1.30.2008

the omnivore's dilemma: a natural history of four meals

I haven't had a chance to blog about The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which I wrote about here, and finished last week. It's a fascinating book, remarkable in many ways.

Think about food. Brainstorm every aspect of food in our lives, and that's what this book is about: the political, moral, ethical, philosophical, environmental, social, cultural, and even spiritual aspects of the entire food chain.

Pollan touches on anthropology, biology, nutrition and human health, human psychology, animal behaviour, cultural norms, humans' relationship to nature and the animal world (both over time and across cultures), philosophy, cooking, and undoubtedly several disciplines that I haven't named. The book is often described as being about "everything in the world," and now I can understand why. Pollan is saying, in a sense, that how we get our nourishment - the choices we make, both individually and as a society - is intimately connected to everything in the world.

This dense melange is structured through four meals, derived from four different food chains: industrial, organic, hunted-gathered, and a fourth Pollan discovers during his research, best called "industrial organic". He traces each meal back through its chain, and through that journey, shows us the true origins and costs of our food.

In an entirely fascinating book, I want to highlight two areas that were particularly fascinating to me.

Pollan spends a lot of time at Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin of Viriginia. Through an amazingly ingenious plan, and extremely labour-intensive methods, Salatin runs a farm that is completely self-sustaining and uses virtually no fossil fuels. Chickens, cows, pigs, and - especially, above all, grass - all fertilize, feed and sustain each other. It is the healthiest environment imaginable: for the earth, for the animals and for the people who consume its products.

Salatin is a radical, and fully conceives of his work as socially and politically radical, as well as spiritual. (He is a devout Christian, and his farming is an expression of his faith.) Omnivore's Dilemma is worth reading for the trip to Joel Salatin's farm alone.

Another intensely interesting thread involved the meal that Pollan created entirely from ingredients that he had hunted and gathered himself. (Pollan is not suggesting this as a viable method of eating in the modern world. It was more of an educational exercise for him and for us.)

In this section, I had to ask myself, Did I know that fungi are neither plant nor animal? I must have known this once upon a time, but forgot. (That's my answer to everything now.) When I cook or eat mushrooms, I think of them as vegetables. But they are not. They are a third form of life, neither animal nor vegetable, and humans understand very little about them.

Well, I just learned something about mushrooms. And if that sounds dull, read this book and you'll change your mind.

* * * *

I have been reading Michael Pollan's work in magazine form for many years, but I had been avoiding reading The Omnivore's Dilemma for two reasons.

One, I had the impression Pollan had drifted into a very elitist sphere, disconnected from the reality of most ordinary people's lives - something along the lines of lecturing people who work at Wal-Mart on the importance of buying organic strawberries for $4.00 a pint.

This was unfounded. The world Pollan would build would be a healthier world for everyone. Food would cost more, that is true. But one of the central points of this book is that modern food prices are artificially low, and we never see the true cost of those low prices. Wresting food production from industrial control, educating people on nutrition, making more healthy choices available, would benefit everyone.

And since the people most directly affected by environmental degradation, unsafe labour conditions and other related ills, are low-income people, a healthier food chain would directly benefit the world's poor.

The other reason I was avoiding reading this book was more personal. In a sense I was avoiding it for the same reason I wanted to read it. I knew it would lead me to make changes in my own shopping, cooking and eating habits.

For a long time, I've been troubled by contributing to factory farming by buying and eating factory-farmed meat, but I haven't done anything about it. Now I'm finally ready to.

When I was growing up and throughout my young-adulthood, I was very prone to all-or-nothing thinking. It's a great way to paralyze yourself into inaction. Every decision becomes impossibly weighty, because it carries with it your entire future.

One of my biggest areas of growth as an adult has been moving away from that all-or-nothing trap. For many years now, I've understood the value of making incremental changes. I encourage myself (and others) to be flexible, and to remember that doing anything is better than doing nothing. Every step in a positive direction is worth taking, all by itself.

With these lessons foremost in my mind, I'm now investigating where I can buy pasture-raised meat. It won't be a perfect system, as (for various boring reasons) we'll mainly do this in the warmer months when we make dinner on the barbecue grill almost every night. And it won't effect food we eat in restaurants.

