Monday, December 18, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals

If we are what we eat, most of us would be comprised of corn with a large side of petroleum. Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, follows the human food chains back to their origins by tracing the paths of all the items in four meals: a fast food meal from McDonald's representing processed food; an Agribiz produced "organic" food meal; a pastoral meal produced on an amazing farm in Virginia where nothing goes to waste and animals lead happy lives and are slaughtered as humanely as possible; and finally, a meal totally gathered and hunted in the woods and wilds of northern California.

Pollan wants us to become mindful of what we are eating and consider the effects of how it is produced upon the planet and upon our own bodies. It puts the human animal in a place she'd rather not be -- face to face with the reality of what it means to live on this planet and recognize that after all, we are but another thing that dies to feed other things.

Those who eat animals and/or their products, would really rather not know about the conditions those animals live in, but Pollan buys a steer calf and follows it through its short miserable life. He goes into great detail explaining how the stomach's of cows are evolved to digest grasses. That is what cows should eat, but now they are penned in CAFOs (Contained Animal Feeding Operations), and fed a corn-based mash. Cows do not digest corn naturally. So that upsets the balance:

"Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the strong acids in our stomachs, since they evolved to live in the neutral pH environment of the rumen. But the rumen of a corn-fed feedlot steer is nearly as acidic as our own, and in this new, man made environment new acid resistant strains of E.coli, of which 0157:H7, is one, have evolved--yet another creature recruited by nature to absorb the excess biomass coming off the Farm Belt. The problem with these bugs is that they can shake off the acid bath in our stomachs--and then go on to kill us. By acidifying the rumen with corn we've broken down one of our food chain's most important barriers to infection. Yet another solution turned into a problem.." (Omnivore p 82).
Big Agribiz with its monoculture of corn fields and silos that produce and store the kernals that feed the cows on CAFOs burns up enormous amounts of petroleum products to produce its crop of field corn #2, including petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the fuel used to run the massive machines that work over the massive amounts of acres which are "farmed" these days. According to Pollan, one fifth of petroleum consumed in America goes to the production and transportation of food.

Those corn kernals go into just about every processed food humans consume, in the form of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) and other fattening engineered food products. We fatten the cows on corn, then proceed to fatten ourselves on HFCS and other corn derivatives.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pollan's book are the chapters describing the meal at the end of each food chain. In the case of the processed corn chain, it is a chicken McNugget, made from 38 ingredients including TBHQ, or tertiary butylhydroquinone, sprayed on to help preserve the freshness. It is actually a form of butane and extremely toxic if you swallow a gram of it. McDonalds isn't going to put a gram of it on your nuggets, but someone who eats those things a lot might be accumulating that stuff somewhere in their bodies, don't you think?

Yes, this book provokes an awful amount of thinking and I wish everybody I knew would read it ASAP. I will be writing about it all week as there is much to ponder and reflect upon -- especially concerning what I learned about my vegetarian life-style (30+ years now!) and whether after reading the Omniovore's Dilemma I could ever bring myself to eat flesh.

To be continued.....


microdot said...

The description of the chemically enhanced preparation of a Chicken McNugget is quite disturbing. I'm of the Jose Bove persuasion and believe that McDonalds should be "dismantled".
I have been a vegetarian, I managed a vegetarian restaurant in Toledo for a year or so, but I am too gourmand to even think about it, though in reality, my wife and I eat meat only a few times a month. Okay we eat chicken...but are obsessed with the quality of what we eat.
We grow a large portion of the vegetables we eat, even now, I have beets, leeks, lettuce, radichio and parsley and celery in the ground and in a frame. The attic is full of varities of pumpkins and the cave is full of potatoes.
The freezer is jam packed with tomato products and frozen fruit and soups.
Eggs come from our neighbor, who will sell us a chicken or a duck if we want a really good one!
I find the subject of diet and culture fascinating and I come to America once a year and am always shocked at the ever expanding super sized humans who live there!

Village Green said...

You must read The Omnivore's Dilemma -- it is a real page turner filled with science, ethics, ecological considerations and descriptions of meals that will fascinate you!

I envy you your lifestyle. I can only dabble in it, but gardening helps me relieve the stress of my day job and puts me in touch with a deeper kind of reality and inner peace that religion will never provide.