Monday, February 25, 2008

Review of the "Omnivores Dilemna"

During my trip to South America I brought Michael Pollan's The Omnivores's Dilemna. It is supposed to be a moral meditation on food, agriculture, and the environment. The author investigates the origins and implications of four meals:

1. A McDonald's fast food meal
2. A homemade meal made entirely of organically grown ingredients
3. A small farmer pasture-fed meal of uber-organic ingredients from Polyface farms
4. A hunted-gathered meal from the "wilds" of California

The first part of the book exposes the industrial and factory origins of fast food and organic food alike. By far this is the best part of the book. He purchases a steer from a feed lot and goes to visit the feed lot as well as a disgruntled corn farmer.

Frankly, there is nothing appetizing about feed lots. The cows are crammed in together with little to no room and there is a "lagoon" of fermenting urine and manure to complete the odorous landscape. So much corn is grown in the U.S. to support this industry as well as the hog farms where they are just as crammed together in specialized barns with slatted floors so that the thousands of pounds of pig waste can flow into their huge lagoons prior to spreading on local fields. Chicken production is also just as industrialized. Workers have to wear special breathing apparati to go on the lower level and if the fans stop working the whole house full of chickens dies from the fermenting waste below them. So many animals are crammed together that the feed is doped with antibiotics and strict biocontrol measures are used to keep the herds healthy.

Organic farms have similar conditions, just organic certified feed and no antibiotics. In my opinion they are just as bad, although they try harder to be environmentally friendly.

Farms like POlyface remind me of my Aunt Sandra's place in Texas or the Amish family that I buy pork from. They have an integrated approach to agriculture that relies on pasture, rotation, a mix of species, and agressive management. They definitely seem like an idealic yeah even pastoral solution to the environmental problems posed by traditional agriculture.

The last section about the hunted gathered meal is just annoying because it seems like it is crescendoing to be some great solution, when to me it seems the least sustainable. How many of us own woods where there are wild boar and mushrooms? How much time was spent? How much environmental damage would there be for Los Angeles to decide they are all going to eat gourmet pork and mushrooms every day?

The problem though unrecognised by the Omnivores Dilemna is outlined in the first chapters. The average farm supports ~180 people. That means 179 people don't have to actually work growing their own food. It magically appears in the grocery store and the rest of us are free to be accountants, bank managers, computer programmers, and artists. The guy left on the farm is left with the ever daunting task to remain commercially viable. Food price increases rarely reach the farmer in the field and so the average farmer is forced to do whatever possible to increase yields and productivity. More acres are needed. Less time is available to spend moving cattle daily to new pastures. Cows need to be milked by the thousands every day. Mechanization, fertilization, specialization and industrialization of agriculture didn't happen because that is how the farmers wanted to do it. There is no conspiracy. They just wanted to survive.


B-Ring said...

that sure is a cool job. things must get a poppin' overseas. the best experience is when you are illiterate in a country because you end up using your smile and pointing a lot.

note: double check the spelling of Allen in your links section.

Brian G. said...

Thanks for the Allen note. I tend to spell stuff like I say them.

I have been spoiled to have done all of my travels in South America where I speak the language. I am fluent in Spanish and passable in Portuguese. I would like to go to Europe where much pointing and smiling will be required.

B-Ring said...

i hear you. también me defiendo. entendo mais não falo muito. i hope that you drink some feijoa juice in south america whenever you get a chance.

google colberto dobbs video. now that's really funny stuff.

Brian G. said...

I didn't have feijoa, I will have to seek it out next time. I try to get my fill of malacuya and papaya. Is feijoa like guava?

B-Ring said...

feijoa a.k.a. pinapple guava has a rather complex flavor which includes the sensations of pineapple, quince, lemon, and a hint of strawberry. definitely the best of the guava familia.