Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a great confluence of interesting subjects (food, politics, environment, transparency) and I loved it and wish it were required reading for anyone who is looking at going on a diet, anyone who does any amount of grocery shopping for their household or anyone who writes or influences agriculture legislation.
In our decisions about what foods we eat we have the ability to change the world for the better. That’s pretty much the thesis of Pollan’s book. For someone like me who (as my ever-tightening waistband demonstrates) loves a huge variety of food and has a strong calling towards positive social change, I didn’t want the book to end. However, if you’re someone who is not all that into culinary experimentation and you truly believe that we’ll be able to relocate the world’s population to another planet before we suffocate the one we were all born on, you probably won’t find much to enjoy here.
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Pollan is a good writer. I read Botany of Desire a while back and couldn’t put it down. That a book about how plants domesticated humans as much as humans domesticated plants kept my interest says a lot about his ability to provide contextual relevance to complex science. In writing about agricultural and food chain systems he’s really provided the reader with the necessary vocabulary and contexts to understand the pertinent arguments and debates surrounding those systems.
The biggest shock to my understanding of the way the world works came in the multiple explanations of agriculture as a business of capturing free solar energy in a food product that can then be turned into a high value human energy. There are two ways to convert this free solar energy into human energy:
- walk out to your garden, pull out a carrot and eat it
- send an animal out to gather this free solar food and then eat the animal
This is very common-sense but it’s just something that you don’t think about all the time. For millennia, we’ve used the sun’s energy to fuel us via plants and animals. More recently though we learned to synthesize energy for plants from petroleum by way of nitrogen fertilizer. So we augment the sun’s energy with petroleum. Pollan speaks with several farmers who all make persuasive arguments that we should to the greatest extent possible rely on the contemporary energy of the sun as captured every day by photosynthesis instead of the fossilized sun energy contained in petroleum.
Simply buying organic produce does very little to solve the problems caused by the length of the food chain system and the way we fuel our crops with petroleum. A possible solution that Pollan discusses is Grass Farming. Grass farming, rather then reducing crop growing to a mere series chemically augmented steps, is an insanely complex system in which farmers grow animals -for meat eggs milk and wool, but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species. Grass is the nexus between solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat:
- Grass farming is very complex. It’s also labor intensive.
- CAFO farmers work fields fifty days out of the year. Grass farmers work everyday, sunup to sundown
It’s the complexity of this grass-based system that makes its implementation so limited. Grass farming as natural systems are very complex and require a lot of on-the-spot problem solving. It requires vast amounts of knowledge vs. solutions that are sold in bottles from chemical companies. This removes the intelligence and local knowledge in agriculture from the farm to the lab and dove-tails nicely into a book titled The Age of Missing Information that I’m currently reading.
One grass farmer’s anecdote that I thought was interesting: “you’ve got a lot of D students left on the farm today. The guidance counselors encouraged all the A students to leave home and got to college. There’s been a tremendous brain drain in rural America. Of course that suits Wall Street just fine. Wall street is always trying to extract brainpower and capital from the countryside. First they take the brightest bulbs off the farm and put them to work in Dilbert’s cubicle and then they go after the capital of the dimmer ones who stayed behind by selling them a bunch of gee-whiz solutions to their problems.”
I made a note to myself when I was in the middle of this book that details how I finally understand the connection between my interest in civic participation and sustainable agriculture and better planning and utilization of our resources. A snippit from that note: The right to look at our food chain is a lot like open source software. you may not actually look at the code but you have the right to. As my interests evolve and expand, my understanding of transparency’s role in our personal interactions with the other (individuals, groups, government) is becoming clearer and clearer. What I don’t understand is why we don’t collectively demand more of it in every arena of our lives. It is almost impossible to justify a lack of transparency. However, as we become a culture steeped in fear, transparency certainly becomes harder to come by.
Anyway, in the second half of the book, I couldn’t help but notice these transparency-of-food-chain snippits:
” Farmer: You can’t regulate integrity. Come out to the farm, poke around, sniff around. If after seeing how we do things [you] want to buy from us, that should be none of the government’s business. Fresh air and sunshine is a disinfectant. Likewise transparency in food chain is a more powerful disinfectant than any regulation or technology. If the walls of every slaughterhouse were transparent our food would be safer (as well as more humane, clean, careful, etc.) ”
” The industrialization and brutalization of animals in America is a relatively new and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals as invisibly or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the food we we eat. We need the right to look. ”
I’ve been plowing through a lot of books over the past several weeks. Mostly science-themed, non-fiction. It’s become clear to me that we intuitively know what the right things to do are and science is now backing us up on these right things. I’m finding that the question of doing the right thing isn’t morally difficult. It’s just inconvenient. Unfortunately — where we live right now in time and place — we act as if we value convenience over morality.