REVIEW: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
(The Penguin Press. 450 pages. $26.95.)
Most of us are ignorant of what we eat. Though we may count calories or carbs, we don’t really know where our food comes from. But when people die because of spinach—spinach!—ignorance can suddenly, horribly, turn deadly. How, exactly, do three counties in California cause grocery stores across the country to take spinach off the shelf?
It’s hard to imagine that just a few generations ago, most of our food was local. Food now travels, on average, 1,500 miles to reach our plates. Once upon a time, our food came from the ground. Now a lot of it comes from the lab. We buy tomatoes spliced with fish genes, eat corn that is genetically modified, and cut into steaks carved from cows, natural herbivores, that have been fed processed bovine parts. How did we become so split off from food?
Michael Pollan answers this question in his latest book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Humans eat most anything, and therein lies our dilemma. Sometimes what we eat can kill us. Eat the wrong mushroom and we’re goners.
The industrial food industry takes advantage of this quandary. “It is very much in the interest of the food industry to exacerbate our anxieties about what to eat, the better to then assuage them with new products,” writes Pollan. “Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident.”
I considered myself a somewhat savvy shopper until I read this book. I buy food at a local co-op, not at Wal-Mart, though it, too, now stocks organic products. But even in the co-op I can’t avoid the problems of our industrial food system. The same companies that produce organic foods also sell cigarettes.
The best way to examine our national dysfunctional relationship to food, Pollan decides, is to trace the origins of meals derived from different food systems—industrial, organic, and food foraged from the wild. A journalist by trade, Pollan is an ideal person for this task. His previous book, The Botany of Desire, scrutinized the symbiotic connections between plants and people. An elegant writer, he explains both complicated chemical processes and the finer points of animal liberation philosophy with ease. And he loves food.
He starts his search in the cornfields of Iowa, and there we find clues to our current predicament. Most of the food grown in Iowa isn’t for us; it’s for cattle. (The United States actually imports food for human consumption while we dump cheap—and highly subsidized—corn on the global market.)
Pollan meets George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer from Churdan, Iowa. Naylor no longer feeds his family with what he grows, but he does contribute to the enormous corn and soybean harvests that end up becoming, through the magic of chemistry, the high-fructose corn syrup in our soda pop, and the emulsifiers and “natural” additives that find their way into two-thirds of all processed food.
Naylor tells Pollan that he grows his corn for “the military industrial complex.” I thought this was a bit of an exaggeration, but the more I read the more I became convinced. The high yields Naylor gets from his monoculture fields couldn’t happen without added nitrates. The chemical fertilizer industry was born from leftover ammonium nitrate, used in making explosives, the government had after World War II.
“Serious thought was given to spraying America’s forests with the surplus chemical, to help out the timber industry,” writes Pollan. “But agronomists in the Department of Agriculture had a better idea: Spread the ammonium nitrate on farmland as fertilizer. The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government’s effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes.” Modern warfare and industrial agriculture are entwined.
A few years ago, I met George Naylor. He came to The Progressive’s office, along with Emilio López Gámez and Jose Luis Alcocer de Leon, two Mexican farmers who were invited by the National Family Farm Coalition to visit the Midwest. Mexican farmers were losing their farms, just as the farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin had in the previous decades. The Mexican farmers couldn’t compete with the huge industrial farms taking root in their country. Alcocer de Leon told me they were surprised to see our local farmers struggling for the same reasons they were struggling. They thought the cheap corn invading their lands must be benefiting Midwestern farmers. Instead, the same multinational companies were reaping all the gains from industrial cultivation and screwing family farms across borders.
Naylor, López Gámez, and Alcocer de Leon are part of an international movement that challenges this military industrial food complex. Food is one of the places where globalization meets fierce resistance. “Indeed, the most powerful protests against globalization to date have all revolved around food,” writes Pollan. From France to India, from Italy to South Korea, farmers and eaters are saying no to “cheap” food.
Pollan does a good job of sleuthing out the true costs of food. He figures in how much petroleum is required to transport crops across the country, not to mention the petrochemicals used in big agriculture. “The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do),” he writes. “Today, it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.” We’ve traded free energy from the sun for pricey petroleum.
