Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review- The Omnivore's Dilemma: A natural history of four meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma is the journey of Michael Pollan trying to find out about the food that we put on our table and its origins. He first explores the industrial chain of food, then the organic chain and finally he attempts to be a hunter/gatherer. The first conclusion that Pollan comes to is that most products that we encounter in the supermarket can trace their origins or at least the ingredients can trace back to cornfields. Not only is corn is one of the main sweeteners we use, high fructose corn syrup (try to find anything sweet that is carried in a grocery store without this ingredient is very difficult), but it is what we feed to cows, both beef cows and dairy cows, chicken, pigs and increasingly fish. Pollan points out that even when we are looking at other vegetables corn may be involved in the packaging of the vegetable. Since corn is a prevalent piece in the entire industrial food chain, Pollan travels to a corn farm in Iowa to see how the process starts and then attempts to follow the corn as far along the food chain as he can. He follows the corn on two different paths, one to the cows and one to the chemicals. He buys a beef cows and wants to follow its life and see what happens to it. Pollan is able to follow the cow to where it is housed with thousands of other cows crowded together in a large barn. He sees the cows being given constant doses of antibiotics to keep them from becoming too sickly in these close confines. The cows are also fed many other nutrients and supplements as cows are natural grass eaters, not corn eaters and yet since we have the corn and it is cheaper to produce and will produce fatter cows, they are fed corn. This is really as far as he can follow the cow, he cannot see the kill floor where the cow is slaughtered, he cannot even find out the date of when the cow he bought will be slaughtered. On the other side, he again is given limited access to see how the chemicals are pulled from corn, but he is able to see how the corn is processed in many different ways to lead to many new chemicals to be added to our food. He ends this section with a trip to McDonalds to eat an industrially produced meal.

The next journey he takes is into the world of organic farming. Pollan discovers that because the idea of organic has become so popular in our culture, the companies that are now producing organic meat and crops are not much different than their industrial counterparts. They are still employing monoculture farming to produce one or just a few crops, they still house the cows, chickens or pigs in large barns where the animals still have no freedom to move around. Those fields we see on many of our packages of organic food do not currently exist if they ever did. The free range chickens have access to a door to leave their chicken house, but that is only opened for approximately two weeks before they are slaughtered and at this point they have been in this chicken house for a few months and so why would they think of going outside when they are used to the surroundings of the chicken house. The beef cows are still packed together in large groups, but because hormones can not be used to help bolster the cows immunity, there have to be many veterinarians that roam the barn keeping an eye on the animals and doing other things to keep the cows healthy. At the end of this section Pollan cooks a meal that is entirely from Whole Foods and is certified organic.

Third, Pollan travels to a small farm in Virginia that produces all kinds of vegetables and meats without the use of antibiotics or pesticides or hormones. This farmer, Joel Salatin, has a radical idea of how to raise animals. He lets them graze outside and rotates the cows and chickens and pigs in a manner that allows the land to be replenished and the animals to work in a way that would be natural. In other words, he follows what would be the natural pattern of how these animals live. For example, the chickens go into a field after the cows as they prefer the grasses they eat to be shorter and chicken also love to eat the grubs and bugs that live in the excrement of the cows. Salatin create a farm that is self sustaining in many ways and keeps the land and the animals healthier. Pollan even helps with the slaughter of the chicken on the Salatin's farm as that is the only animals that a farmer is allowed to slaughter himself, beeves and pigs must be sent to an industrial slaughtering plant. At the end of this section, Pollan create a meal of chicken from the Salatin's farm among many other local produce and even some local VA wine.

The final section is about Pollan's hunting and gathering of food for a meal. He has to learn to hunt and shoot a gun, which he had never done before, so that he can hunt wild pigs in northern California where he lives. He also learned how to forage for mushrooms and how to find mushrooms you can eat and that wouldn't kill you. He then creates a meal from things he has found or hunted himself.

Each of these food chains are different with the industrial and the industrial organic food chains very similar in many ways. The book was really interesting and informative. It changed the way I think about food and now has me checking the labels to see how many items I buy are from corn by-products. I find Pollan's writing to be informative and interesting, but not too overbearing or preachy. He gives you the information many times trying to maintain a bit of balance between showing the negatives in the different food chains and the positives in that same food chain. But this book is obviously written by someone and for people who are interested in learning about the food and where it comes from. This book has a slant toward the more locally grown food and away from the industrial food that is more common, but I also didn't feel that the biases were too overwhelming. But I am also becoming a proponent of local food and so where I didn't have problems with the book others may see something different. I would recommend this book if you have read other books by Pollan or if you are interested in seeing the different paths that food takes to get from the "wild" to your plate.

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