Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

by Michael Pollan.

I'm an omnivore by [genetic] inheritance, and vegan by diet of my own choosing. Still, despite the potential for exclusion, I wanted to read this book, probably because of all the buzz it seemed to generate online. (I don't remember where specifically, but probably Salon* and Amazon).

The book certainly didn't disappoint; it totally surpassed my expectations. I thought it would be a simple rehashing of animal abuse cases involved in producing the meat and dairy we consume; news to some, but not me (there's a reason I became vegan).

But it was much more: Dubbing itself as a look at the journey of food from field to table, the book indeed does that, looking at traditional industrial agriculture, organic, and even hunter-gatherer.

Pollan reveals that traditional industrial agriculture - probably the source of most of our food - is based on corn. Forget everything you learned in third grade science (where the sun is the primary source of energy allowing the grass to grow which the animals then eat), because the reality is really different. Corn is grown in huge quantities (intermingling of government subsidies and corn's ability to grow in different environments) and then, because it is so cheap, put in just about everything we eat. Most animals we eat and get our milk from are fed corn as well, even though their digestive systems can't really handle it, and the majority are factory farmed, where they never get to see the light of day crowded together.

Even organic food, we learn, is divided into industrial organic and 'beyond organic.' Industrial organic mimics traditional industrial food, the difference being organic alternatives are used instead of traditional pesticides for crops and antibiotics for animals. For example factory farm chickens aren't given antibiotics, but extreme measures are taken to ensure that they don't contract infectious diseases - in such close quarters and without antibiotics there's a huge risk of infection outbreaks.

Beyond organic, or what we would assume all organic farming looks like, shows us a (rare agricultural example) where the energy depends on the sun and is grass(not corn)-based. Everything is a cycle, or a series of cycles, very much like what we learn in third grade science: sun nourishes grass, animals eat grass (and their manure fertilizes the soil), and humans eat animals. It's much more complex than that, but that is the basic idea, which adapts natural ecosystem to a farm.

Finally Pollan sets out on a mission to create a meal composed exclusively of his own hunting and gathering efforts, a meal where he not only knows where all his food comes from, but faces the ethical responsibility associated with consuming it.

Pollan succeeds in breaking down the science simply even for non-science folk like myself, always employing an engaging tone, and very often relating the information to himself. He also includes his own struggle to make sense of whether eating meat is ethical, and managed to make me rethink my own views. Although I don't know how much of this applies outside the US, it's definitely a fascinating account of where the empire's food comes from.

Also check out this funny and informative clip on Amazon where Michael Pollan discusses the book with Bill Maher.

* Check out a Salon interview with him here, and an excerpt from the book here.

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