But it will be a positive action, and it may lead to other positive actions, and it's a step I'm ready to take.

* * * *

Michael Pollan has a new book out, called In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. But if you haven't read him yet, I think you'll want to read Omnivore's Dilemma first.

24 comments:

Jere said...

As a vegetarian, I usually don't get into these discussions. It seems to lead to fights. I read the previous parts to this series. Nice job.

I totally agree with you about taking positive steps. And I also agree that if you've got some medical condition that requires you to eat meat, go ahead--I love all animals, including humans.

That said (sorry Allan), you say:

"It is the healthiest environment imaginable: for the earth, for the animals and for the people who consume its products."

And I can't help but think, "how is getting killed for the sake of human taste buds healthy?"

The fact that they're "happy animals" doesn't make me feel any better about it. If some race of creatures came down from space and told me I'd be perfectly happy and well-fed--until I'm plump enough to eat, I'd be like "FUCK. THAT."

Again, I wouldn't tell someone else to stop eating meat, just like I wouldn't want a vegan to tell me to stop eating eggs. I don't think it's okay to be called "hypocritical" for doing SOME good by someone who does NO good, in general. So, when you talk about positive steps, I'm all for it. If people are going to eat meat, I hope they are as good about doing the research on it as you and Allan are. And I wouldn't criticize them for the fact that they're still doing something that I happen to not do.

The thing I do find hypocritical, though, is the way people feel it's totally okay to kill one animal but not another less-cute one. That guy is killing rabbits along with his cows and chickens. What if it were dogs? And would it make a difference if they were "happy dogs," before being served up with a side salad? I'll never understand why so many people were up in arms about the Michael Vick dog-fighting story, when they all probably bite into the tasty flesh of a chicken nightly--a chicken who went through much worse than what the dogs did on the way to their plate.

L-girl said...

Jere, thanks for your thoughts and for your respectful comments.

My decision to eat meat does not stem from a specific medial condition. It stems from my knowledge, through experience, that a diet that includes animal flesh is healthier for my body, mind and lifestyle.

However, I don't eat cows and chickens but refrain from eating dogs because dogs are cute and cows and chickens are not. That's an incorrect assumption.

I find all animals beautiful. I have no problem making a distinction between animals humans raise for eating purposes, other animals people raise for companionship purposes, and other animals that remain wild and undomesticated. I realize you disagree. But the assumption that this is somehow based on a judgement of attractiveness is just plain wrong.

I resent the vegetarian's assumption that omnivores haven't thought about the issue, or are eating blindly, or are less educated. I don't know if you think that or not, Jere, but I can tell you in my case it's not true. My decision to eat meat is made consciously, and with an appreciation of the life of the animal that was killed.

As I've said, I object to the needless (and disgusting) cruelty of factory farms, but not to the act of humans raising animals specifically to eat them. If all animals were raised and killed like those on Joel Salatin's farm, I'd have zero problem with that.

I'm going to post this and then give some more specific answers.

L-girl said...

The fact that they're "happy animals" doesn't make me feel any better about it.

And because of that, you choose not to eat meat. That's your choice.

But it makes me feel not just better, but 100% ok.

Chickens, cows, pigs and other animals wouldn't exist if people didn't raise them for food. I view humans raising animals for food in the same category as humans raising plants for food - an essential human activity.

I also think humans have a duty and responsiblity to minimize the pain and suffering of the animals they raise for food, which these holistic farming methods do. In fact, they don't just minimize it, they negate it. The animals' lives are excellent and their deaths are very quick.

I understand that to someone who objects to meat-eating itself, those considerations don't matter. However, they make an enormous difference to me, because, as I've said, I do not object to that.

And I can't help but think, "how is getting killed for the sake of human taste buds healthy?"

It's not for the sake of taste buds. Eating animals is not only about taste. That's so reductionist as to be absurd.

I understand that vegetarians believe a diet without animal products can be just as healthy as a diet with such products, but that was not my experience. Not only did I not enjoy being a vegetarian, my health suffered and it was not a sustainable lifestyle for me.

