I just finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which marked my 25th book read this year, and the halfway point in my goal to read at least 50 books this year. I have been wanting to read this book for quite some time, and was finally given a little push when it was chosen as the July book for my book club.
I LOVED this book. Despite that I ended my reading with many more questions than answers and a sense of general uneasiness about the way I eat and feed my family, I am glad I read it. It is much easier to be ignorant of what is really going on with the food and farming industries, but that doesn't mean it's right.
My first shock when reading this book was reading the list of things in the food I eat that are made from corn. I cannot believe how much corn I am eating, especially considering the amount of processed food I eat. It made me think about how much I DON'T think about where my food comes from, or what I've been putting in to my body. This is an issue that's come up in our family recently anyway with Justin being diagnosed with Celiac Disease we've had to really start checking our food and making sure that nothing he eats contains wheat gluten and other things like malt, barley etc. Despite becoming more familiar with our food, it still made me feel a little weird when I found out that 13 out of the 38 ingredients in a McDonalds chichen nugget can be derived from corn. Beyond that beign weird, what are 38 ingredients doing in a nugget anyhow?
Not only that, but knowing how all of the corn I'm ingesting gets processed really made me less excited about eating it. Did you know that it takes 50 gallons of oil to grow 1 acre of corn? No? I bet you also didn't know that after WW2 some munitions plants were switched to making chemical fertilizer, which is made from the same stuff used to make explosives. Which means instead of shooting those bombs off, we're eating them.
This book also gave me a lot of insight into some of the reasons why we are so fat these days. And by WE I mean Americans. I mean, have you ever been to another country? They walk. They exercise. After I spent 3 months in London walking everywhere, and walking FAST, I was in the best shape of my life. In America, they figured out that people felt like gluttons asking for seconds, so instead they just made the portion sizes ginormous. Have you noticed what you get now when you ask for a small at most fast food places? 20 oz? A small used to be 8 oz, Coke used to come in 8 oz cans.
Organic vs. Sustainable
For the past couple of years, I've made much more of an effort to buy organic. I buy Sam organic milk, and I try to buy organic products as often as possible because I figured it was better. What I'm really thinking about now is buying organic vs. buying sustainable. What does organic really mean? In some cases, not much at all. At a chicken plant, the only difference between an organic chicken and a non-organic chicken is that the organic chickens are fed a certified organic corn feed, which probably costs a tiny bit more. Other than that, they're treated the same way as the other chickens. In the same category, you might want to think about what it really means when a chicken is labeled as 'free range'. It means bupkis, that's what. The average lifespan of a chicken in a plant might be around 7 weeks. For the first 5, they're kept inside because organic chickens are so susceptible to disease and infection. For the last 2 weeks they are given a door with access to a grassy strip outside. Guess what? They don't go out. They've already lived five weeks without going outside, why the hell would they go out now? Two weeks later, they're on our plates.
I'm not saying there is no upside to 'organic', there is. The land that grows organic crops isn't spread with chemicals. But the field right next to it, owned by the same company, might be.
My favorite part of the book was the middle section, where Michael went to live at Polyface Farms, a pastoral farm on the East Coast. They grow everything naturally, and the lives of the animals and plants on the farm are so intertwined that you couldn't have one without the others. This section of the book literally made me want to go and live there. Yes it would be hard. I would be working for ten or twelve hours a day doing manual labor. But I would also be healthier, in better shape, well fed, and wouldn't have to worry as much about the kind of damage I'm doing with the food products I choose to buy. The farm is much too much to describe here, but it's an amazing place. Pollan also points out that if the 16 million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the US were converted to this kind of pastoral farm, it would be the equivalent of taking about four million cars off the road. That's a lot of freaking cars.
What Do I Know?
There are several quotes in this book from people eating wild meat, or meat raised on farms like Polyface. They say that it tastes like the chicken they remember from when they were kids, or that it really tastes like chicken. This got me thinking that perhaps I don't even know what REAL meat tastes like. I was talking to Violet about the book and admitted that in a lot of cases, I would rather order something without chicken (like a quesadilla) because the chicken is just... protein. It doesn't taste like anything, it's not particularly tender or juicy or flavorful. It's just an ingredient. It made me wonder how far this extends into my life - have I ever had REAL meat? Pollan also makes an excellent point regarding the price of food - honestly priced, more expensive food (like a dozen eggs from Polyface) versus irresponsibly priced food where the costs to the earth, the costs to the environment, the amount of oil it took to be produced are not considered or factored in to the cost.
What I've written here is a tiny slice of the pie. This book was so good that I find it hard to sit down and write anything about it without just saying, heck, just go read it! I do recommend it to anyone who is interested in getting the facts about where food comes from. Pollan is very fair and factual in his representations, I was actually very appreciative of the way he talked about vegetarians and showed both sides of the argument without bias. He observed, experienced, and researched, and the outcome is an amazing look into the food we eat in America today.
It's not easy to change your life overnight. It would have been a lot easier not to read this book, to have stayed ignorant and never considered where my meat comes from or the huge cost of industrial farming. This book made me want to think more about what I put into my body. To buy locally and try and support local and sustainable farmers. To go to the farmers market more often. Not everyone can change everything. These products can be more expensive. But every tiny step that you take in the right direction can make a difference. I don't know where this book will take me, but I would like to hope that I'll be able to make some changes in where and how we buy our food that will allow the earth and our family to be a little bit healthier.