Monday, March 15, 2010

Books: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

I generally shun non-fiction, finding it tedious. It's not that I don't encounter tedium in fictitious works, which I nevertheless force myself to finish, but that non-fiction has a greater propensity to be tedious, as the writer of non-fiction generally prides him or herself on his or her knowledgerather than his or her abilities. Not so Michael Pollan. Generally, I would not presume to know on which points an author does or does not, personally, pride himself, but Pollan is a very generous—almost confessional—writer, and one who acknowledges that, at the outset of preparation for The Omnivore's Dilemma, he knew very little about the subject on which he would eventually become a novice-expert.

The book, titled after the fact that, as omnivores, we suffer from the mixed blessing of being able to choose what to eat, rather than, say, a koala, which will only ever eat eucalyptus leaves. If all the eucalyptus tress get some nasty fungus and die, so do all the koala bears; but if our wheat crop does poorly, we can eat corn, and if all of our crops do poorly, we can eat the meat of hunted animals, and if all the animals are dead, we can eat fruit that grows on trees.

Because we can choose what we eat, we get ourselves into quite a bit of trouble (diabetes, obesity, and heart disease only being the most obvious of those troubles). In an investigative exercise to better understand what we eat, Pollan decides to research the making of four different meals, following them from the growth of the grain through the mastication process. The first is a McDonald's dinner, eaten in the car; the next, an "organic" meal that comes mostly from items purchased at Whole Foods, which we learn are indeed technically organic, but not necessarily so whole. The third is a more truly "organic" meal—not de facto organic, but grown conscientiously at the radical Polyface Farms in Virginia and more spiritually "organic" than meal number two (for which the "organic" chicken is one that eats organic corn, but lives in the same size metal cage as a commercial chicken; Polyface chickens strut around in the grass, eating bugs, as chickens ought). Meal the fourth, the ultimate experiment, is one that is hunted (wild California boar) and gathered (wild morel mushrooms) by Pollan himself, with ample assistance from an Italian woodsman who knows the finer points of shooting, dressing, butchering, and curing a boar, and who makes his own wine to boot.

Ultimately, Pollan is a curious, intelligent, conscientious man who writes lucidly and spins a good yarn. And so, I would be willing to read about his forays into just about anything: map-making, symphonic minimalism, garbage collection. That said, there is an incredibly important story here, and I'm rather disturbed to see that this book, which was one of the New York Times' Best Books of 2006, didn't make more waves—that is, actually change anything. Pollan's descriptions of the factory farming of corn, soybeans, chicken, pork, and beef—the reliance on petroleum fertilizers, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, and the feeding of animal waste to animals, are literally disgusting. (Before the onset of mad cow disease in the U.S., beef cattle were being fed a mixture of corn and cow fat; now they're fed a mixture of corn and chicken parts. Need I remind you that cows are vegetarians, who eat grass? Without pharmaceutical aids, they cannot digest corn at all.) A friend of mine, who lent me the book, finished it and immediately became a vegetarian, but Pollan briefly discusses vegetarianism too, and acknowledges that meat-eating is not the problem. (One could eat meatless factory-farmed products only, and be just as sick as a factory-farmed omnivore.) Surprisingly, corn comes out the bogey-man, one propped up by the American government and big business lobbyists.

I'm in New Zealand right now, which is known for its quality, grass-fed meats, but there are an awful lot of McDonald's all over Auckland. I can't help but wonder whether they serve local, grass-fed beef, or whether their supply chain requires that they import sub-par corn-fed products from the states.

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