What's more, I don't think it made the world a better place one iota, where supporting sustainable agriculture would, in my opinion.

I'll never understand why so many people were up in arms about the Michael Vick dog-fighting story, when they all probably bite into the tasty flesh of a chicken nightly

The fact that "you'll never understand" doesn't mean there isn't logic and truth behind it, although it's not a truth that you recognize or agree with.

Some people are ok with meat-eating out of ignorance or denial. I am not one of those. But to say that's it because of taste buds or cuteness is also a form of willful ignorance.

L-girl said...

If some race of creatures came down from space and told me I'd be perfectly happy and well-fed--until I'm plump enough to eat, I'd be like "FUCK. THAT."

The principle difference here is self-consciousness.

Although many animals are highly intelligent, and all animals feel pain, there is no evidence that any other animal except humans have self-consciousness. Only humans can contemplate their own lives and have a concept of their impending death.

Since pigs, like dogs, are highly intelligent, if they had a sense that they were going to die, and understood what that meant, their behaviour would be markedly different as they approached slaughter. (I'm speaking only of what I see as humane slaughter, although I understand that other people find that a contradiction and an impossibility.)

But the pig exhibits no anxiety, no stress, no fear, on the day of slaughter - indeed, moments before slaughter - than it does on any other day.

The factory farm creates huge amounts of stress and suffering, and inhumane, sloppy, irresponsible slaughter practices add to that.

But I believe if the animals on Joel Salatin's farms knew they were going to die and understood what that meant, we would see that - and we don't.

Dylan said...

Pollan's book has really changed the way I look at food and what it means to eat. I'm not a vegetarian or anything like that, and for the most part I think the 100 mile diet was kind of ridiculous, but now the wheels are turning in my head.

I'm a big fan of globalization as a tool to help the south (I'm also studying International Development and will graduate with my BA this April) but there's something about "global food" that doesn't make sense to me. That being said, can we change the way the whole world eats? Probably not. But that's not the point of Pollan's book now is it?

On that note, I'm looking forward to reading In Defense of Food next.

L-girl said...

Hi Dylan, thanks for your thoughts.

Pollan's book has really changed the way I look at food and what it means to eat.

Me too! And that's a huge thing to say, isn't it?

That being said, can we change the way the whole world eats? Probably not. But that's not the point of Pollan's book now is it?

I would say, yes, it is the point: to change the way as many people eat as possible - one person, one community at a time. To make all of us more aware of what goes into our food and how it gets to us, in order to know the true costs of what we eat. And then using that knowledge to change our own behaviour, which in turn does change the world.

L-girl said...

I'm a big fan of globalization as a tool to help the south

Just curious, what constitutes "the south" in your view?

Jere said...

"Eating animals is not only about taste. That's so reductionist as to be absurd."

When I do get into discussions about this stuff with people, they've told me, almost to a person (I hate that phrase), that the reason they eat meat is because of how good it tastes. So I'm just going by what people tell me. And I eat meat for 25 years so I know how good it can taste.

"What's more, I don't think it made the world a better place one iota, where supporting sustainable agriculture would, in my opinion."

From what I read, a huge chunk of food (like grain, etc.) on this planet goes right to the animals that are mainly consumed by Americans. So if Americans gave up even half the meat they eat, wouldn't that mean a lot of that food could go to the starving people elsewhere in the world? If that theory is wrong, please tell me why. (not being sarcastic)

"I resent the vegetarian's assumption that omnivores haven't thought about the issue, or are eating blindly, or are less educated. I don't know if you think that or not, Jere, but I can tell you in my case it's not true."

I absolutely knew this about you. But I think you're giving a lot of yahoos out there too much credit. A lot of people have just always been eating meat, they like how it tastes, and therefore, they happily eat it, without thinking for one second whether or not the animal lived a good life, or the risk of diseases they're taking. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who eat just as much meat, but know all that it entails, appreciate the life of the animal, etc.

