Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What shall we eat and how shall it be provided?

The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?
-- Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Wrapped into those three questions is the equally important question "What should we have for dinner?", which opens the introduction to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. For Adams, the answer is a talking cow that has been bred to want to be eaten and makes dining suggestions. Unfortunately for those of us who are still omnivore's, very little of our food willingly gives itself over to us and leaves us to make the decision on what is right to eat a challenging personal debate for many, including myself. Let alone issues of genetic manipulation and the ethics of eating something sentient enough to speak, let alone experience pain.

This book is a must read if you want to know a bit about what goes into the food that is on offer at your local supermarket, be it a Whole Foods or another chain. The breadth of topics makes it hard to summarize in a succinct review. Part discussion of ethics of eating meat, another part an examination of the lack of a food tradition in the US, an expose of industrial food and organic industrial food, and an investigation of the alternatives, the volume is a rich read, no matter your interest.

Pollan approaches the topic of what it is that the human omnivore can choose to eat, and investigates the opposite ends of the spectrum of dining available in the US. At one extreme is a meal produced entirely from subsidized crops, yield calculations, industrial agriculture and animal growth; where food is a product that must be produced cheaply, efficiently and uniformly. At the opposite exreme, a meal earned more through hunting, gathering and personal labor than the use of money and markets. And in the middle, a meal earned and purchased from small providers, locally producing for the local table in more natural cycles.

Technically, there are two meals provided via industrial agriculture. The first is McDonald's, the exemplar of consistency, efficiency and cost-control. The second is cooked at home, but from ingredients marked organic and sold through a large chain supermarket. While the quality of these two meals probably differs by a large measure, at least for cost, and likely for nutritional value, the production values and treatment of the 'product' turns out to not be much different.

The first third of the book covers how food is produced for most consumers in the US, with commodity crops, large scale feedlots, heavy antibiotic, fertilizer and fossil fuel dependence. Issues of equity for farmers come into play, as the farmers who are still trying to make a living are pushed closer and closer to bankruptcy by increased production costs and yields and depressed sale prices. (not so much for some crops recently, with the current spike in prices from the demand for corn ethanol) In speculating at the meal that he chose to represent the industrial agriculture, he suggests "McDonald's serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I'm more inclined to think they're selling something more schematic than that--something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat more and eat more quickly, hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably full."

The final meal makes for an entertaining and provocative read, as he learns to harvest mushrooms, abalone and raise his own vegetables. He also tangles with the ethics of eating meat and struggles with the concept of hunting and killing an animal for its flesh, for which he becomes sick afterwards. And indirectly, in some fashion all of which in some fashion end up on the table for his perfect meal. A meal where all of the unremarkable facts about the meal are known, "how it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost." He admits that this style of eating isn't practical, isn't sustainable for a population as large as the world has now, but it is a worthwhile exercise in getting back to what is important about food and the culture of food.

Pollan's favorite case, as a proponent of the locavore movement, is exemplified by the time he spends working on a sustainable farm in Virginia. The Polyface farm raises chickens, cattle, and pigs in a rotation that has very few inputs from the proprietors. A cycle of rotational grazing and synergies between the different animals allow for the refertilization, and continual cycling of nutrients from ground to animal and back. Again, a fascinating read for how it could be done. This section has inspired me to start hunting for local providers of meats, since my largest ethical problem with meat, aside from antibiotic dosing, is the way the animals are treated.

Much as I would like to practice this form of food purchasing more, it is much easier to use the industrial organic option. The problem with the locavore approach to procuring food is that it takes a lot more time with the way our society is setup. Food of this sort isn't a commodity, packaged and resold in identical units on a shelf. It isn't as simple as walking into a store and knowing that the food they have produced meets the purchasers requirements for standards of treatment.

Thanks to my neighbor for the loan of the book. Check out his web comic, The Invisible Life of Poet.