject, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The subtitle is "A Natural History of Four Meals" but the book is in three parts. In the first he talks about industrial farming and it's extremely eye-opening and in parts terrifying. After World War II, munitions factories were turned into fertilizer plants which allowed us to grow lots of corn, which needs a lit of fertilizer. Then under Nixon's administration we changed how we subsidize farmers and started producing basically two big crops in the US, corn and soybeans. Since then, we've been about finding new markets for corn. High fructose corn syrup, not used much before 1980 is now the most used sweetener. We feed livestock corn instead of the things they evolved to eat. Often the food we feed them makes them sick and we slaughter them just before they'd die from illness. Many of those chemicals ingredients you see listed (like xanthum gum) are made from corn. In fact the corn we grow is mostly inedible and is used for it's sugar (that is energy value) and the soy is used for proteins and then scientists figure out how to recombine them into "food".

I still love his description of how most supermarkets are mostly corn. There's the corn in the produce section of course, but also the meat, the soda and snack foods, the sweeteners in yogurt and sauces and baked goods etc. Even the waxy coating on cucumbers is made from corn. Then he describes how the linoleum and particle boards used to construct the market are also made from corn.

The various descriptions of the farms and how he tried to gather information about them was also really interesting. The corn seed is genetically created and controlled by Monsanto and farmers must buy each seasons seeds from them. Corn is the first domesticated plant to have evolved into intellectual property. He wasn't allowed into slaughtering houses or chicken coops because if we found out how disgusting they were we'd stop allowing them. In fact, there are laws that prevent you from disparaging foods (remember Oprah libeling beef?).

The second part is in two sections and covers organic food, first on large scale farms and second on a tiny self-sustaining one. We learn that a lot of the problems with the large industrial farms is caused by their scale. Small farms can produce vegetables and meat, and use the generated manure as fertilizer. On large farms, the density of animals means the manure builds up so they're standing 2 feet deep in it and it becomes a poison to the land. "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."

Then we learn that many of the farming laws make smaller farms impractical; such as you have to have a separate bathroom for the food inspector to use. The larger organic farms use some of the same techniques as the small farms but their scale involves many of the problems of the large farms. Shipping food great distances in refrigerated trucks uses a lot of energy as does the machinery needed to farm on a large scale.

In the last section, Pollan hunts a pig and forages for mushrooms. He had never hunted before and was surprised at how much he enjoyed the experience although he was nauseated when dressing the corpse. I thought this section dragged the most as he was talking more about his experiences than facts about food sources.

Ultimately he prepares and describes four meals. "A cheeseburger and fries from McDonald's; roast chicken, vegetables and a salad from Whole Foods; and grilled chicken, corn and a chocolate soufflé (made with fresh eggs) from a sustainable farm; and, finally, mushrooms and pork, foraged from the wild." Some of these were interesting, others felt like filler.

Parts are very interesting, other parts drag on. I wanted to know more facts about the food I eat and where it comes from and less about his experiences learning this information and preparing the meals. I thought he repeated himself several times and was annoyed when he told stories out of order (like with the boar hunting). Still the info about corn, beef and chickens is worth the price of admission and the time to read the rest.

This might be a good accompaniment to the book, 10 US Food Policy Destinations. "For people who want to know where their food comes from, Google Maps offers a profound passport to the landscape you choose to view, in place of the pastoral image that an interested party wants you to view. For most of these locations, you can explore even more using the street view feature."


Richard said...

I agree that Omnivore's Dilemma is a thought provoking book. I shared your preference for the first two scenarios in the book: the corn supply chain and the organic food supply chain.

While I was surprised at how much of our food is derived from corn, even more disturbing is the next conclusion that most of that corn requires lots of oil to grow, both to run the machines and fertilize the fields as well as get the products to the next step in the supply chain, processed, packaged and then to market. Even more than everything we eat is corn, everything we eat is OIL.

Megs said...

Do you recommend this more than King Corn for learning about the corn infiltration? Or are they good compliments

Howard said...

The creators of King Corn read this and then made the movie. Pollan is interviewed in the movie. The book has some more details but takes much more time than the film. Try the film then read the book if you want more.