I finally finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma Tuesday night, after starting it after Christmas break and getting through the first section before my internship took over. Seriously, what an amazing book. I would honestly recommend it to anyone who eats.
In the book, Pollan follows four meals from start to finish: one that takes the typical, industrial path (beginning in an Iowan corn field and ending in the form of a fast food meal eaten at 65 mph in his car), one that comes from the rapidly growing "supermarket organic" industry, one that is mostly sourced from the now-legendary Polyface Farm and one that he mostly hunted and foraged himself in the forests of California.
The take-home message I got from reading this book is that our current approach to food, diet and nutrition is pretty selfish. The industrial agricultural system has caused our view of food to become one that expects a consistent, year-round supply of product, and one that negotiates mainly on one level: price. That's why we super-size, buy food that's stuffed with cheap corn and corn by-products and feel socially pressured to lick everything off of our plates. Additionally, while some people are beginning to eat with the environment in mind, many are still fixated on the idea of what is good for us and what is tasty to us.
By juxtaposing the mini-ecosystems created by Joel Salatin on Polyface farm and the actual ecosystem that he observes while he hunts wild boar or forages for mushrooms against the methods we currently use to grow our food, organic or not, Pollan discreetly argues that we are unhealthy because we are not eating what nature intended us to be eating. Not only that, what we eat should also be eating what nature intended it to be eating, and doing what nature intended it to be doing.
This kind of parallels a nutrition theory called paleolithic nutrition, which posits that humans evolved to eat what our ancestors ate and therefore for optimal health, we should eat similar diets to our ancestors. This would mean changing the composition of our diet (i.e. less processed/refined foods), changing how we raise our animals (i.e. wild, grazing animals had a different fat distribution than our current domesticated, grain-fed animals) and learning to eat with the seasons.
While most of the book consists of Pollan's thoughts and observations as he travels around, researching and preparing these meals, he segues into actual statements/thoughts about the current Omnivore's Dilemma as well as his argument against vegetarianism in the section just before the big boar hunt.
Pollan argues that part of the reason why Americans (and I guess this probably applies to Canadians too) eat the way they/we do is because there is no clearly defined American cuisine, which would give us set rules and rituals to help dictate our relationship to food. Because our relationship to food is so weak, it has made it easy for food fads and diets to take over how we eat. Pollan quotes Harvey Levenstein, a Canadian historian, in summing up how he thinks Americans eat:
...taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity.
In other words, we let science dictate how they eat even though the science of nutrition is a fairly new branch of research. Pollan goes on to say that people are always flipping out over the French Paradox because it contradicts with our rules over how to eat (i.e. low in this nutrient, high in that nutrient, etc.), despite the fact that they have their own set of rules, like eating small portions and making meals a family/communal affair, which may contribute to the fact that they don't have the same obesity problem that exists in America. I'm sure the "rules concept" could applied to the long-living Asian populations, who generally eat white rice. And lots of it.
The scariest part of this is that American culture, thought and cuisine is becoming increasingly dominant in the world, possibly eroding the traditional cultures of healthy populations and exacerbating the obesity crisis.
The most interesting part of the book for me, I think, was his argument against vegetarianism. Pollan read Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, which is supposedly so well-argued and descriptive that it makes many people become vegetarian. Pollan does a good job presenting the stereotypical arguments against the book and how the book refutes it, such as the issue of why it's not right to exploit a human who has a lesser degree of intelligence (i.e. someone who is mentally retarded) but it's acceptable for us to exploit non-humans. He also goes on to explore the issues of animal suffering (do they actually feel pain/suffering when they are slaughtered (most likely not) or in their living conditions (more likely so)?) and animal happiness.
Pollan's strongest argument against vegetarianism, I think, goes back to nature. Some animal rights activists claim that for all animals, "the life of freedom is to be preferred", but he says that "domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political development... Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs and—yes—their flesh." This means that your average domesticated cow or chicken would probably die if it were liberated. Humans also evolved in response to domestication, in that many human adults can digest lactose.
Pollan extends his argument into the wild; predation, like domestication, is a part of the natural way, not because animals have no morality. (Did you know some vegetarians/vegans make their naturally carnivorous cats/dogs vegetarians?!) If wolves didn't hunt deer, then they would overrun their habitat, overgrazing the plants that they eat and eventually all of them will starve. Pollan concludes that the problem with animal rights activists is that they think of the individual animal as opposed to the animal as a species. By focusing on the brutality of a wolf killing a deer as opposed to the havoc it would wreak on the ecosystem if wolf didn't hunt deer, they are missing the point of the natural world.
Singer writes, "In our normal life, there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals," which in Pollan's mind points out just how urban of a development animal rights activism is. He says that even a vegan would have a "serious clash of interests" with other animals, as "The grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer's tractor wheel crushes woodchucks in their burrows and his pesticides drop songbirds from the sky..." And if everyone in the world decided to become vegetarian, it would force certain parts of the world to import all of their food just because it's unfit for growing crops.
Despite this, I should remind you once again that industrial agriculture is not sustainable, and even the booming industrial organic farms are really like conventional farms, but trading off the various inputs; manure instead of fertilizer, organic-approved methods of pest control instead of pesticides, etc. Polyface farm was a great example of a farm who is trying to go back to letting nature help raise its animals and I'm wondering if any other farms like this exist. Sunworks Farm, which sells its products at the Calgary Farmers' Market seems pretty close, but they feed their cattle a grain supplement in the winter, which I'm not sure how I feel about. Speaking of Albertan products, I noticed that the yolks of the eggs that my mom buys here in Calgary are a lot lighter than the eggs I buy in Montreal—and these are conventionally-grown eggs! I just remember the vivid description of the orange, beta-carotene-filled yolk of the Polyface farm egg and I think I want some of that.
Pollan's newest, In Defense of Food, promises to be "an eater's manifesto", offering "solutions" to the questions that he raised in The Omnivore's Dilemma. He touts the phrase "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants," and sets out twelve eating commandments that centre around eating real, unprocessed organic food and not worrying so much about whether you're getting enough of this nutrient or too much of that nutrient.
I definitely hope to getting around to reading it this summer (and forming a position on his dis of nutrition experts), but I have three other books and a course to get through too.
In the meantime, I'd highly recommend watching the following two videos: the first is a short one where he briefly explains the main points of his book on Nightline, while the second is an hour-long speech plus Q+A that I have yet to finish.