And the cuteness thing. I guess I meant that as a catch-all term, covering things like "these animals are part of the family while these over here aren't," "these were raised for food while these weren't," etc. I know it's not strictly an attractiveness issue (and I never said it was for you personally), because if it was, people would have pretty dogs as pets and ugly ones for dinner. I'm just saying, if you tell a westerner who grew up with bunnies as pets that you're serving them rabbit for dinner, they wouldn't like that too much, whereas if you told a person from a culture where rabbit is considered a meal, like chicken is to us, the same thing, they wouldn't be offended at all. Which is why I say people don't eat the cute animals--meaning they don't want to eat the ones they consider pets/family.

L-girl said...

When I do get into discussions about this stuff with people, they've told me, almost to a person (I hate that phrase), that the reason they eat meat is because of how good it tastes. So I'm just going by what people tell me. And I eat meat for 25 years so I know how good it can taste.

I can't account for that. I don't argue with people about their eating habits - and I must say, I really hate when vegetarians get preachy about their own - so I haven't heard that.

I do enjoy the taste of many foods, some are animal and some are not. I see the reasons people eat meat as also nutritional, cultural and social.

From what I read, a huge chunk of food (like grain, etc.) on this planet goes right to the animals that are mainly consumed by Americans. So if Americans gave up even half the meat they eat, wouldn't that mean a lot of that food could go to the starving people elsewhere in the world? If that theory is wrong, please tell me why. (not being sarcastic)

Honestly, I can't even believe anyone would think this, especially someone as intelligent about the world as you.

A, the corn that goes into the animals that Americans eat is grown specifically for animals. Humans couldn't eat it. It's not edible to humans (and barely edible to non-human animals).

B, since when would Americans send surplus food to starving people? Does surplus anything in the US go to help anyone?

C, if farming in the US and elsewhere returned to a small-scale, sustainable model, there would still be meat, but less of it, and it would be a more expensive luxury item, as it was when I was a child and before that. The environment would be much more healthy, and the meat itself would be healthier. Before huge amounts of industrial corn was grown to feed huge numbers of industrially-raised cows, the US still did not feed large numbers of the world's hungry people.

I absolutely knew this about you. But I think you're giving a lot of yahoos out there too much credit. A lot of people have just always been eating meat, they like how it tastes, and therefore, they happily eat it, without thinking for one second whether or not the animal lived a good life, or the risk of diseases they're taking.

Yes, absolutely. There are zillions of yahoos who don't think about anything. But it's still a common assumption - which you may or may not make - that vegetarians think more about their food and what they eat, and omnivores just eat any old thing. Just like the assumption most vegetarians make that a veggie diet is healthier than an omnivore diet, which I strongly disagree with.

And the cuteness thing. I guess I meant that as a catch-all term, covering things like "these animals are part of the family while these over here aren't," "these were raised for food while these weren't," etc. I know it's not strictly an attractiveness issue

Right, I see what you mean. Like I said, I have no ethical problem that humans have different relationships with different species, or that some animals only exist because humans raise them for food. I don't mind sheep or cows being raised for food any more than I mind soybeans being raised for food.

Canrane said...

As someone who has never eaten meat, and whose family has been vegetarian for generations, I'd like to pipe in here. I actually agree with Laura that it's not necessarily more healthy than an omnivourous diet.

It can be just as healthy, in my opinion. But vegetarianism isn't for everyone. For several reasons.

For starters, you have to do it "right". A lot of people assume that it means you subsist on pasta, tofu and salad, which is laughable. But that's what most (not you, Laura. The people on this blog are hardly "most") people consider the staples of a vegetarian diet. The truth is, you need lots of variety. Variety of lentils, grains and vegetables.

The South Indian vegetarian diet, for example, has been perfected over centuries and I think it is one of the healthiest lifestyles out there.

But if you were raised eating meat, I'm not sure if it would do you any good. Can our bodies learn to be healthy without something it has relied on for decades? If so, how long would it take for it to adapt? So many things that affect us later in life are actually determined during childhood. Why would this be any different?

