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Monday, April 23, 2012

Reading List: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0.
One of the delights of operating this site is the opportunity to interact with visitors, whom I am persuaded are among the most interesting and informed of any audience on the Web. The feedback messages and book recommendations they send are often thought-provoking and sometimes enlightening. I don't know who I have to thank for recommending this book, but I am very grateful they took the time to do so, as it is a thoroughly fascinating look at the modern food chain in the developed world, and exploration of alternatives to it.

The author begins with a look at the “industrial” food chain, which supplies the overwhelming majority of calories consumed on the planet today. Prior to the 20th century, agriculture was almost entirely powered by the Sun. It was sunlight that drove photosynthesis in plants, providing both plant crops and the feed for animals, including those used to pull ploughs and transport farm products to market. The invention of the Haber process in 1909 and its subsequent commercialisation on an industrial scale forever changed this. No longer were crop yields constrained by the amount of nitrogen which could be fixed from the air by bacteria symbiotic with the roots of legume crops, recycled onto fields in the manure and urine of animals, or harvested from the accumulated droppings birds in distant places, but rather able to be dramatically increased by the use of fertiliser whose origin traced back to the fossil fuel which provided the energy to create it. Further, fossil fuel insinuated itself into agriculture in other ways, with the tractor replacing the work of farm hands and draught animals; railroads, steam ships, trucks, and aircraft expanding the distance between production on a farm and consumption to the global scale; and innovations such as refrigeration increasing the time from harvest to use.

All of these factors so conspired to benefit the species Zea mays (which Americans call “corn” and everybody else calls “maize”) that one could craft a dark but plausible science fiction story in which that species of grass, highly modified by selective breeding by indigenous populations in the New World, was actually the dominant species on Earth, having first motivated its modification from the ancestral form to a food plant ideally suited to human consumption, then encouraged its human servants to spread it around the world, develop artificial nutrients and pesticides to allow it to be grown in a vast monoculture, eradicating competitors in its path, and becoming so central to modern human nutrition that trying to eliminate it (or allowing a natural threat to befall it) would condemn billions of humans to starvation. Once you start to think this way, you'll never regard that weedless field of towering corn stretching off to the horizon in precisely the same way….

As the author follows the industrial food chain from a farm in the corn belt to the “wet mill” in which commodity corn is broken down into its molecular constituents and then reassembled into the components of processed food, and to the feedlot, where corn products are used to “finish” meat animals which evolved on a different continent from Zea mays and consequently require food additives and constant medication simply to metabolise this foreign substance, it becomes clear that maize is not a food, but rather a feedstock (indeed, the maize you buy in the supermarket to eat yourself is not this industrial product, but rather “sweet corn” produced entirely separately), just as petroleum is used in the plastics industry. Or the food industry—when you take into account fertiliser, farm machinery, and transportation, more than one calorie of fossil fuel is consumed to produce a calorie of food energy in maize. If only we could make Twinkies directly from crude oil….

All of this (and many things I've elided here in the interest of brevity [Hah! you say]) may persuade you to “go organic” and pay a bit more for those funky foods with the labels showing verdant crops basking in the Sun, contented cows munching grass in expansive fields, and chickens being chickens, scratching for bugs at liberty. If you're already buying these “organic” products and verging on the sin of smugness for doing so, this is not your book—or maybe it is. The author digs into the “industrial organic” state of the art and discovers that while there are certainly benefits to products labelled “organic” (no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, for example, which certainly benefit the land if not the product you buy), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the villain throughout) has so watered down the definition of “organic” that most products with that designation come from “organic” factory farms, feedlots, and mass poultry confinement facilities. As usual, when the government gets involved, the whole thing is pretty much an enormous scam, which is ultimately damaging to those who are actually trying to provide products with a sustainable solar-powered food chain which respects the land and the nature of the animals living on it.

In the second section of the book, the author explores this alternative by visiting Polyface Farms in Virginia, which practices “grass farming” and produces beef, pork, chickens and eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and forest products for its local market in Virginia. The Salatin family, who owns and operates the farm, views its pastures as a giant solar collector, turning incident sunlight along with water collected by the surrounding forest into calories which feed their animals. All of the animal by-products (even the viscera and blood of chickens slaughtered on site) are recycled into the land. The only outside inputs into the solar-powered cycle are purchased chicken feed, since grass, grubs, and bugs cannot supply adequate energy for the chickens. (OK, there are also inputs of fuel for farm machinery and electricity for refrigeration and processing, but since the pastures are never ploughed, these are minimal compared to a typical farm.)

Polyface performs not only intensive agriculture, but what Salatin calls “management intensive” farming—an information age strategy informed by the traditional ecological balance between grassland, ruminants, and birds. The benefit is not just to the environment, but also in the marketplace. A small holding with only about 100 acres under cultivation is able to support an extended family, produce a variety of products, and by their quality attract customers willing to drive as far as 150 miles each way to buy them at prices well above those at the local supermarket. Anybody who worries about a possible collapse of the industrial food chain and has provided for that contingency by acquiring a plot of farm land well away from population centres will find much to ponder here. Remember, it isn't just about providing for your family and others on the farm: if you're providing food for your community, they're far more likely to come to your defence when the starving urban hordes come your way to plunder.

Finally, the author seeks to shorten his personal food chain to the irreducible minimum by becoming a hunter-gatherer. Overcoming his blue state hoplophobia and handed down mycophobia, he sets out to hunt a feral pig in Sonoma County, California and gather wild mushrooms and herbs to accompany the meal. He even “harvests” cherries from a neighbour's tree overhanging a friend's property in Berkeley under the Roman doctrine of usufruct and makes bread leavened with yeast floating in the air around his house. In doing so, he discovers that there is something to what he had previously dismissed as purple prose in accounts of hunters, and that there is a special satisfaction and feeling of closing the circle in sharing a meal with friends in which every dish was directly obtained by them, individually or in collaboration.

This exploration of food: its origins, its meaning to us, and its place in our contemporary civilisation, makes clear the many stark paradoxes of our present situation. It is abundantly clear that the industrial food chain is harmful to the land, unsustainable due to dependence on finite resources, cruel to animals caught up in it, and unhealthy in many ways to those who consume its products. And yet abandoning it in favour of any of the alternatives presented here would result in a global famine which would make the Irish, Ukrainian, and Chinese famines of the past barely a blip on the curve. Further, billions of the Earth's inhabitants today can only dream of the abundance, variety, and affordability (in terms of hours worked to provide one's food needs) of the developed world diet. And yet at the same time, when one looks at the epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders among corn-fed populations, you have to wonder whether Zea mays is already looking beyond us and plotting its next conquest.

Posted at April 23, 2012 23:29