The Omnivore's Dilemna

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

It seems I've been a bit food-obsessed lately. I can't help it--I love to eat. But as you learn in this book, the question "What should I eat?" is a difficult one. If you're a koala bear, it's simple: you eat eucalyptus leaves. If you're a rat, a fellow omnivore, it's a bit more complicated. If you're a human with taste, traditions, societal conventions, history, grocery budgets, and a moral conscience, it's enough to fill a 500-page book.

I recommend this book highly. The author makes science approachable and links different ways to eat through a narrative, which makes the sometimes-abstract subject much more interesting. He divides the book into three foods, corn, grass, and fungi, which parallels different ways of eating: Industrial, part of the military-industrial commercial way of eating subsidized by the US government and heavy reliance on oil; Pastoral, comprehensive small farms where every form of food ultimately goes back full circle to rich soil and vibrant grass; and Personal, where modern hunter-gatherers use the forest (or suburbs, or cities) to find wild food.

For me, nothing in the book was revolutionary, because I already eat differently than your average American. I have celiac disease, I like good food, and I'm trying to be healthy, so that limits most fast food, prepared food, and restaurant food. This did go more into detail about some things I wished I didn't know, like about CAFOs: confined animal feedlot operations. So sad--these animals wouldn't exist if it weren't for us, and I think we have an obligation to treat them better. Or, how much oil is consumed for food. Between fertilizer, preservatives, tractors, diesel trucks and transportation, it's staggering. And unappetizing.

The hero of the books ends up being Joel Salatin, who actually lives not that far away from me. He owns Polyface Farms, and describes himself as a "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer." My kind of guy! His worldview is admirable, and more comprehensive than I can describe here. The author spent a week working on his farm, and as a Christian, this passage particularly resonated with me:

"As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut. It was hard to believe this hillside had ever been the gullied wreck Joel had described at dinner, and even harder to believe that farming such a damaged landscape so intensively, rather than just letting it be, could restore it to health and yield this beauty. This is not the environmentalist's standard prescription. But Polyface is proof that people can sometimes do more for the health of a place by cultivating it rather than by leaving it alone."

I think this is what we are called to do as humans, and especially as Christians. We're supposed to work hard to improve the health of the land, the animals, and our families. The way America currently eats is doing none of those things, but as individuals, we have the choices available to us. Or rather, dilemmas.


Barbara said...

I downloaded this book from Audible; haven't listened to it, yet. I heard good things, too.
I might just put it on this morning during my walk,
PS Delete those comments above!

Nathan Garrett said...

It is probably the case that a lot of animal production isn't very kind to the animal. However, I do think it's important to not anthropomorphize the animal -- aka, "I'd be bad if I were stuck in a pen like that all day." A lot of the criticisms of meat production seem to fall into that camp.

Rachel said...

I think there are two errors: viewing animals as humans, and viewing animals as commodities. PETA does anthropomorphism, and the industry overlooks suffering at the expense of efficiency. I think we need to look at animals as (not to be obvious or anything) animals, which means that pigs should be able to act like pigs, chickens like chickens, cows like cows, etc. They are deprived of their essential, defining activities when in CAFOs. Read the book, you'll see what I mean.

The Puraths said...

Enjoyed your commentary. You summed it up better than I could have. The book has changed some of my buying habits. It's not always as cheap or as convenient to eat differently, but my conscience won't let me do otherwise. It's frustrating to me, though, that it's often more expensive to eat healthy, local foods than to eat processed, unhealthy ones. Ugh!