Book Review – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Food. Its interesting how much more time I spend thinking about it on the road – especially when in new places and countries, attempting to find what works and doesn’t work for me. At home, our industrial food system (as Michael Pollin) calls it, makes it easy for us to not think about food, relying on the system to deliver what we need, when we need it. Today, American’s spend a smaller percentage of their income (around 10%) on food than any society in history. While our industrial food system may be providing cheap, easy food, Pollin is suggesting that we may want to spend more time getting to know what we eat, and I happen to agree with him.

Michael Pollin explores in detail 4 different meal options available today:

1. A meal provided by the Industrial system – culminating in a McDonalds Happy Meal

2. An ‘Industrial Organic’ meal through Whole Foods

3. A ‘Beyond Organic’’ meal grown and created on a sustainable, closed eco-system family farm

4. A meal hunted and foraged.

This book has been on my radar screen for some time, especially since I became a vegetarian 4 years ago and started looking much more carefully at what I was putting in my body. I funny side story is that I picked this book up in Bali, only to find out that the guest house where I found it was not selling it! Despite my pleading, generous offers of money and trading another NY times best seller, I ultimately didn’t end up with the book…. Two months later in Chiang Rai I stumbled upon it in a small bookstore and grabbed it immediately – it was a sign!

Pollin goes into excruciating detail with a detective/journalistic approach to the various food chains. A few things really stood out for me:

1. Corn. Our entire food chain has been predicated on corn. We feed it to our animals and fish, we use it to create everything from soda to gasoline, drastically altering the natural order of things (especially when he looks at the life of a cow growing up on corn – horrific).

2. Industrial Organic. Pollin points out that 2 farms in California produce 90% of the organic produce in the United States. And despite the labels, most of these farms are do not adhere to the original principles of Organic, rather following loose guidelines from the USDA and essentially creating a corporate industry of Organic. That organic asparagus shipped in from Argentina has a much greater cost (calories of energy to deliver to the plate versus calories when consumed) than the non-organic, local variety. I’m not knocking Organic – it still means that the tons and tons of pesticide are kept out of the environment and the food is likely more nutritious. Just don’t throw blind trust into the word organic.

3. A new appreciation for the sustainable farm – Pollin spends a week on a farm that is nearly a closed eco-system with a very few exceptions. The local farm manages his farm such that the plants and animals complement each other, recycling and reusing almost everything. People drive hundreds of miles to pick up his chickens and eggs at the farm. Not only do these people feel they are getting higher quality food, they also have a relationship with the person who grows their food (see # 4). I will be much more motivated to shop at the local farmers market and eat seasonal produce when I return home.

4. The system is designed to cloak. We have no idea what happens in a slaughter house (he was unable to see any because they are all closed to the public), even ‘free range’ can be a misnomer when it comes to industrial-organic food due to lax USDA regulations. Most of our food originates from corn and runs through a vast and efficient supply chain before it ends up on your Whole Foods or Wal-Mart shelf. We have been told to think all carrots are carrots, beef is beef, etc, despite the fact this is very untrue as carrots grown in Michigan are much different than those in Florida and of course grass-fed versus corn-fed cattle hardly compare.

5. Marketing. A recent grocery store slogan stated “We pile it high and sell it cheap!” American’s, despite out growing affluence, spend less and less on food. When it comes to other items (cars, electronics, clothing), we almost ALWAYS are willing to spend more for better quality. Why is food the exception? Because corporate marketing has gotten you to believe it is a commodity and not an important aspect of your life you should spend time considering.

6. A look into the merits of vegetarianism. Reading this book may make you come a vegetarian. However, Pollin does discuss the history and culture of meat-eating. Historically it was more ritualistic, with humans paying respect to animals, individuals in societies taking turns in the slaughter, etc. Basically there was a more direct relationship to the animal that ended up on the plate, and the meat slaughter/eating often became a large part of a culture’s identity and customs through the family eating a meal together.. He argues there is still a place for this, but we are very, very far removed from this in America.

I could go on and on, but will stop with this. I consider it a must read if you have any interest in improving the quality of food that you put in your body and simultaneously decreasing the footprint you create by eating and all of its hidden energy costs. The only way to truly change the system is to support local, sustainable farmers, ask your grocer questions about where they get their produce, and demand better. Of course this implies rising costs. But what are the long-term costs otherwise? Yes, you will have to spend more of your already busy life procuring food, but as Pollin believes, having a relationship with your food and people who grow it is important.

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