The Omnivore’s Choice

by syaffolee

Before reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I had pretty definite ideas about food.  Good food, I thought, was fresh food–anything that was found on the periphery of the grocery store.  Whenever I went grocery shopping, I always made a circular pass going from the produce section, to meat, to dairy, to bakery and deli, and then maybe back to the produce section again if I forgot something.  I avoided anything obviously processed and viewed anything with an “organic” label with suspicion.  Because as far as I could see, the only thing different between something labeled organic and something unlabeled as such seemed to be the price.  While the only thing I spend my disposable income on is books, I’m still watching my pocketbook as I live on a grad student’s stipend.

Going to the local farmer’s market, I thought, wasn’t all that different than going to the grocery store except for where my money was going.  I viewed choosing the local farmer’s market as more of a political and social choice than a nutritional one.  Also before reading Pollan’s book, I also had the opportunity to visit more than one industrial dairy farm (although invariably for research rather than as some random observer).  As someone who has grown up in the suburbs with little contact with farm life until moving to Idaho, it was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.  A dairy cow living on a muddy feedlot has an observably different quality of life than the groomed and scrubbed prize cattle at the local county fair.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan divides food into four groups that represent how we modern humans get our food rather than the textbook food groups arranged in the oft-cited pyramid.  The first group is industrial food which ultimately is derived from corn and petroleum products.  Corn is used to make the feed for industrially raised livestock and is chemically decomposed and recomposed to make the processed foods found in the middle aisles of every supermarket.  Oil is expended to transport this food all over the world.  And because this is industrial food, everything is treated as just another cog in the machine–to most people all of this is out of sight and out of mind.

While I appreciate the sentiment that the industrial food system has the capacity to “feed the world”* on an affordable level, I am skeptical about industrial food being the sole solution to the world’s food problems.  Pollan points out several problems about this type of food.  While it can provide the calories, it may not provide the correct nutrients.  It relies on petroleum products which is not a renewable resource.  And it encourages monoculture which is a ripe breeding ground for disease.  (As a microbiologist, this is of intense interest to me.  There used to be a scare about hospital-acquired illnesses, but as hospital containment procedures have improved, more and more antibiotic-resistant diseases have started coming from the community. And some evidence so far points to industrially raised livestock as one of the origins for these community-acquired diseases.)

The second group of food is organic food.  But as Pollan investigates, the term organic is rife with contradictions.  To the lay public, “organic” conjures up illusions of wholesomeness.  In reality, much organic food is little different than industrial food except for the fact that pesticides and antibiotics aren’t used and the diets of livestock are supplemented with something other than corn.  Perhaps there aren’t any unnecessary and unhealthful chemicals in this food, but is the nutrient content any different?  Does it really put a dent in monoculture?  And ethically, are organic livestock having a better quality of life than their industrial brethren–or is it actually worse since they don’t have antibiotics to stave off infections?

The third group is locally grown food.  Here, Pollan visits Polyface Farms owned by Joel Salatin.  During Pollan’s week-long visit, he observes how Salatin maintains a thriving farm on what used to be barren land.  In order to maintain a productive farm, Salatin makes use of the interdependence between organisms.  One such cycle that Pollan describes is that of the cow eating the grass.  The resulting cow poo is where flies lay their eggs.  The growing maggots feed the chickens which then excrete nitrogen rich waste that fertilizes the grass that feeds the cow.  The only problem with this sort of food is quantity and distribution.  This sort of system is difficult, if not impossible, to scale up if you want to feed a lot of people.  And even if production could be ramped up, use of petroleum products for distribution is going to be unavoidable.

Hunted and foraged foods make up the final food type.  This is the most impractical kind of food.  While it is certainly far more natural for our bodies and elicits a metaphysical closeness with what we’re eating than something pumped up with antibiotics, it is also far more difficult to obtain.  And if everyone were to revert to hunting and gathering, the current ecosystem would surely not support all of us.  Pollan advocates trying this sort of food only occasionally.

Out of these four kinds of food, Pollan seems rather enamored with this idea of locally grown food despite the inherent problems.  He sees the solution as supporting local farmers and decentralizing the food system.  For city dwellers who will find it difficult to access local farmers, he proposes that perhaps inner city co-ops are the answer.  In a lecture I attended in January, Pollan gave more details about what he envisioned as a local food revolution.  He cites Will Allen in Milwaukee who has managed to apply techniques similar to Joel Salatin’s in inner city greenhouses.  To the problem of scaling up production, Pollan mentioned a new sort of crop rotation technique being practiced in Argentina which helps increase production while eliminating fertilizer and herbicide use.  And, of course, there is the idea of changing legislation so that it will favor food diversity over industrial monoculture.

But what, if anything, does any of this have to do with the titular problem?  The problem is this: because we in the west are inundated with an abundance and variety of food, we have gone back to square one in trying to determine what is good to eat.  Other cultures have solved the problem by creating national cuisines–which traditionally have eliminated any problems with food.  But here in industrialized America where dietary science has taken over the menu and melting pot multiculturalism has multiplied food choices by a gazillion, people have become schizophrenic eaters.  And all of this is compounded by the modern invention of industrialized food which may taste good but is a virtual nutritional black box.

Pollan advocates simplicity, the advice to eat mostly fruits and vegetables but little meat.  I think this answer may be a little too simple.  Even though this is getting back to the basics, this may be hard, monetarily hard, for some people.  Due to the way food production and distribution have evolved, cheap food may not necessarily be good food but it may be the only kind of food people can afford if they have limited dollars to spend.  It’s a bit of a catch-22–buy the “good” food and starve because you can’t buy enough of it or buy the “not-so-good” food which might give you expensive medical problems later on.  Maybe people can enact legislation to help change food production and distribution patterns in order to make good food more available–but I think one needs to think in realities, too.  Even if the laws and pricing changes, it’s going to take a while to make those changes.  So what are people to do until then?

I also believe we have to consider cuisines that have been developed by various cultures for hundreds or even thousands of years–because if these dishes didn’t make our ancestors keel over (and maybe even extended their lives instead), surely there is something good about those foods.  Although my opinions about food are little changed after reading this book (I still subscribe to the common sense method** when choosing my comestibles), I think Pollan presents a good argument for being more cognizant about what we eat.  Because food isn’t just the numbers printed under the nutritional information on the side of a box.  It’s also about where it came from and how it got on your plate in the first place.

*I actually heard this coming from a guy who is employed by Monsanto. I wondered if this was some sort of motto the company wanted all of their employees to parrot or whether this guy really believed what he was saying.
**My common sense method mostly consists of avoiding processed foods and attempting to replicate the cultural cuisine aesthetics that I grew up with.