Many vegetarians also assume that as long as you get x amount of y, you're good and healthy. But I strongly believe that healthiness comes from the "whole being greater than its parts". Just because you eat the same amount of lentils doesn't mean it will be as effective as lentils cooked in a particular way, along with certain other ingredients. There's a reason why traditional diets (vegetarian and meat-eating ones) have lasted as long as they have.

And this does't even take into account the race issue. Equality in all things is fine and dandy, but just as women's bodies are different from men, the different races have different physiologies. What is healthy for race A may not be as healthy for race B.

The one thing I will take exception with here, is the statement that humans are the only animals with consciousness. That kind of thinking has always bothered me, because we don't know that! How can we possibly know that?

Just because animals don't react the way we expect them to when they're going to be killed, doesn't mean they don't realize it. For all we know, in pig-religion, the slaughterhouse could be seen as a portal to nirvana or whatever and they're happy to go!

For that matter, it's possible that plants have consciousness too. My conscience is hardly clear just because I don't eat meat. I *hope* that's not the case, but if it wasn't, vegetarians have been even more brutal than meat-eaters since you need to eat more plant-products amount-wise to get the same amount of nutrition!

Canrane

L-girl said...

Canrane, thanks for your thoughts. I really appreciate them.

I just wanted to note that I didn't say only humans have consciousness. That is clearly not true.

In my view, humans are the only animals with self-consciousness. Consciousness and self-consciousness are not the same thing.

I don't have to go into what the distinction means to me. I just wanted to clarify.

Canrane said...

Oh, I understood that. I meant self-consciousness with respect to the animals. It's clear that they have consciousness.

L-girl said...

Cool, I gotcha.

I realize we can't completely know if non-human animals have self-consciousness or not.

I would say based on the best of our abilities to know, with all the observation humans have made of other species (from a humane and open point of view), I think they don't.

I don't use this as a way to justify animal cruelty. There's no justification for that. I meant it only as a response to Jere's hypothetical "how would we feel if people were raising us for food".

Jere said...

"I don't argue with people about their eating habits"

I didn't say I did. It always comes from me having to tell someone I don't eat meat (so they'll stop offering me meat), and them asking me why I don't, leading them to tell me why they DO. And it's always "because it tastes so damn good." I don't go around asking people why they eat meat.

"Honestly, I can't even believe anyone would think this, especially someone as intelligent about the world as you."

A quote from this article, which also goes more into reasons why less meat-consumption is better for the planet:

"Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens."

I don't know, it just seems to me the less meat we all eat, the better things are. I actually read that article this morning before coming to your site. It was linked on a page with a video/story I watched about a "beefsteak" in NJ that disgusted me--not only because of all the meat, but because it was "men only," and the fact that you wrote about this whole thing gave me a good place to kind of vent while hopefully being respectful, so thanks.

Canrane: I agree with your "animals and their possible thoughts" thing. And I also remember going through the "but plants are alive, too" guilt, and having someone call me a hypocrite and saying, Why don't you feel bad about eating plants, because they can't scream? (Again, I didn't think that was fair as I was eating only plants while he ate plants AND animals guilt-free, simply by "saying a prayer for them.")

And after thinking about all this, I realized I was right about the point of having gone a quarter of my life as a vegetarian. And thanks to Allan's day-counter page, it turns out I'm eight days from that milestone. Weird. I never thought as a teenager I'd even consider giving up meat, let alone reaching the "quarter of life" mark.

L-girl said...

"I don't argue with people about their eating habits"

I didn't say I did.


I didn't mean to imply that you do. I meant only to state that I wouldn't know what people say when asked why they eat meat.

My guess is "it tastes good" is a shorthand for a complex mix of behaviours that they might not even be aware of, and largely cultural.

Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.

It may be true, but it's grossly reductionist.

The corn that is grown for cattle, pigs and chicken is not edible by humans.

What's more, the cattle, pigs and chickens exist to use up the excess corn, not the other way around. It's too complicated to explain in comments, but if you haven't read about the corn industry, I highly recommend it. The best one is here. There are a bunch of other corn-related stories on that site.

Also, IMO there's a false assumption of a causal relationship. If all that corn was not grown to feed all those animals, there would be fewer animals, but would there be fewer hungry people? I don't think so.

