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Vol. 5, No. 5, 2006
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Michael Pollan

reviewed by

Donna Nebenzahl


Donna Nebenzahl is a columnist and feature writer at The Gazette (Montreal) where this review first appeared.


We are, says journalist and author Michael Pollan, processed corn, walking. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan deconstructs four mealtime scenarios -- fast food, "industrial" organic, local organic and foraged meals -- in each one, enlightening and often disturbing the reader with his discoveries. The reference to corn originates in its role as one of the commodity crops that has turned North American agriculture into a blitzkrieg of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, industrial machinery and soil-eroding monocultures.

Only a small percentage of corn is consumed directly, it turns out. The vast majority is eaten in the form of chicken, pork, beef, eggs, milk and more. Take those ubiquitous Chicken McNuggets. Not only are the chicken corn-fed, there's corn in the additives, the starches, the oils. Snack foods, soft drinks - all made from corn. "We eat something like 56 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup sweetener every year," Pollan told interviewer Blair Golson of Truthdig. "When you're drinking that soda, you're really drinking quite a bit of corn."

The story of corn is one of many that Pollan tells in this book, a personal journey based on massive scholarship, beginning with a series of articles written for the New York Times magazine. It's a natural follow-up to his acclaimed The Botany of Desire, in which he proposes that plants are far from being passive participants in co-evolution. We omnivores, says Pollan, who also teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, have so many choices because we are able to eat just about anything -- there's a fascinating discussion of the things we won't eat because of "disgust," described by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker as "intuitive microbiology." Yet we've become strangers to the things we eat. No wonder so many North Americans, overfed yet undernourished, have such dysfunctional relationships with food.

"What I try to do in this book," Pollan writes, "is approach the dinner question as a naturalist might, using the long lenses of ecology and anthropology, as well as the shorter, more intimate lens of personal experience." A curious observer in the feedlot, on the grasslands and, finally, on a hunt for wild boar, he offers trenchant commentary and at-times exquisite prose. There are dozens of sentences and paragraphs that are worth a second read.

Still, corn seems a benign force, just a crop that covers hundreds of thousands of square miles of U.S. farm fields -- until one thinks back to the result of Ireland's monoculture in the 19th century, the potato blight that caused a million deaths by starvation and uprooted millions more, and until Pollan begins to investigate the use of corn feed for cattle, through the short life of one young steer he bought and followed for his award-winning Time magazine story. After six months in the fields with his mother, the steer is sent off to the feedlot to be fattened in record time - on corn. Trouble is, cattle are ruminants, meant to eat grass, not corn. It effectively ruins their health, so they're filled with antibiotics that harm both eaten and eater.

We are, Pollan argues, pawns in agribusiness, those huge conglomerates happy to offer sweet treats and otherwise empty calories that cost us very little and them even less.

He then investigates large-scale organic farming, a growing phenomenon in the United States, which Pollan discovers has been modelled on industrial agribusiness. This is "supermarket pastoral." Pollan raises questions about the meaning of free range and organic feedlots when animals are housed in huge sheds, and about the logic of using vast amounts of fossil-fuel energy to transport organic lettuce and eggs. Isn't industrial organic a contradiction in terms?, he asks.

The most benevolent of the meals he consumes is based on grass. At Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin uses sunshine, grasslands and manure -- and sells only locally. For Pollan, this is the most sustainable and enriching way to eat, and it offers the alternative he chooses as an occasional carnivore.

"Sustainably raised meat is ecologically a very positive thing for the environment, for the grasslands," he says. "Without animals on farms, you'd need artificial fertilizer, because you wouldn't have manure to compost. So I think truly sustainable agriculture depends on animals in relation to plants."

Not so, write Peter Singer and Jim Mason, authors of The Way We Eat. Using a method similar to Pollan's -- in their case, tracking down the sources of three family meals -- they focus on the ethics of food choices and describe in horrific detail the suffering to which animals and fish are subjected in order to satiate our cravings, never mind the biohazards that fish farming and industrial pig and chicken production are letting loose upon the environment.

They have ample credentials. Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Centre for Human Values, is author of the ground-breaking Animal Liberation; Mason is an attorney and from the fifth generation of a Missouri farming family, and the author of An Unnatural Order. In 1980, they co-wrote wrote Animal Factories, exposing the cruelty and destructiveness of factory farming. If ethics are relevant to food choices, these authors argue, then killing animals who suffer pain is just wrong.

Their prose is plain, their research extensive. And eating meat isn't the only subject on which they differ with Pollan. Interestingly, these authors come down on the side of industrial organic farming, and are prepared to pat McDonald's on the back for the leadership the company has shown since the public relations disaster of a lawsuit in the late 1990s. Now the company has an audit system that demands better treatment of animals.

But the authors of both books are in agreement on a few points: first and foremost, that we desperately need to re-establish the link between ourselves and the food we eat. They address the criticism that food delivered through organic or small farm food production costs too much. Truth is, Pollan says, "the amount of our income we spend on food is only 9 per cent -- half what it was in the late '50s." Why, he asks, are cell phones and iPods more essential than our health and the health of the environment?

Trouble is, we've bought into the notion that progress means access to cheap chicken and strawberries year-round. Eat locally, they argue. Know where your food comes from. "If we're really going to move toward a different food system, we have to be a different kind of eater," Pollan says. "We have to reinvent ourselves as eaters in order to reinvent the food chain. It's all connected."

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
The Penguin Press, 450 pages, $38

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
Rodale Books, 328 pages, $34.95 = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting
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