The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. 1st ed 2006. 411 pp + references.
The subtitle of this text is "A natural history of four meals." Pollan is a journalism professor at UC Berkeley who decided to trace the lineage of his dinner. The short: Fast Food Nation meets the supermarket. Very interesting and highly readable book.
First, he answers the question of what the omnivore's dilemma is. As he explains it, it's what an omnivorous animal has to overcome in order to decide what to eat. A psychologist named Paul Rozin put that name to it in 1976, although Pollan notes that writers like Rousseau and Brillat-Savarin described it as well. The human animal has the benefit of culture and taboos to help overcome it, and he hypothesizes that the various cultural restrictions on food (eg halal, kosher) are results of this omnivore's dilemma. Modern people are faced with it, as well: the newsmedia hypes various studies and "bad" foods, and then consumers search labels for these now-taboo ingredients.
The first meal whose lineage he traces is from basic industrial commodity farming. He traces the history of corn, from a wild grass in Central America to the heavily-subsidized commodity (#2) corn grown in the American Midwest. He travels to George Naylor's farm in Iowa, where he grows #2 corn. He's a "fiery prairie populist" when the topic of corn subsidies comes up. Mention the name "Cargill," and he launches into a polemic on the evils of hybrid corn and the monopoly of the seed corn companies. Naylor's corn goes to feedlots for beef, as well as to various industrial uses: commodity corn can be turned into everything from natural flavor to HFCS. He goes to a feedlot (CAFO, or confined animal feeding operation), where cows are fed grain -- which their bodies are not designed to digest -- and antibiotics -- to prevent the diseases caused by being confined in places where they stand in their own shit. The slaughterhouse operators will not allow him to look inside. The representative meal of this industrial farming operation is at McDonalds.
The government subsidizes corn farming in a manner that benefits the giant corporations, like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland -- who can afford to lobby the government in their own interests. It doesn't help the farmer; he grows more and more corn at less and less profit in a vicious cycle. Another major player in industrial farming is petroleum: 1/5 of the oil consumed in the US is used in food production: fuel for tractors, transportation of the food from the grower to the consumer, synthetic fertilizers.
Chicken farming also occurs in CAFOs; battery chickens live 6 to a cage that's about the size of 2 legal pads. Because of the conditions, they are debeaked and given antibiotics.
In North Carolina, poultry and hog farming are major players in the economy out east. But they're also pretty major sources of pollution. Hog lagoons, especially those in watersheds, can be big trouble in a hurricane. Recent research has found ways to alleviate the environmental concerns and reduce pollution.
The second meal he examines he calls "industrial organic," or "supermarket pastoral." This meal he makes at home, using ingredients bought at Whole Foods Market. The USDA regulations define organic very loosely (at the behest of large corporations, naturally) and allow the use of synthetic ingredients in processed food. Pollan questions whether processed foods are even within the original goals of organic farming. What I thought was interesting (and a bit of an eye-opener) was that organic beef, for example, can still be raised in CAFOs, but they have to eat organically-grown corn and can't get antibiotics. Some of the free-range chickens are also raised in near-battery conditions; they have an opportunity to go outside, but they never do. When the farmers go into the chicken house, they wear biohazard gear: despite the confined conditions, the chickens can't get antibiotics, so preventing infection by outside elements is vital.
Organic farming reduces pollution and runoff of pesticides, even at an industrial scale, so he determines that it's a net good, even if the 2 major organic operations (Earthbound Farms and Cascadian Farms, now a General Mills subsidiary) still use a fair bit of petroleum to ship their produce or product nationwide. He goes into the history of both operations, which is interesting. EBF started as a produce stand in California, and they used a modified front-loading washing machine to clean the lettuce in their living room. Then, they grew. Cascadian started out in Washington state, and due to an unfortunate overextension in the early 90s, they were bought by General Mills. These two operations were founded based on the principles of organic farming: reduce pollution and waste. Many of the other large-scale organic operations are in it because its profitable, not because of any higher ideals.
For his third meal, he spends a week at Polyface Farm in Virginia, run by Joel Salatin, a self-described grass farmer. He raises cows, chickens, hogs, and turkeys -- and he uses nothing that doesn't grow on his own land! Well, almost nothing. He puts the cows to pasture, where he's carefully calculated how many days they can spend in a field without overgrazing it. Then after he moves them, he brings the chickens over, about 3 days later. The chickens eat the bugs and larvae, and some of the grass. The coolest thing (I thought) was how he makes his compost in winter. He puts the cows in a 3-sided, roofed barn, and as they poop and the level rises, he puts straw and corn on top of it, then repeats until the end of winter. The heat of anaerobic decomposition keeps the cows warm. Then in spring, he lets the pigs in, where they root through it to dig out the fermented corn. The aeration provided by the pigs lets the process become aerobic, and when it's finished cooking, he uses it to feed his grass.
He slaughters his own chickens in an open-air facility. He only does it once or twice a week, and people come by on chicken day to get fresh chickens. It's an interesting process. He also sells chicken and eggs to Charlottesville-area restaurants, who praise the quality effusively. The whites have more protein than other eggs, and the yolks are yellower and thicker. Salatin is more concerned with quality and sustainability than with quantity. He knows how many times he can move his chickens across the pastures before the soil is overloaded with nitrogen. He knows how many days between cow grazing the pastures need to recover. He knows exactly how many animals his land can sustain, and he has that many, and no more.
The farm feeds people in the region, and it is in touch with the food chain in a way that CAFOs and industrial slaughterhouses are not.
He makes a grilled chicken, roasted corn, and a chocolate mousse. The people with whom he eats it say that the chicken is the "chickeniest chicken" they've ever had. The mousse was a bit gritty, but he says he'd never cooked with such eggy eggs before.
You can find small, sustainable farms through several resources. Community-supported agriculture is another way to be more familiar with the food chain.
His fourth meal is made by hunting and gathering. He goes on a hunt for wild pigs in California (an introduced species, crossbred between domesticated and wild pigs, both imported from Europe; he says that his conscience is somewhat assuaged by hunting an invasive species) with a Sicilian, and he goes mushroom foraging as well. This is an interesting chapter, but less so than the first 3. It's a lot of introspection. He talks about the slow food movement briefly.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the complete disassociation from where food comes from. Meat is packaged in neat, plastic-wrapped packages or in tins. Produce is flown in from all over the world. Food comes from boxes on shelves or in the freezer. But it is perhaps this disassociation that allows for CAFOs and abattoirs where they process thousands of animals per day. Perhaps if more people examined where food comes from, factory farming would no longer be as popular. Cheap food, when it comes down to it, isn't "cheap" once you've factored in fertilizer runoff, antibiotic resistance, petroleum use and pollution, and farm subsidies.