Saturday, September 1, 2007

A Localtarian's Library: Guest Blogger Diane Lytle on Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma"

Guest blogger Diane Lytle offers some thoughts on "Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, a book that if ever I were to offer a class in eating locally would be one of the required texts. Diane has a Master's Degree in Education and has spent many years teaching future teachers and ministers how to teach others (not a small task!) at a small college in South Africa. She has published numerous articles on education in the past 20 years. An avid cook and baker, Diane has recently returned to the States where she is becoming reacquainted with the U.S. food system, for better or for worse.

I have just finished reading “Industrial Corn,” the first third of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. What a fascinating read!

I grew up in the mid-fifties and sixties in a small Illinois town that was literally surrounded by corn fields. I remember discovering as a child that most of the corn around us was “feed corn” that was fed to farm animals and not “sweet corn” that we bought at the local farm stand. I don’t think I thought much about it again until reading this book. I must admit that a subheading titled “Corn Sex” did catch my attention. (That may have made my high school biology class more interesting!)

The chapter on the feedlots where most of our country’s beef is raised was a real eye-opener. My grandfather was a butcher, and my father was a meat department manager for A&P, so we grew up with lots of meat on our table. I always thought corn fed beef was the sign of a good cut of meat. I never realized that cattle’s stomachs were never meant to digest corn and that the side effects of this diet are some of the reasons that cattle need antibiotics and other additives in their diet.

According to Pollan, the government policies that subsidize the corn crop have resulted in such a surplus of corn in this country that the industry is constantly looking for ways to use it up. As a result, they take real food, break it up into its different parts, and then reassemble it into copies of real food or what we call “processed” food. Thus the reason for products like Cool Whip as a replacement for cream, juice drink instead of fruit juice, and Cheez Whiz for real cheese. Yes, those are all made from corn!

Who would have thought that over one hundred pages of information about the history and uses (or misuses) of corn could be so remarkable? I may even get this book for my dad for his birthday!

When Michael Pollan referred to Organic Gardening and Farming magazine in “Pastoral Wheat,” the second section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was immediately transported to my grandparents’ living room, where multiple copies sat on their end table. At the time, I thought that they were the weirdest people on the planet for not using modern scientific methods on their small farm. Later, as a member of the hippy generation, I viewed organic farming as an anti-establishment political statement. For my grandparents, it was just their way of life.

Pollan’s diary of the week he spent on a “beyond organic grass farm” was much more enjoyable to read than his expose of industrial agriculture. How amazing to see a farmer who had rejected the monoculture farm model in favor of one that viewed his whole piece of land, including the forest, as one ecological system!

The description of the farmer moving his cattle each day to a new piece of pasture, then three or four days later moving his chickens to the same spot was intriguing. You have to read for yourself the detailed explanations of how these animals, including his pigs, worked together to fertilize the grass so that it would be just what they needed at the right time. The farmer even put corn in between the layers of cow manure in the barn so that later the pigs would dig through it and stir up the compost!

I was intrigued by the idea that farming does not have to be a zero sum proposition: if the animals and crops are used in the way the good Lord intended, we would not have to lose ground (excuse the pun) year after year. If we used renewable solar energy and grass rather than fossil fuels and corn, the journey from the farm to the table could be shortened tremendously.

Unfortunately, since the lower achieving students are often steered away from college and towards agriculture, we have ended up with many D students running our farms – and not doing a very good job. Along come the large corporations with their great ideas about planting only one crop and having less work to do, and many farmers go for it. But is organic better? All evidence is pointing in that direction, but the government is in the business of promoting big business, so organic is more expensive. That’s where we all need to decide: Is it better enough to spend the extra money?

As I finished off the last section of Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I didn’t want it to end! This section, entitled “The Forest,” was the farthest removed from my personal experience, but it revealed more of the author’s own journey during his research for the book.

I appreciated Pollan’s transparency as he worked through the ethics of eating animals. I found myself relating to his confusion as he battled with this issue and conceded to some points of the vegetarian argument. He concluded, though, that while at first glance it may seem more humane not to eat animals, especially those who have suffered in CAFOs during their short lives, we must look at the bigger picture: if all humans (and all animals, if it were up to some of the animal rights crowd) stopped eating animals and animal products, eventually our whole ecosystem would deteriorate, affecting even the plant kingdom.

Picking up some pork chops (meat) at the supermarket is not quite the same as killing, dressing, and butchering a pig (an animal) yourself, though! I’ve never had much trouble understanding how a hunter, like my brother-in-law, would enjoy the contest of the hunt itself, but the actual killing of a living animal has been hard to get my head around. The author’s candid account of his emotions during his first hunting experience, ranging from curiosity to elation to disgust and eventually to acceptance of its place in the world was enlightening.

Overall, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a delightful read and opened my eyes to many of the issues in the world of our food – what it is, where it comes from, and how it gets to us. Highly recommended!

An end note: For those of you who are more visually minded (isn't that just about everyone these days?) or those who just want to know more, a new documentary, King Corn, is coming to a theater near you (hopefully!). With contributions from Michael Pollan, it's the story of two college buddies that buy an acre, plant it with corn, and try to follow the corn trail through America's food system. View the trailer here. I can't wait!

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Diane, I enjoyed your review on "Omnivore's Dilemma"! I'd be interested to know if your father enjoys it, after being a meat department manager.