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February 11, 2015

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

by Anne Paddock

Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring–to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the American food industry and its international counterparts fight to keep their products from telling even the simplest stories–”dolphin safe,” “humanely slaughtered,” etc.–about how they were produced. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values–and not just “value”–will inform their purchasing decisions.”

Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.   ~Michael Pollan

OmnivoresDilemma_fullEight years ago, Michael Pollan – an omnivore (a person who eats food of both plant and animal origin) rocked our insulated world when he wrote a book that exposed the inner workings of the three principal food chains that sustain us in the United States: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. Divided into three sections (Corn, Grass, and The Forest) to reflect the food chains that sustain us, Pollan takes the reader on an eye-opening journey through each process.

As a vegetarian, I found it fascinating how the author revealed the not so black and white world of eating animals and yet the very clear message about the cruelty inflicted and damage being done to the animals, the environment, and ourselves by the livestock industry (as it exists) and the processed corn industry. If you’ve ever suspected a difference between a farm (that raises a variety of livestock, vegetables, and fruit) and Big Ag, this book will confirm your suspicions along with a healthy education on the importance of the sun, nitrogen, grass, and sustainable practices in the farming industry.

By the end of the book, the reader can’t help but acknowledge the moral, health, and environmental problems caused by our willingness to look away or remain ignorant of the damage being done by these large-scale industries, and how we have to change. But here’s the thing: Pollan isn’t telling the reader to stop eating meat, poultry, or eggs. Instead, he is telling the reader to stop supporting the industrialized livestock industry that has gotten out of hand, that refuses to allow transparency, or put our nation’s health first.

Written by a man who eats meat and plans to continue to eat meat, The Omnivore’s Dilemma presents a strong case for consumers to:

  • Buy local meat, fruit, and vegetables whenever possible. (if you can only do one thing, this is it).
  • Recognize that industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete reliance on the sun to a food chain that relies on fossil fuels instead.
  • Stop supporting government subsidies for corn. We grow more corn than we need with most going to feed animals.
  • Recognize that the switch to synthetic chemical fertilizer as a source of nitrogen in 1947 changed the way we grow plants and raise animals for food.
  • Reduce meat consumption (“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”). Support transparency.
  • Don’t be fooled by the claims of free-range (often times this simply means there is a tiny little door in a hen-house for the last two weeks of their 7 week life.
  • Open your eyes to the industrialized livestock agriculture industry. “That label doesn’t mention that that rib-eye steak came from a steer born in South Dakota and fattened in a Kansas feedlot on grain grown in Iowa).
  • Recognize that cows were never meant to eat corn and are ill-equipped to digest it (it fattens them quickly, often sickens them, and is favored by those who raise cows for slaughter).
  • Read labels. Avoid high fructose corn syrup. We don’t need food scientists to feed us. We are working with the same plants we’ve always had and don’t need crops further processed to create a “new food” in a pretty package.
  • Know that “natural raspberry flavoring” does not mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it could have been derived from corn, just not something synthetic.
  • Don’t support the USDA’s recommendation to dock (pliers, no anesthetic) the tails of pigs and the industry practice of having hogs spend their lives in aluminum shed or cages perched atop manure pits.
  • Think deeper about what organic, natural and sustainable mean. Many farms are producing food that is much more sustainable than what the government defines as organic or natural.

Reading this book was like taking an Introduction to Food course and although I understood and agreed with most of what Pollan wrote including his conclusion that “killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat,” I could not agree with his conclusion “that were America to adopt a vegetarian diet, it isn’t at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline.”  There is simply no way that the number of animals killed by the machinery in the fields and pesticides used could kill as many animals as we slaughter. In 2013, approximately 3.5 million animals were slaughtered per day (23.7 million chickens, 656,000 turkeys, 300,000 hogs, 90,000 cows, 67,300 ducks, 6,300 sheep and lamb, and 2,000 calves) for an annual total of nearly 1.3 billion animals.  Farming crops cannot approach those numbers.

Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal.

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