Monday, August 4, 2008

Michael Pollan: The Omnivore's Dilemma

On our recent road trip, Kevin and I listened to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma on audiobook. Our farmer friends recommended it, oh, two whole years ago, so we finally decided to pick it up.

Now, this is a long audiobook for a single car trip. 13 discs. 15 hours and 58 minutes of super-detailed nonfiction. I wasn't sure I could handle it. But Michael Pollan's prose is engaging, and his subject matter completely absorbing. I was hooked.

Essentially, The Omnivore's Dilemma is about food. More specifically, about how the food we eat ends up on our plate. As omnivores, Pollan argues, we can eat anything we want (not, say, like a Koala who only eats eucalyptus leaves). So how do we decide what we eat? Or do we think about it at all?

What follows is an in-depth exploration of our major food systems: industrial agriculture, organic industrial agriculture, sustainable "beyond-organic" agriculture, and traditional hunting and gathering. Pollan somehow manages to engage the topic of food production in a manner that is page-turning, riveting, non-judgmental, and at the risk of sounding too dramatic, potentially life-changing.

Kevin and I had the added benefit of live illustrations, of course. For the entire first quarter of the book, as Pollan writes about the subsidized, overblown, unsustainable process of creating cheap, plentiful corn, we were driving past miles and miles of lush, green cornfields. During the hunting and gathering section, we had just driven through wooded areas filled with deer and fox and mushrooms. It was a pretty stunning experience all around.

I will admit, Michael Pollan ruined some things for me. I had (mostly) given up industrial meat after Fast Food Nation, so that wasn't a big surprise. The Omnivore's Dilemma just confirmed the fact I'll be eating meat from places like our local Wolfe's Neck Farm or none at all. But I will never be able to look at a cornfield the same way again. Or a box of breakfast cereal. I'm sure that I will still eat cereal (maybe). But at least now I will know how it's made. And that it's pretty much just made of corn, corn oil, corn syrup, corn starch. Corn from fields that are overproduced, overfertilized, and oversubsidized by farmers who are, quite simply, underpaid.

Michael Pollan suggests that it will take nothing less than a grass-roots revolution to change some of the disastrous ways we are producing food. And that can be a daunting, depressing thought. To think of the ways that in the current system the economically poor often only have access to the most unhealthy, most industrially produced food; to think of the big-money corporations who are pushing systems that are of great expense to the land, animals, and the people. It's depressing.

But, strangely, I didn't come away from The Omnivores Dilemma depressed. Instead, I even felt a little empowered. There are things I can do. I can support local agriculture. I can vote with my dollars. I can buy fewer items in those center (corn-filled) aisles of my grocery store. Sure, I'm just one person. And sure, those are small acts. But revolutions begin with individuals and small acts. That's why they work.

Here are some interesting links:

Read the introduction and first chapter (.pdf) of The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Find local, sustainable, organic food in your area.

Read the New York Times Review of The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Read Michael Pollan's articles on related topics (from New York Times Magazine):
The Modern Hunter-Gatherer
Power Steer
An Animal's Place

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