Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Recently I finished Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The book asks a few basic questions about how well we understand the process that our food undergoes before reaching our plate. Also, why wouldn't we take great care to understanding and researching our food in the same way that we might purchase a new home or a new car? After all, what we eat is something we put into our bodies every single day. A few major observations I leave with are such:

First of all, because we don't have a larger cultural narrative around the purpose of food, what it serves, the human needs of not only sustenance but also community, also the appreciation for the real cost of killing something or foraging for something, as a result we've become disintegrated and unhealthy human beings. Think about all the fad diets, the substitute meal-like powders, speciality drinks, gimmicky exercise programs, all for what end? For being an extremely obese and out-of-shape culture. Listen to how Pollan describes American eating cultural habits when compared to the French:

… the French experience- a population of wine-swilling cheese eaters with lower rates of heart disease and obesity- confounds our orthodoxy about food. That orthodoxy regards certain tasty foods as poisons (carbs now, fats then), failing to appreciate that how we eat, and even how we feel about eating, may in the end be just as important as what we eat. The French eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules. They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; they seldom eat alone; and communal meals are long, leisurely affairs. In other words, the French culture of food successfully negotiates the omnivore’s dilemma, allowing the French to enjoy their meals without ruining their health.

Perhaps because we have no such culture of food in America almost every question about eating is up for grabs. Fats or carbs? Three squares of continuous grazing? Raw or cooked? Organic or industrial? Veg or vegan? Meat or mock meat? Foods of astounding novelty fill the shelves of our supermarkets, and the line between a food and a “nutritional supplement” has fogged to the point where people make meals of protein bars and shakes. Consuming these neo-pseudo-foods alone in our cars, we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own. Is it any wonder Americans suffer from so many eating disorders? In the absence of any lasting consensus about what an dhow and where and when to eat, the omnivore’s dilemma has returned to America with an almost atavistic force.  p. 300-01

Secondly, I'm forced to think about what Sir Albert Howard, the English agronomist and knight who did extensive research in India on the philosophical foundations for organic agriculture, said about natural biological systems (p. 145). What Howard established was that the nature biological processes at work in a forest or prairie could have its parallel on a farm, that animals could feed on plant wastes as they do in the wild; in turn their wastes could feed the soil; mulches could protect the bare soil; the compost pile could create humus. So a natural life-cycle ensues: animals eat a variety of plants and grasses- the varieties found in nature are healthy for the animals and prevents disease from spreading in both the animals as well as across the ecosystem. The animals being healthy and having a varied diet defecate a wholesome waste product that feed, nurtures and protects the environment and healthy plant life and vegetation springs forth from the the "healthy waste product."

But now, consider how industrial farming is done. Efficiency and profit is the key. So a strip of land is cleared to grow one kind of crop. Because the crops are "monocultured" instead of "polycultured," so disease tends to spread through them. To combat disease, fertilizers are used. As one example, feedlot cows are fed from primarily a monoculture of either one type of grass or grain (high energy grain, to "beef them up"). Because they are fed a monocultured diet, they are not particularly healthy, so antibiotics are fed into them (this serves the purpose of keeping them alive as well as "beefing them up." The bigger the better for profit and sales; however, there is research that suggests that grain contributes to an unhealthy marbling that arguably could be the cause of inflammation in both the cow as well as the human who eats the cow. Is red meat really bad for the heart? Or is it the grain that has been put into the cow that is now inflamed with excessive levels of omega-6s instead? So we eat the steak that tastes kind of "flat" since it is "blown up" with everything from grain to antibiotics, and we add A-1 sauce to make it taste good. But what if an animal is grown with a healthy variety of hays and grasses? Might the complexity of the taste be enough to satisfy the pallet? (this is another one of Pollan's points is that we've gotten away from "taste and tradition" guiding our food selection, p. 300).

So the concept of polycultured raising of animals that leads to a higher "happiness" quotient for the animal while alive, their humane treatment, overall health of the animals, the ecosystem that is built on complex symbiotic relationships as well as the overall health of humans seems to interact in one integrated and interdependent system.

But what about the increased expense in purchasing polycultured beef? Quoting from Joel Salatin of Polyface farm, Pollan writes:

“...whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water- of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

He reminded me (Michael Pollan) that his meat would be considerably cheaper than it is if not for government regulations and the resulting high cost of processing- at least a dollar cheaper per pound. “If we could just level the playing field- take away regulations, the subsidies, and factor in the health care and environmental cleanup costs of cheap food- we could compete on price with anyone.”

It’s true that cheap industrial food is heavily subsidized in many ways such that its price in the supermarket does not reflect its real cost.  p. 243

So I guess one question remains after posting this: has Mike Hsu changed his current practice of eating primarily industrial beef instead of polycultured beef? Well, actually, yes. Tanya and I recently signed up for the Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) with Pawnee Pride Meats that delivers every couple of weeks to the parking lot of Ideal Grocery. Paul and Cyndie Rohrbaugh of Steinauer, NE describe their business in the following way. While they do not use the language of "polyculture," nonetheless I think you will see this is exactly their philosophy:

So, why do we feed hay on our pastures?  We have sent you many pictures of our winter hay feeding but until now, no one has asked why.  That is a good question and we are glad you asked.  Numero uno is sanitation and health.  Feeding hay on clean, dormant grassland or snow reduces/eliminates contamination and disease.  The cattle are more comfortable and much less stressed by spending their days on solid ground rather than muddy lots.  Reason #2.  With our hayspreader we are able to place the hay precisely where we need fertility, manure, and/or animal impact to heal erosion.  Finally,  feeding on the pasture distributes the manure and hay residues, which then become an asset rather than the liability that they present if left in a lot.  The big bonus is that the feeding locations become "hotbeds" of activity for the soil microbes that process the residues to add soil organic matter and nutrients.  

What's the downside?  Actually, I don't see a downside but other ranchers might suggest that it requires daily work as opposed to weekly work.  Also, some would say that it creates more "weeds" in the pasture.  Since all plants are edible to my cattle, I like to encourage weeds for their diversity and additional root action and organic matter.  Pretty good trade, don't you think? Taken from the February 15th, 2012 weekly email of Pawnee Pride Meats

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