L-girl said...

I don't know, it just seems to me the less meat we all eat, the better things are.

I've heard this a lot. It just doesn't make sense to me.

That's partly because people have to eat, and trucking in large amounts of soy, lentils, greens I(etc.) from various parts of the planet where they don't grow to other parts of the planet where they do grow would not necessarily result in a positive outcome for the earth.

And part of it is the fault of Peter Singer, who says we shouldn't kill and eat animals, and also says mentally disabled human beings should be euthanized.

I realize many vegetarians would not agree with this. But Animal Liberation is so often cited as the seminal work on being a vegetarian, and I'm so disgusted by his reasoning, that it really breaks down for me.

Jere said...

"and also says mentally disabled human beings should be euthanized."

Well I definitely don't agree with that. In fact, just the other day while looking at a picture of a kid in a wheelchair a thought hit me about people who feel that way: If one of those disabled people comes up with some idea that greatly improves the world (and isn't that what the people who say they should be euthanized want?), you'd feel pretty silly having wanted to kill them. Pretty basic, I know, but, still...

L-girl said...

the fact that you wrote about this whole thing gave me a good place to kind of vent while hopefully being respectful, so thanks.

You're welcome! And thank you for your comments. I'm glad to get your thoughts.

a "beefsteak" in NJ

You're sure that wasn't about a tomato? Jersey beefsteaks and all.

Kidding.

redsock said...

From what I read, a huge chunk of food (like grain, etc.) on this planet goes right to the animals that are mainly consumed by Americans. So if Americans gave up even half the meat they eat, wouldn't that mean a lot of that food could go to the starving people elsewhere in the world?

Well, the US doesn't have the greatest track record when it comes to sharing its excess with the poorest and hungriest people on the planet.

Plus, I don't see how Americans eating less meat has anything to do with that food being sent to a hungry person somewhere else.

The idea of baseball salaries and ticket prices popped into my head earlier. Not sure if it applies, though.

People claim that ticket and beer prices are so high because of the ever-rising salaries paid to players, and if salaries were capped or lowered, then owners (not needing as much $ to run the team) could lower the prices of tickets and stuff at the park.

Which is bullshit. There is little or no correlation between the two ideas.

L-girl said...

If one of those disabled people comes up with some idea that greatly improves the world

Most people in this question won't come up with any idea for anything. We're talking about people with severe mental disabilities, people with extremely limited mental capacities.

It makes no difference, in my opinion - they are people. Period. But to be fair, Singer isn't talking about someone with a physical disability but full mental capabilities. He's talking about so-called "marginal cases", people who others commonly say are "like vegetables".

redsock said...

In other news:

"It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies. Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau.

The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal."

-------------------

A commenter on that story at DU says that when he worked at a McDonald's 20+ years ago, every night he threw out "at least 50 pounds of French fries alone - they were over the time limit ... 10-15 minutes ... At the time, McDonald's had 1200 franchises, and we were far from the largest or biggest one. 1200x50 - that's 6000 pounds of potatoes alone - 3 TONS per day - over 1,000 tons per year - just potatoes."

Jere said...

But there is that whole school of thought--you know, Hitler's, basically--about killing the undesirables or whatever, and that includes everything up to people with glasses.

Still, a near-total vegetable could still get some amazing idea and somehow signal it to someone else! Huh? Huh??

L-girl said...

But there is that whole school of thought--you know, Hitler's, basically--about killing the undesirables or whatever

Yup. And Hitler was a vegetarian.

I wasn't going to mention it, but as long as you brought up ole Adolph, why not.

L-girl said...

Allan, thanks for that comment re starvation and waste from McDonald's.

Oddly (ironically? not sure if this qualifies), it was pressure on McDonald's, and their reaction to it, that led to more humane slaughterhouse practices becoming industry standard. Which is not to say it's good now, but apparently it was waaaaay worse.

1200x50 - that's 6000 pounds of potatoes alone - 3 TONS per day - over 1,000 tons per year - just potatoes.

On a separate note, not "just potatoes". Potatoes would decompose!!