Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Think Like A Jillian Book Review #2

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan

I didn't expect to like this book. Not that I don't find food interesting, I just don't like being preached at when it comes to food. I don't like people telling me what is ethical and what isn't. And I am frustrated with the way the issue of what's good to eat is usually more about going to the extremes than it is about finding reasonable middle ground. Given that, this book was a surprising delight. Pollan is a great writer and he approaches the topic genuinely and without bias. He doesn't set out to prove that eating a McDonald's hamburger is gross (in fact, he doesn't ever even come to that conclusion), or to convince you to go "all organic." He digs deep into the topic and relays information clearly and without polemic. It is very refreshing. That's not to say some of what he discovers isn't disturbing--I suspect my conscience will be pretty noisy next time I go to buy a dozen eggs at the grocery store--but he doesn't use shock tactics or preach any particular food doctrine.

The book basically breaks down into three sections. First, Pollan investigates the industrial food chain in America. He starts by visiting a corn farmer in Iowa, then follows that farmer's corn, as best he can, throughout the country as it becomes feed for feedlot cattle & chickens, corn syrup, corn starch, dextrose, sorbitol and about a hundred other things. It turns out that about half the list of ingredients in any processed food (particularly the hard-to-pronounce ingredients at the end) come from corn. Whether or not this is problematic is still up for debate, but it does stand to reason that eating a diet that consists mainly of corn and corn products would be nutritionally lacking. Here Pollan also talks about Industrial Organic. Basically an industrial organic operation is just like a regular industrial food operation, except extra precautions have to be made since pesticides and antibiotics are no-nos. While it might feel good to know that the chicken you are eating wasn't shot full of hormones and medicines, the downside is that the chicken was left open to disease, so it had to be kept inside a small coop and carefully watched. Chickens that aren't given drugs or hormones generally never see the light of day--there are just too many diseases they could be exposed to if they were let outside. Next Pollan travels to a farm in Virginia where all the plants are organic and the animals are allowed to live "according to their animal natures." He explores the benefits of buying local and of growing or raising your own food. In addition to being a nutritionally superior system, it's also much more sustainable. Unfortunately, farms like the one he visits aren't an economically viable option if we are talking about feeding an entire country.

The best portion of the book, however, is the final section. Pollan sets out to create a complete meal all on his own. He hunts the meat (he has to learn to shoot a gun first), collects the fungi, grows the vegetables, even makes an attempt to harvest salt from some local salt flats (though the salt turns out to be fairly toxic and inedible). This is the chapter where he really gets into the ethics behind eating meat, or at least the ethical dilemma posed by eating meat from an industrial feedlot. The question is even more complicated than I thought, but Pollan doesn't shy away from really delving into the topic and wrestling with the difficult questions. This issue really get to the heart of the nature of humanity. Who are we and what will we stand for as a species? What extra rights does our sentience give us? What is it, exactly, that sets us apart from other animals? His discussion of the subject was very well-written and utterly fascinating. The conclusions? If you care at all about the treatment of animals (including the cows and chickens we get our eggs and milk from), then buy local, no question. If you want produce that is really pesticide free and grown in a sustainable way, buy local, no question. That said, Pollan doesn't expect he's eaten his last Big Mac. It doesn't do any good to deny that we live in an industrial world, after all. And one or two a year certainly won't harm you. I highly recommend this book; it's a great read.

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