May 24, 2009

Book Review Clearinghouse - The Omnivore's Dilemma and thoughts on food

Since I'm waiting out a hailstorm in a Starbucks here in Los Alamos, I thought I'd finally get to work on clearing out my list of things I've read. Many of these books I read *a year ago* while here at Los Alamos, so I'm shamefully behind.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

This was a fascinating read, albeit pretty depressing.

The first half of the book is all about industrial farming. I knew that corn is in just about everything, but the stuff he reported on in the book went even above and beyond what I thought about corn's dominance of the food market. The thing that surprised me the most is that a vast majority of the corn we see growing in the fields is not edible as it is grown - most of it goes to huge processing plants where it is broken down into 'corn commodities', like corn syrup and the myriad of corn-derived chemicals that you see on your food labels. I don't remember if it was this book or somewhere else (but probably this book) that pointed out that agriculture is incredibly susceptible to Prisoner's Dilemma-type situations. The price of corn (or whatever) goes down, which entices you to plant more and more crops on your land, which further drives down prices and continues to suck the nutrients out of your land. Smart policymaking *could* fix this, but the dept of agriculture is very much in the hands of big agriculture and is geared for large-scale farming, which is incredibly short-sighted and where monoculture farming fits their profit models much better. Current agricultural policy vastly discourages diversity in farming (unless you consider switching between growing nothing but soybeans and nothing but corn 'diversity'), which is much better for long-term farming outlooks. Pollan didn't mention it much in this book, but the Corn industry's lobbying power is why HFCS is cheaper than sugar in the US.

The other big topic in the first part of the book is where most of our meat comes from. Probably the most interesting fact that I came away with was that the old 'corn-fed beef' cliche that we've been inundated with for years is a fallacy in and of itself. Cow stomachs were evolved to digest grass, and are not able to correctly digest corn. Industrial meat 'growers' use corn as a method to fatten up their cows quickly. It does lead to that nice marbled steak which is the gold standard of the meat industry, but in order to keep the cows healthy while they eat all that corn, they have to pump them full of medicine and antibiotics etc in order to make sure that they stay alive long enough to be slaughtered. It's similar for chickens, though for different reasons. Most industrial chickens are heavily medicated due to their close conditions, as opposed to eating an unnatural diet (corn fattens them up too, but chickens are more versatile). The living and slaughtering conditions are quite disgusting too (lakes of manure = gross), but somehow I don't have quite as much of a problem with it. Maybe because it's not a chemical issue, I don't know, but I think it's something that can be more easily fixed, even if it means more expensive meat. I know that both problems come from large-scale production, but somehow I see the first problem as more fundamentally wrong, while the sanitation stuff is more of a cost-cutting type thing. But I digress.

The rest of the book was about sustainable farming, with a brief final chapter on hunting and foraging (that I didn't find all that interesting). The sustainable farm that he visited (and worked in) was in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and was quite fascinating. Their farm was incredibly integrated with nature and natural patterns, and he had several cool methods for his farm. Probably the coolest was the pest control/sanitation - his chickens moved around in a mobile henhouse (which I think was an old schoolbus, I can't remember) that followed the cows around as they rotated pastures. Eash day he'd let them out and they'd eat all the bugs that inevitably bred in the cow manure that the cows left behind. His chickens laid the most incredible eggs, according to the Charlottesville chefs that bought them, because they ate what chickens evolved to eat - bugs (not grains). There was a long section describing his various battles with the ag department (mainly over his chicken-slaughtering operation), and it was pretty cool all around.

The problem with his farm (and larger scale organic operations), is that they only work because they are so small-scale. They do not scale well and require a lot of manpower to generate the amount of food that people require. In my opinion, though things are getting better as far as awareness goes, nothing will change until there is a FULL change in food culture, which I do not see happening. Due to the economics of industrial agriculture, the cheapest foods are the foods that are most processed and soaked with chemicals. which adds another dimension to the culture wars in this country. It's no surprise that the right jumped all over Obama when he made his infamous 'cost of arugla' comment during the primary season. But until prices get a lot closer, fast and processed food will be a large part of our consumer culture.

American food culture is spreading too, especially as regards to meat, and ingrained food habits are very hard to change. 2 years or so ago I was challenged by a fellow mathematician that I met (who was a vegetarian) to try to go a whole week without eating meat, or even go a whole week only eating meat once a day. It was a lot harder than I thought - it's been ingrained that a meal isn't a meal without some meat in it. It doesn't help that I find most protein substitutes unappetizing, for the most part. I like tofu and other soy stuff *sometimes*, but for the most part, it subtracts from my enjoyment of what I eat. I think I do eat less meat now than I used to, but I'm not too broken up about it. I like most meat, a lot. The biggest thing I (usually) remember to ask myself is when I'm making a meal is whether having meat in/with it really necessary? I've more or less stopped eating meat on the few occasions when I have breakfast (unless I have a bacon jonesing), often omit it from pasta sauces, and usually choose other toppings for pizzas that I make/order for myself. The other key thing that I try to remember is Pollan's mantra from his other book (In Defense of Food): "Eat food, not a lot, mostly plants". I do a pretty good job at the first one, though not as good at the other. I've found that I like vegetables a lot more than I used to, but it's still hard to get over my childhood prejudices against vegetables - they're still too complementary in my head.