What is wilson silverleaf? We're organitarians; it's best for our bodies and the planet. We cloth diapered Nina for the same reason. We drive a hybrid car & wish we could afford solar panels on our house. I'm a strong advocate for homebirth, full-time mom, & also a movie junkie. We don't have a tv though; we watch dvds on our computer. We love contradancing. I garden & knit; Larry's a puzzle lover & plays fantasy football.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Here is this month's post for The Soccer Mom Vote:

Last Tuesday I got to see Michael Pollan speak at Revelle Forum at UCSD (the website where I registered for the forum cautioned to get there early so I was there a half an hour early with some magazines which I got to read for a full half hour, uninterrupted, it was heaven). I had read The Omnivore's Dilemma earlier this year after hearing about it on NPR and was profoundly affected by it, so much so that I developed a full-blown crush on Pollan (still crushing hard, by the way). But it wasn't until I saw Michael Pollan speak at the that I really GOT it. Until I read The Omnivore's Dilemma I had been smug and complacent in my belief that as long as I was eating organic, I was not only doing the right thing for my family, but also for the environment and animal welfare. But as Mr Pollan pointed out at the end of his lecture, there is really no "one" answer. The unfortunate answer is that in order to make sure we are eating the best quality food with the lowest cost to the planet, we have to read labels and do research. It can be exhausting.

So here are some things I have learned from Mr Pollan:

  • Corn is everything. Everything is corn. It turns out that because everything most Americans eat is derived from corn, it actually ends up making up much of the carbon in our bodies. Here is an excerpt from the book that says a lot about our dependence on corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the
chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia
and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish
farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn.
The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows
that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend
their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate
manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon
corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do
most of a nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn
starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that
coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the
leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive
golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh”
can all be derived from corn.

To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in
the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the 1980s
virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket
have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—after
water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your
beverage instead and you’d still be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol
fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on
the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical
names it travels under, corn is what you will find. For modified or unmodified
starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: corn. Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez
Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup
and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and
gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise
and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening,
the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins. (Yes,
it’s in the Twinkie, too.) There are some forty-five thousand items in the
average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now
contain corn.This goes for the nonfood items as well: Everything from the
toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers,
charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on
the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn.
Even in Produce on a day when there’s ostensibly no corn for sale you’ll
nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers
their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection,
even in the coating on the cardboard it was shipped in. Indeed,
the supermarket itself—the wallboard and joint compound, the
linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself
has been built—is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

  • Having a monoculture (one crop) is not healthy for the environment; pests of all types thrive in a monoculture, which makes farmers need to use more and more pesticides. Monocultures also deplete the soil, which creates the need for more petroleum-based fertilizer. There is so much excess fertilizer used in Iowa that in the spring, "Blue Baby" alerts are commonplace. Parents are urged not to use tap water coming from the Des Moines river because of the huge nitrogen runoff from monocultural farms; nitrogen heavy water can inhibit the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the brain. source
  • Having a monoculture is not good for national security; it's never good to put all of your eggs in one basket.
  • The farm bill is not good for farmers. They should not be growing as much of a monocultural commodity crop as they possibly can for the lowest possible cost (they are often selling corn for less than it costs to grow it, then the government makes up some of the difference).
  • Bovines should not eat corn (they literally can't digest corn and it makes them sick, which is one of the reasons both that they have to have antibiotics all the time and also why they emit greenhouse gases), they should eat grass. That seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? But chances are you may never have even eaten meat or milk from a cow that wasn't mostly grain fed. Meat from non-pastured cows, it turns out, may be what is making us sick, not the cholesterol in the meat itself. Meat from pastured cattle is high in omega 3 fatty acids, meat from grain fed cattle is not (among many other ways that grain fed meats measure up poorly to grass fed).
  • The "organic" label only means that the animal has only eaten organic feed and hasn't had hormones and antibiotics. It does nothing to address the horrific conditions under which animals are kept and slaughtered in this country. "Cage free" and "free range" only mean that the chicken was not in a battery cage. It does NOT mean that the chicken ever went outside, only that in most cases for the last two weeks of its life a small door was opened in the barn. Most chickens do not use it.
  • Ethanol is NOT the answer. More corn? It seems on the face if it like it might be a good idea. But guess what is used to fertilize the corn? To refine it? To transport it? PETROLEUM. Ethanol uses more petroleum to produce than it saves. Pollan says that if the US used 100% of its corn crop to produce ethanol, it would replace 15% of the need for petroleum gas in this country.

It may seem like the book is full of gloom and doom but the section where he talks about Polyface Farm is downright wonderful. This farmer has found a way to produce astounding amounts of "better than organic" meat and eggs, while leaving the land richer. This farm has animals that actually live the life that is pictured in the products of other companies. And the owner doesn't ship his product because that goes against his ideals about eating local and using petroleum to ship food to the ends of the earth.

This is truly one of the best books I have ever read; I am positive that I am leaving out some major points but it's a start. If you like to think critically about where your food is coming from, you can't go wrong with this one.

You can read the introduction and first chapter of the book here.
Here's a description from the author's website:

What should we have for dinner? The question has confronted us since man discovered fire, but according to Michael Pollan, the bestselling author of The Botany of Desire, how we answer it today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, may well determine our very survival as a species. Should we eat a fast-food hamburger? Something organic? Or perhaps something we hunt, gather, or grow ourselves? The omnivore’s dilemma has returned with a vengeance, as the cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet confronts us with a bewildering and treacherous food landscape. What’s at stake in our eating choices is not only our own and our children’s health, but the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.

In this groundbreaking book, one of America’s most fascinating, original, and elegant writers turns his own omnivorous mind to the seemingly straightforward question of what we should have for dinner. To find out, Pollan follows each of the food chains that sustain us—industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food we forage ourselves—from the source to a final meal, and in the process develops a definitive account of the American way of eating. His absorbing narrative takes us from Iowa cornfields to food-science laboratories, from feedlots and fast-food restaurants to organic farms and hunting grounds, always emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the handful of plant and animal species we depend on. Each time Pollan sits down to a meal, he deploys his unique blend of personal and investigative journalism to trace the origins of everything consumed, revealing what we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods and flavors reflects our evolutionary inheritance.

The surprising answers Pollan offers to the simple question posed by this book have profound political, economic, psychological, and even moral implications for all of us. Beautifully written and thrillingly argued, The Omnivore’s Dilemma promises to change the way we think about the politics and pleasure of eating. For anyone who reads it, dinner will never again look, or taste, quite the same.


ellie said...

my husband hunts . . . I would, too, except that getting up at 3 or 4am and sitting (or hiking) somewhere very cold doesn't appeal to me. What does appeal to me is knowing where the food I eat comes from. It's also why I container garden vegetables. Of course neither will ever be my main source of food, at least not while I'm an urban dweller, but it connects me to my source.

Mama C-ta said...

Great post especially b/c I own that book but haven't read it. My husband asked for it for Xmas so I bought it for him and he has yet to read it too - I really knew nothing about it. Now I'm dying to get a chance to read it.

Yeah corn is insane. And interesting about the corn-fed cows causing health problems vs grain fed. ANNND I didn't realize all that about free-range. Here I was thinking the free-range chicken was out wondering this lush landscape being treated like royalty. A spa farm :) Sucks to know it's nothing like that.