Sunday, September 21, 2008


Maybe it was a bad idea to read two books about food in rapid succession for someone consumed with the negative externalities of industrialization. I did it anyway.

Both books are by Michael Pollan as mentioned briefly in an earlier post, the first was The Omnivore's Dilemma; A Natural History of Four Meals and the second is In Defense of Food; an Eater's Manifesto (see next post). Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle sits at the ready on the bedside table. I already read the first chapter and was nearly sucked in. I resisted its call to remain focused on finishing Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond, which just so happens to spend a good deal of time reviewing the singular contribution of agriculture to the rise of human civilizations.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is divided into three parts tracking meals produced in three ways,
  1. Industrial - Corn (think feedlots, nitrogen-based fertilizers, massive farms, etc.)
  2. Pastoral - Grass (think local farm, cows, chickens, various vegetables, a familiar aroma)
  3. Personal - Forest (hunting for game and foraging for 'shrooms)
Part I traces food calories from the corn fields, through conversion to meat through CAFOs (cows being fed corn, though they are naturally designed to eat grass), through the slaughter houses and onto the serving tray of your local fast food restaurant (and the local supermarket). It is an interesting journey and one that I believe many of us have become artificially comfortable with. Petroleum's hand is heavily present in this chain, from the fertilizers (sprung from arms manufacturers post WWII) to the harvesting, to the transportation, and delivery to our plates. What happens to this chain as we continue to see uncertainty in our petroleum supply?

The rise of corn (Zea Mays) in the lexicon of US food production is detailed in this section; from corn itself to its industrial children to its use as feed for animals of all varieties. It is an interesting lesson in the scientific manipulation and industrialization of a naturally occurring grass from something marginally nutritious to something making up a large portion of our food calories and our economy.

It is interesting to note that bi-cultural farms in the United States raising soybeans & corn (think thousands of acres of corn as far as the eye can see in the Midwest) used to raise a variety of fruits and vegetables. As corn grew in importance, and as agribusinesses focused on it to increase yields, kernel size, nutritional value, and economic value as government subsidized the production of corn, businesses had to find places to put it. Welcome corn syrup and other industrial derivatives of corn. In a short passage of the book, we learn that Coca-Cola's switch from sugar to corn syrup was a very important win for the manufacturers of corn derived food additives. We also learn that a small change in the regulated use of the word "imitation" in the 1970's opened the door for more widely applied industrialized food products.

One main point I took from this section; we produce more calories per person than we did 40 years ago, and the job of food marketers is to get us to consume those extra calories. Interesting. Who's interests are they serving?

Part II tells the story of Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. This is the story of what a small farm is supposed [my opinion] to be. I did not find the account of the farm to be romanticized; it was more real than I expected. The first thing I learned was that Mr. Salatin considers himself a grass farmer. The Sun's light is captured by the grass and with superb natural design, converted into cellular material and energy to help the grass grow. The numerous species and types of grass on the farm are consumed by the cows, sheep, goats, etc. and converted into meat, what we'll eat to supply our energy. The animals are grown here, and at the proper time are sent for "harvesting", called slaughter.

We are taken through the process of slaughtering chickens, done on site in a small open shack on the farm. Mr. Pollan, to his credit, takes part in the operation, manning the position in the line of cutting the chickens' neck. The story is told in a real and honorable way. These animals have been raised to help support our lives, and they are living creatures of this earth as we are; they are to be respected. Mr. Pollan describes the operation as a solemn activity, something to be present for. It is not a faceless slaughterhouse where thousands of chickens a day proceed from living creature to plastic wrapped and preseasoned cutlets. The people here know what is happening. There is a passage somewhere in the book, I cannot remember by whom it is said, that if we made slaughterhouses with transparent walls, we would drastically change the way we produce and eat food. Agreed.

Part III is perhaps the most basic and "animal" of who we are and our origins as humans. The author decides to hunt and gather as we continued to do up until the beginning of agriculture about 8500 BC in some areas of the world. He connects with people in the San Francisco Bay area that are familiar with the wild food and game available in the countryside and commences with the hunt. Again, I found the account of the entire experience interesting and honest. When Mr. Pollan does fell a wild boar, his description of the scene and his feelings seemed to shock him, as evidenced when he looks at a photograph taken of him kneeling behind the dead beast with a child-like grin on his face. His clearly displayed pride at performing as a worthy hunter as captured in the photo affected him deeply, as perhaps it should.

He also gathers wild mushrooms from the forest, Morels and Chanterelles. His description of what mushrooms are, the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source, is quite interesting. We learn about the secretive nature of the small community of mushroom foragers; their early morning hikes into places known to produce mushrooms and the "zone" one can get into when searching for the small fungi. His account brought back memories of my Italian grandfather's foraging in the woods behind his home in Westfield, MA. The memories are fuzzy, and involve a mushroom with a pale yellow spongy appearance on the underside of the cap that turned greenish-blue when pressed...I do not remember eating any of them.

Mr. Pollan spends a good deal of time describing the preparation of the meal from the items hunted and gathered, like a narrative of an episode of The French Chef. I found it a bit tedious, though I can appreciate the commitment he made to create a unique dining experience for the people that helped him obtain the ingredients

We are what we eat, and in the modern world what we eat carries with it not just the item but the item's inputs. These inputs are not necessarily natural and in some cases are contributing to environmental degradation and poor health. What I took from the book was that grass farming on a local scale is the way to go. How do we get there on a larger (smaller?) scale and can decentralization and decarbonization of food feed us all? I am hoping to determine that the answer is a resounding YES.

Given the state of the financial system, perhaps we should start learning to farm, or at least know where to get locally produced food.


Anonymous said...

Nice article. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reading!