America doesn’t enjoy a healthy, traditional, time-proven national cuisine. We are bombarded by a phenomenal variety of food options, and this makes us dizzy and highly susceptible to food fads. Our venerable nutrition experts point us in every imaginable direction, and some dietary factions have evolved into militant food jihads. Michael Pollan was fascinated by this chaotic realm of greed, deceit, ignorance, confusion, fantasy, and flame-throwing righteousness. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in a heroic effort to provide us with something resembling an objective, unbiased investigative journalist’s overview of the American food system.
The first of Pollan’s three lessons discusses the world of industrial corn. Cheap, subsidized, processed corn has become our number one source of nutrients. Americans have become “corn chips with legs.” Forty years ago, my Uncle Blaine’s dairy cows enjoyed a diet of delicious North Dakota grass. I was saddened to realize that today’s milk, butter, and cheese are primarily made of corn, not grass. A corn-fed cow consumes the equivalent of 35 gallons of fossil fuel. Beef, pork, chicken, and eggs are also largely corn-based. Pollan describes the mass production of corn-fed meat at Confined Animal Feeding Operations — profitable enterprises that are disgustingly cruel and filthy.
Pollan’s discussion of nitrogen fertilizer blew my mind — it’s a primary contributor to humankind’s population explosion. Without synthetic fertilizer, it would not be possible for the human herd to exceed four billion. Prior to 1945, we ate crops produced by solar-powered plants. Now, a tsunami of synthetic fertilizers is using corn plants to convert fossil fuels into food. To produce one calorie of industrial corn requires using more than one calorie of fossil fuel.
The second lesson examines the farm world beyond industrial corn. We are introduced to the remarkably clever Joel Salatin, who excels at producing impressive quantities of grass-fed meat without cruelty, crowding, pollution, or land degradation. His meat is superior to industrial organic meats. Thanks to big money, organic standards have been seriously weakened. It’s OK to raise organic beef on filthy feedlots. Organic chickens can be raised in metal sheds where 20,000 birds are jam-packed together — and the “free range” label is essentially meaningless marketing gibberish.
Organic agriculture used to be the realm of groovy small-scale hippy enterprises, but they have been pushed aside by the rise of industrial-scale organic farming, which uses no less fossil energy than conventional farming. Industrial organic produces large quantities of food at a lower cost than hippy farmers, and it is designed to smoothly integrate with the corporate food retailing industry. Whole Foods isn’t interested in buying ten boxes of carrots from Henry the Hippy.
The third lesson discusses the hunter-gatherer way of eating. Pollan foraged for greens, mushrooms, and fruit. He learned how to use a gun, and he shot a wild pig. He created a meal for which he had provided most of the ingredients himself. He was fully conscious of where the food came from, and how it was prepared — a very different experience from the standard American mealtime.
This section included a thoughtful discussion of the ethics of meat-eating. Pollan carefully explored the realm of animal rights philosophy. I was surprised (and delighted) to learn that many animal rights thinkers have contempt for domesticated species, because they exist only to be used by their human owners. I was also surprised (and stunned) to learn that some animal rights folks see wild predators, like lions and tigers, as being wrong or evil because they are hurtful to others.
The one notable shortcoming of the book is that it did not include a robust discussion of sustainability. Sustainable agriculture is a rarity. Never forget that it was low-impact, muscle-powered, 100% organic farming that destroyed the agricultural systems of countless extinct civilizations. Any petroleum-based process is unsustainable. But even if organic farming was done with just muscle power, most of it would still be unsustainable. Much modern farming depends on irrigation, and irrigated agriculture commonly self-destructs. Pollan mentions that Iowa has lost half of its topsoil in 150 years, but he fails to warn us that raising annual crops in tilled fields is almost always unsustainable, because it destroys the soil. There are many ways to produce wholesome food without irrigation, tilling, petroleum, or animal enslavement — and they should be at the center of our attention today.
Pollan is a skilled writer and a sharp thinker, and he has written a stimulating, informative, and easy-to-read book. I would strongly recommend it to animals who eat food.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivores Dilemma, Penguin Press, New York, 2006.