Monday, July 21, 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma

So on my quest toward healthier living, I've been reading. A lot.  Normally I'm strictly a novel kind of girl, but turns out I can stand an occasional round of educational nonfiction ;)

I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan last month, and wanted to share a bit about it here (and ramble on longer than I would in a goodreads review.  Anyone else on there?)

A few friends raved about this book, so I took a chance on it.  The author essentially decides that he wants to evaluate our food chain, so he can better answer the question, "What should we have for dinner?" There are three main sections - Industrial/Corn, Pastoral/Grass (this was my favorite section by far) and Personal/The Forest.  I had a hard time getting into it initially and skimmed a bit in the first 50 or so pages.

He spends about 100 pages just on corn - the government-subsidized stuff that now fills most animals' feed bins (even cows, who naturally would be eating grass), not to mention the processed products lining the shelves of our grocery stores (HFCS, of course, but must of the emulsifiers and such are corn-based); and I think we're all aware of the GMO argument these days.  He points out many shortcomings in our commercialized, industrialized nation, and I admit that I am now even more jaded about the USDA and the government's nutritional recommendations, but this book is not just some anti-government rant...

As science has advanced, we are quick to embrace the discoveries and confidently proclaim we've solved the mysteries.  Pollan discusses studies of soil,  and the discovery in 1840 that the chemicals nitrogen, phosphorus, and and potassium are crucial to plant growth, which soon led to an "NPK mentality."
When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one's ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine. (pg 148)
Wow.  I actually stopped and read that sentence a couple times. Sir Albert Howard, an English agronomist, fought vehemently against "artificial manures" (fertilizer) in the 1930s-1940s, saying they'd leave plants vulnerable to pests and disease, and eventually cause damage to the health of the animals and people who ate them. Hmmmm.

But moving along... all this reading has also led me to have a deeper appreciation of this amazing body that God created (even though an attempt is made to ascribe these capabilities to evolution)
The fact that we humans are indeed omnivorous is deeply inscribed in our bodies... Our teeth are omnicompetent - designed for tearing animal flesh as well as grinding plants.  So are our jaws, which we can move in the manner of a carnivore, a rodent, or an herbivore, depending on the dish.  Our stomachs produce an enzyme specifically designed to break down elastin, a type of protein found in meat and nowhere else.  Our metabolism requires specific chemical compounds that, in nature, can be gotten only from plants (like Vitamin C) and others that can be gotten only from animals (like vitamin B-12). (pg 289)
Pollan visits Polyface farms, whose owner, a graduate of Bob Jones university with a Jesus fish on his car, describes himself as a "grass farmer" (as it's the basis of the intricate food chain found on his farm, which includes chickens, cows, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, not to mention tomatoes, sweet corn and berries). He does not qualify for the government designation of "organic" yet uses no pesticides or fertilizers, but instead utilizes the animals themselves to provide all that's needed (the cows eat the grass and leave their poop behind, the moveable chicken coops are wheeled over a few days later so the chickens can eat the bugs crawling all over the cow patties, and while pecking at it spread the manure nicely on the ground, plus of course leave their own behind...)  This is highly labor-intensive farm, but Pollan clearly admires the ecological system that's been created.

Now let's talk about the culture of eating - mealtime, preparing the food, etc.  America, so proud of its "melting pot" heritage is always looking for the next new thing (not only in food, but also diets!) and never really established its own set of cultural "food rules".  Consider the French paradox - they "eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don't go back for seconds; they don't snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs.  In other words, the French culture of food successfully negotiates the omnivore's dilemma, allowing the French to enjoy their meals without ruining their health." (pg 301)

As women have left the traditional stay at home role, food companies have focused on introducing convenience foods, so that even a six year old can make his own meal - and there's powerful marketing telling us that we need those highly-processed simpler, time saving options!
Several years ago, in a book called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, sociologist Daniel Bell called attention to the tendency of capitalism, in its single-minded pursuit of profit, to erode the various cultural underpinnings that steady a society but often impede the march of commercialization.  The family dinner...appears to be the latest such casualty. (pg 302)
The final section of the book is devoted to hunting and foraging, and this was probably my least favorite.  It was interesting to learn more about mushrooms (and the sub-culture of those devoted to gathering them) but the descriptions of hunting were pretty ridiculous. I was raised in a hunting family, and the vast majority of our meat was whatever my Dad had shot -- so the author's description of  the experience of stalking an animal and shooting just left me rolling my eyes (although I'm sure there are plenty of vegetarians out there who were offended)  He actually does address vegetarianism here, starting with the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.  Again, this had me rolling my eyes: Singer claims it is "specieist" to discriminate between animals and humans - either we do not owe any justice to the severely retarded, or we owe it to animals with higher capabilities.  Seriously?!?  All I could think at this point was what a ridiculous outcome the belief in evolution has led us to...

So I did indeed make it through the 411 pages, and while I don't regret reading it, I wouldn't exactly call it a "must read."  Definitely food for thought, though. Ha :)


Megan Groves said...

I am a total sucker for books like that, and I like Micheal Pollan but he is a bit cumbersome to read.

Trish D said...

I agree that he's not easy to read - there were a few sentences when I found myself thinking, "He's just showing off his command of the English language!" :)