Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Books: The Omnivore's dilemma

The Omnivore's dilemma, by Michael Pollan, is one of those books that I approached with great hesitation. I was biased: I thought the author would try and teach me a lesson about how nasty and stupid eating meat and processed food is, and how wonderful the vegetarian and organic world is. My assumption was based on absolutely nothing. Luckily, I kept an open mind, so that I could prove once again to myself that you don't know what you don't know, and that if you base yourself on prejudices and on what you think you know, you won't go far.

The book is a wonderful read, and I have learnt so many things (did you know, for instance, that mushrooms are like flowers springing out from huge underground organism, called hypae, that seem to work like a neurological system linking hundreds, thousands of trees of the same forest, but that nobody knows exactly what they are? I certainly didn't know...)

The author sets on his quest for the perfect meal, following three different paths. The first path will lead him to buy a steer that will be processed by the meat processing industry. But the real star of this section is corn. Pollan in fact explains how corn has come to occupy every available nook in the American food chain, to the point that Americans are now literally made of corn. His conclusions about the industrial food processing alternative is that yes, it is cheap, but only because the final price that consumers pay does not reflect the real production costs. If one was to include in that final price also the costs of the use of pesticides, chemical substances, potential money you may need to spend to cure the diseases that that food may cause to you, the fast food burger would cost a lot more. And this, without even considering the conditions in which animals are kept and killed.

If his conclusion about the industrial food option were not surprising, his account of his "organic" experience was. Pollan goes to spend one week living and working on a farm that has refused the government's organic certification, on the ground that this certification now means absolutely nothing, and is designed to please big business. And indeed, if when you buy your milk from "grass fed cattle" or your eggs from "free range chicken" at Whole Foods you imagine happy beef cattle and chickens living in harmony on a green prairie, then you are delusional (like I admit I was). Yes, Pollan explains that if you are buying organic you are surely not buying things that were treated with pesticides. But that doesn't exclude a lot of other chemical substances which are instead still allowed. And do you know what "free range chicken" means? It means that they are in a cage, with a door which gives access outside. But since that door is closed for the first weeks of life of the chicken (as required by the US law), the chicken will most likely never develop the instinct of going through that door, even when it will be opened.

Not exactly what you thought, right?

His conclusion is in favor of those farms that still operate on a local scale. They alone - Pollan suggests - seem to be able to provide the potential buyer with the guarantee that the meat they are buying come from animals that lived freely, doing what they were supposed to do, and which have been killed humanely. A fallacy in his argument? He doesn't address the price issue. He does address it in the industrial food section, so I was expecting him to do the same here. But he doesn't. He simply says that the cost is lower than many thinks. And this bugs me, and I will explain myself in a minute.

The last section of the book sees the author hunting for pig and foraging mushrooms in California. In this section he deals with the moral issues surrounding eating meat and killing your own food. Whatever your position (omnivore, vegetarian, vegan) this is fascinating read.

His final conclusions is that neither the industrial food processing system nor the hunter/gatherer approaches are sustainable in the contemporary word. You are obviously not going every day to kill a beef cattle to make beef broth yourself. But you shouldn't even think that beef broth comes from a can, and costs 5c a gallon. He therefore seems to lean on the organic option, in spite of its fallacies and lies, and especially on the  local movement.

There is part of me that agrees with him. But another part of me thinks that Pollan ignores the proverbial big elephant in the room: price. I can't stop thinking about Nigella Lawson's words abouve the locavore movement: i.e. that it is an elitist movement. This annoys me, the fact that the supporters of the idea that you need to eat local (and seasonal) refuse to concede that this food always costs more. There is nothing wrong in admitting that it costs more, that it is better quality and that it is better for you. But there is a lot wrong when idiots I talk to tell me that no, it is not true that food bought at the green city market of Chicago, for instance, is more expensive for my wallet than what you can buy at Jewel Osco's supermarkets. This is a fat lie, people. Rather than denying the evidence, let's just bring forward the argument that no food should be bought on price only: nobody would buy a car on price only. So why are we buying food on price only?


Trobairitz said...

You have some great thoughts there. I haven't read that book, but it sounds like a good read to put on my list.

Our local farmer's market has a tendency to be a lot higher priced than what we can go to the farms and buy things for or even local produce from the grocery stores.

We pick local blueberries for $1.25 per pound. They are organic, but not certified because of the red tape involved. But if I were to go to the farmer's market they would be at least double that. Same quality, double the price. Sad really.

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Precisely. Pollan says that the price people pay at the non organic ceritified farm are actually cheaper than what you can pay at whole foods, for instance. But also at green city markets.

The is a pricing issue, and it is pointless to ignore it. It doesn't serve the cause.

illmakeitmyself said...

I've been meaning to read this book for a few years now. Organic food usually isn't too much more expensive in restaurants here, but the veggies and rice can be double the price. I try to balance my food--I get a lot of local goods, some imports (peanut butter, oatmeal), and organic rice. (In the States, I got eggs from a friend's chickens and went to the farmers' market a lot!) There's not as much choice here since Japan doesn't have as many climate regions as the US.

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

But does Japan have the same type of issues - in terms of food quality - as the US? What strikes me here in the US is the absolute inadequacy of the FDA mandate: they can't do anything, and what they can do is pointless. When you find out that that the meat in Taco bell's tacos is not meat, but taco meat filling where the meat % is very low, and that this is alright with the FDA, you wonder.


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