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Friday, October 20, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemna

The Omnivore's Dilemna should be familiar to most of us: since us humans can pretty much eat anything, how do we figure out what's good for us to eat? In the modern age, our instincts (which lean heavily towards the sweet and the savory) can easily lead us wrong.

Michael Pollan explores this in four meals: the industrial meal, as typified by the fast food industry, the industrial organic meal, as typified by the Whole Foods culture, the beyond organic meal, with grass-fed, management intensive farming produce, and finally the hunter/gatherer meal, where he hunted and foraged for his own food.

While he does not measure up to the platonic ideals of some of these meals, he does manage to cover a lot of the issues involved in food. After reading this book, you will probably never look at corn fed beef the same way again. But Whole Foods doesn't come across very well either --- its aisles come in for intense scrutiny, and the fact is that a large scale operation like Whole Foods cannot live up to the ideals as espoused by the original organic farming credo, which means that the organic label is now as much marketing as it is an indication of how the food is made.

I am of two minds about the attitudes behind a book like this. On one hand, how do you account for the fact that modern humans have the longest lifespans today, compared to humans living in the past? When farmers did not have fossil fuels and petroleum based fertilizers, crop failures were common, and people did starve! While industrialized agriculture indeed is fossil-fuel intensive and undesirable in many ways, cheap food has in many ways benefited the poorest among us, and I for one wouldn't go back to the days when a crop failure could doom thousands to starvation.

On the other hand, after reading a book like this, I become more sensitized to how the food is grown. There are techniques (such as those being used by Polyface Farms, as described in the book) where the farming isn't just good for profits, but also does good things for the land the animals graze on, and keeps the animals happy as well. The resulting food is also much better for you, nutritionally. It won't be cheap, but that's why we have good jobs, right? So selfishly, what I want is for this type of farming to take over, pay more for the food, and in the mean time reduce global warming emissions and pollution. That's worth the price to me.

Focus in for a moment on just the relationship between Budger and the tuft of fescue she's tearing from its crown. Those blades of grass have spent this long June day turning sunlight into sugars... To feed the photosynthetic process the grass's roots have drawn water and minerals up from deep in the soil (some grasses can sink their roots as much as six feet down), minerals that soon will become part of this cow. Chances are Budger has also chosen exactly which grasses to eat first, depending on whatever minerals her body craves that day; some species supply her more magnesium, others more potassiuml. (If she's feeling ill she might go for the plantain, a forb whose leaves contain antibiotic compounds; grazing cattle instinctively use the diversity of the salad bar to medicate themselves.)

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