Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Excellent Book - The Omnivore's Dilemma

I just finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. This is a really insightful book about where our food comes from, and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in food.

The first part of the book explains that if we are what we eat, we consist mostly of corn, with a fair amount of petroleum thrown in. Pollan explains in a lucid, readable way how corn became has become the dominant crop in the US and, indeed, the world, since World War II, and the implications of this on our diets, health and world economy: the dominance of industrial agriculture, less healthful food (high levels of antibiotics required due to the lack of natural antibodies in monocultural corn diet and the lack of biological richness in chemical fertilizers), inhumane treatment of animals, etc. Pretty scary stuff, but not hysterically presented.

The second part of the book is about alternatives, organic farming and smaller sustainable farming. Pollan makes the case that organic has become closer to industrial than "real" farming but concludes that it is better, due to the absence of antibiotics, than conventional. The meat of the book (no pun intended) is the lengthy discussion of "grass farming," meaning sustainable, local farming based on intense management of the soil by careful grazing, involving chickens, pigs and beef in a virtuous cycle of soil nourishment and producing meats that taste like the real thing. I found this part of the book to be extremely moving, and came to be convinced that such agriculture could be commercially viable if we were able to agree as a society to factor in the total cost associated with apparently cheap food, i.e., health issues, environmental issues and, not as intuitively, energy consumption. If only . . . . In the meantime, there is something we can do, namely encouraging the burgeoning community supported agriculture movement, shopping at farmers' markets and paying the extra price for meats and vegetables that are designed (through milennia of evolution, not the laboratory) to meet the nutritional needs of our species (and which, not coincidentally, taste much better). I was already doing this for more simplistic reasons (see my post "Community Supported Agriculture"), but plan to redouble my efforts.

The final section describes Pollan's foray into the worlds of hunting and gathering, in order to get closer to the food and, "take responsibility" for killing animals for food. I found it pretty entertaining, but without practical application; even Pollan admits that we are not ever going back to that way of life.

Bobby Jay

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