Well, it’s been on my list forever, and I finally finished it.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, conflicts me.
It’s changed the way I think about food and what I consume. It’s hard to look at a soft drink now and see anything but a bottle of refined corn. It’s even harder to look at the butcher counter. It clearly outlines some truths about ourselves, about the food industry, and about the absolute blind eye consumers have turned towards the things we ingest; truths that I think everyone would benefit from knowing. But it’s also made me feel very hopeless… it seems nearly impossible to reverse the trend towards industrial agriculture.
This is the sort of book that will be read by people who are likely to agree with it’s conclusions and will love it. But it’s too long and verging on preachy to win over someone new to the cause. (Although, I have to admit, I was over all very impressed with the tone. Of course, I am one of the intended audience.) I especially loved the way Pollan wrote about hard science, especially in the first section on corn. But I did find his philosophical meanderings a bit repetitive and a bit… well… elitist. (Pot, meet Kettle, I know…)
But really. How many of us have a farm within driving distance like the Salatin’s that we can pop on over to for free range poultry and grass fed beef? And even if we did, how many people in this country have the time to go out of their way and pay more for something that isn’t any more filling than what they can get at Walmart? I understand and agree with all that Pollan writes about the real cost of cheap food that we choose to ignore – the cost to the environment, the cost to our health, the cost to the animals, the cost to taxpayers in subsidies and loss of fossil fuels. I get it. But does the mom working minimum wage with 3 kids get it? Does she care?
Reading this book felt like looking below the surface of the water to see everything below the tip of the iceberg. Capitalism, politics, the industrial revolution, foreign policy, classism, labor rights, everything that is supporting the direction food policy has gone in, and everything that makes it nearly impossible for us to make a difference.
Sure, I can make a difference for me. I stopped eating beef, and nearly all other meats, that C and I don’t buy and prep ourselves. We have started looking for wild-caught sustainable seafood. We found a farm not too far away where we can get grass-fed beef and free range chickens and eggs. Great. Good for us. But what do I say to the 1 in 5 Texans that live under the national poverty level? Hey, don’t go buy that fast food even though you only get paid minimum wage while the CEO of your company is taking home record profits. Do I really expect someone to pay $2/dozen more for these eggs because the chickens aren’t treated cruelly, have better nutritional value, and don’t contribute to pollutant run off? When that person is barely keeping their kid’s bellies full? Food stamps aren’t paying for those eggs.
Sigh. In a world with pay equity, with true social services to care for the poor, where agriculture is modeled on a whole food, local, sustainable model country-wide, I can see this happening. But I don’t know if that’s even possible.
There’s an economics principle called comparative advantage. I haven’t taken economics since 2002, and I didn’t enjoy it anyway, so this is going to be in really general terms. But isn’t the whole point of specialization that we make things more efficient and benefit from obtaining things we couldn’t otherwise have? For example, I can’t grow rice in the environment I live in, but I can grow peaches. So I grow peaches and you grow rice, we trade some for the other, and we both benefit. Is that even possible in a local, sustainable model? Does Joel Salatin’s farm work because he lives in a part of the country that can support it?
I don’t know the answer to that because I know next to nothing about farming. But I do worry that models like this set up a certain portion of the country and population to benefit, at the expense of another.
Maybe I’m just cynical. Mr. Pollan suggests that greater transparency in the food industry would open people’s eyes to the way animals are treated and the harm done to the environment. But I’m just not sure I believe him. Even if the meat processing plant was made of glass, like he suggests, how many people would bother to go look? They don’t look now…
Writing this review is depressing me so I’m going to wrap it up. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the book. It was well written, well edited, interesting and informative. But it’s hard to look closely at the things that aren’t working when you feel helpless to make them work.
I’ll be honest. Maybe I just got pissed off. I really wanted to be in love with what Joel Salatin is doing, but I was really turned off by the parts of the book describing his son who is a full partner in the farm, and his daughter who was in the kitchen helping her momma cook dinner. It only got worse when I popped over to his website to see the photo of his lily-white interns along with the description of who they were looking for: “Bright eyed, bushy-tailed, self-starter, eager-beaver, situationally aware, go-get-‘em, teachable, positive, non-complaining, grateful, rejoicing, get’erdone, dependable, faithful, perseverant take-responsibility, clean-cut, all American boy-girl appearance characters. We are very, very, very discriminatory.”
I know that Joel’s politics and personal beliefs about race and gender don’t mean much when it comes to the quality and care he puts into his farming, but still, that’s not a place I want to support anymore.
At least the dog’s black, amiright??
K’s rating of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: 8/10 mangoes