Friday, August 15, 2008

On omnivory

If you are looking for a great, mindless Summer thriller to read before heading into Fall, don't pick up "The Omnivore's Dilemma". It's got mysteries, and gruesome killings, and racy scenes all right, but probably not in the sense you'd hope for a Summer book. However, I took it upon myself to read it, because it tackles the ethical implications of humans in relation to the environment in probably its most profound realm: what we eat.

Spending about a third of the book in industrial ag., organic ag., and hunting/gathering, Michael Pollan delves deeply into Americans' relationship with food, coming to many interesting and compelling conclusions about why and how we eat, and pointing a direction for eating better while maintaining a journalist's distance vis a vis moralizing, for the most part. In laying out his descriptions of current mainstream agricultural enterprises, he doesn't rely upon controversial chemical analyses to condemn them, but he does provide as bulletproof a condemnation as I've seen. He uses (gasp!) economics, and is so effective at explaining it that this book should be required reading in every economics class.
And I used to teach the stuff.

American (and world) agriculture is a vastly complicated, horribly designed system, with too many incentives for genetic hoarding, market manipulation, and artificial scarcity. Add to this mix political boundaries, and fully one fifth of the world goes hungry each night, though we grow enough for everybody. Pollan's book outlines just how we've settled into this industrialization of our food supply, including one of our most hideous creations, the industrial slaughterhouse. He focuses on the manipulation of corn as an industrial commodity rather than a food commodity, and how the largest ag. corporations have gotten past the "problem of the fixed stomach", that while people only eat a certain amount of calories per day and our population only increases about 1% per year, corporations typically need to show 5-8% annual growth in profits in order to stay in the market. Wanna know how it happens? Read the book.

But he spends equal portions of the book discussing organic agriculture, and the manipulation of this term as it applies to what he calls, "big organic". He compares this with locally grown foods such as one might find at farmers' markets or roadside stands, and spends a week at the Platonic version of this ideal, Polyface Farm. This place, owned by a conservative Christian, Bob Jones University graduate, "Mother Earth" magazine reader, shows a beautiful way to farm, working chickens, pigs, cattle, grass, and forest in an amazing orchestration. The farmer also constantly touches on a concept I have often considered in the ethical implications of places like slaughterhouses, and in my defense of hunting: The ability of an animal to get to be that animal. He talks about the pigness of a pig.

Last, Mr. Pollan tries hard to be a hunter/gatherer, and does a great job of it, in my opinion. He did get a bunch of help, including the ability to hunt for pigs on private property in Sonoma County (about which I am jealous), and hunting wild fungus, but the camaraderie, the relationship, the apprenticeship are equally important aspects of hunting. He toys with the philosophy behind vegetarianism, ultimately labeling animal rights a, "parochial, and urban..." ideology because of his getting to actually experience animals, and in killing them for his food. "It (animal rights) could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world...", surely a stinging rebuke to people who consider themselves saviours of animalkind. Mr. Pollan seems to fall squarely into the land of people who abhor animal cruelty, and feel that killing and eating animals has helped them to more clearly comprehend the world's realities.

This is a wonderful book, well-organized and eye-opening. Michael Pollan delivers a fascinating expose' into what we put into our bodies every day, and how we interact with nature, every day.

If you've read it, or haven't and have questions, please comment!

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