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The Omnivore's Dilemma

16 Oct 2009

Quite good.

I almost didn’t finish this. The introduction is quite flowery and confuses the terms ‘natural’ and ‘good’, something I hate. Pollan definitely leans that way throughout the book, but it is not at all overbearing, and other points of view are not discarded as the sloppy remnants of a failed system, but as valid points, held by many for very good reasons.

The book, loosely speaking, is about food. In particular, Pollan follows three ‘food chains’–modern industrial, post-industrial intensively managed pastoralism, and hunting/gathering. He actually does a really, really good job on the industrial chapters; if someone wanted to learn about why we eat the way we do, I would highly recommend the first third of this book.

That first third is really the gem here. It seems, to a certain degree of precision, we’re made of corn. It’s measurable, because corn grabs different carbon isotopes in different ratios than other plants. Americans are about 80% corn. The industrial food chain, be it corn or the meat we make out of it, is a nasty thing, but rather than some hippy-trippy treatise about how much better it would be if there were only half a million humans and we could all just get along, a lot of thought is put into how we got where we are, with cheap corn flooding the world. Corn’s natural yield potential is part of it. The fact that hybrid corn seed does not pollinate to produce high-yield seed acts as a kind of intellectual property protection system for breeders, so corn has had more breeding attention from an earlier time than probably any other human crop. There’s an industrial commodity, number 2 corn, which is fungible, allowing processors to focus on processing instead of growing; this kind of commoditization is very important for something to become a building block of other things. The fact that corn can be turned into so many things, from starch to gum to corn syrup. The list goes on.

It’s a very well-balanced look at the industrial food chain. It also discusses industrial organics with a well-balanced voice. Basically, for organic to be as widely available as it is, it needs to be watered down.

The second part of the book was fascinating. It’s about a farm in Virginia on which a crazy guy has built a self-sustaining ecosystem, almost. With very few outside inputs, he grows grass, on which he feeds cows, the droppings of which produce grubs that feed chickens, the droppings of which feed grass in the ways that cow pies don’t. Pigs clean the barn in the spring, chickens keep pests under control, forests provide critters for coyotes to eat so they leave the chickens alone, and so on and so forth. It was really quite interesting–industrial monoculture agriculture improves yield at the expense of the ground. This method actually improves the earth with time, making soil out of grass via cows and chickens. The system as a whole is the opposite of desertification. But it’s easy to see why, on the open market, it’s not a winner just yet–the guy allocates 350 of 450 acres to forest to provide wind shielding, water retention, cool areas for pigs to forage, and that kind of thing.

The guy running it is an eco-nut and had a problem with fossil fuels. There’s a lot of labor involved–a human comes out every morning and drags 20 chicken coops 10 yards to the next plot of pasture for them to graze on. That’s ridiculous. The carbon output of some automated machines to do some of that work might make it price competitive with industrial organic. It’d be a cool experiment.

The last bit is the author hunting a pig and rustling some mushrooms and fruits in california. It was more experiential than informative, but I kept with it because the first parts were so good. It did make me kind of want to go kill an animal I eat. I have killed and eaten tons of fish but never a mammal; it almost seems unfair for me to eat an animal I wouldn’t kill. This chapter has a lot to say about modern eating habits, about the loss of ‘cuisine’. It makes some very good arguments that it’s not fats/carbs/protein but much more complicated, and that a lot of healthy cultures have sprung up around very unhealthy foods, i.e. there’s a ton of oil in mediterranean cooking, but on the whole it’s not a region associated with tons of health problems (or it wasn’t until McDonald’s came along). It also talks about the dissolution of communal eating, and how that has tendencies to affect how we eat, generally bad ones. Interesting stuff, but a good bit less well supported than the first 2 parts.

A good book, and it’s written lightly enough to be read casually. Very well done.