Big Ag thrives precisely because so many of these costs are hidden, especially environmental ones. Chemical runoff from farms contaminates our water tables. Excess nitrogen in our watersheds has created huge dead zones in the Northwest and the Gulf of Mexico. Our public health system faces epidemics of diabetes, childhood obesity, and heart disease, all related to our diet.
Pollan tallies other costs as well, such as the destruction of communities. Corn has replaced people in Churdan, Iowa, and elsewhere in the Midwest. And let’s not forget the emptying of the countryside of Mexico. Towns in many Mexican states, including Oaxaca, Michoacan, and Jalisco, are now populated mostly by young children and the elderly. Our obsession with inexpensive food is directly linked to immigration. Cheap food costs us dearly.
Organic costs a lot, too. Pollan’s trek takes him to Salinas Valley (the same area where the recent E. coli outbreak originated) and visits a “Big Organic” farm that sells the majority of “spring mix” salad bags found in supermarkets and co-ops. The organic market, once on the fringe, has expanded into an $11 billion industry and is the fastest growing sector of agriculture.
These large organic farms are a contradictory mix of hippie values, industrial machinery, and niche marketing. Pollan calls the vibe at Whole Foods “Supermarket Pastoral.” It seduces us and allows us to believe that we aren’t just buying a gallon of milk, we are supporting a family farm, a way of life. But the reality is more complicated, and often enough we are still buying milk from a cow that doesn’t enjoy luxuriating on a grassy pasture; “organic,” “free-range,” and “sustainably farmed” have become advertising labels.
Pollan wonders if Big Organic is really any better than the industrial agriculture it mimics. Organic milk can travel 1,500 miles across the country, too, just like regular old milk. Although some farm workers, many of them immigrants, may get better treatment on organic farms, it’s not a given.
Big Organic has at least one crucial positive aspect: It keeps tons of chemical fertilizers off of crops and therefore out of our water supply. But it remains a precarious system, caught between competing values.
Pollan does an excellent job mapping out the path of organics, from its humble beginnings to the fights at the USDA about what the word “organic” means. (The organic label is more ambiguous than you may think.)
Pollan leaves the large farms and spends a week on a small family farm in Virginia that represents the best of a locally supported food system. This farmer slaughters his chickens outside and invites his buyers to come and see for themselves how his food is produced. Pollan wonders how long industrial chicken operations would last if consumers could see how chickens were processed. Not very long.
“Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the check out scanner,” he writes. “Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing.”
A few years ago, one of my friends happened to be my farmer. He ran a community-supported agriculture farm that sold shares in the spring. From May until October, I got a box full of fresh produce. Since his farm was within the city limits, he was able to transport his crops by bicycle.
My friend no longer farms, and I do miss his fresh veggies. I also miss knowing who grew my food. I now buy food at the local farmers’ market, but it doesn’t give me the same satisfaction.
When the spinach scare happened, I looked for spinach at the farmers’ market but didn’t find any. I would have bought some if I did, for I had faith that my local farmers weren’t tainted by E. coli. I bought some Swiss chard instead. I also bought some raspberries, which were a treat. I didn’t expect to find those luscious berries in September. And though they didn’t taste as good as they did earlier in the summer, they were still better than the berries I could have bought at the grocery store, shipped from Chile.
I come from a family that enjoys food. But I didn’t really love seasonal produce until I moved to Wisconsin. There is nothing tastier than woodsy morels in May, wild blackberries in July, or cherry tomatoes—as sweet as candy—in late August.
Now autumn is upon us, and I crave Yukon gold potatoes and spaghetti squash. My local farmers have taught me to eat seasonally and to never settle for a mushy tomato trucked in from Mexico in January.
If we want to change our insane food system, we will have to adjust our palates. “For local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons,” writes Pollan.
We will also have to adjust our policies. We can no longer afford to subsidize food that makes us sick or kills us. It is only a matter of time before the next outbreak of E. coli. We have to take a stand, and the best place to start may be from our seat at the dinner table.