Omnivore’s Dilemma

In what he calls our “national eating disorder”, Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma contends that our confusion about food stems from alienation from food.  He states, “We don’t know what to eat because we’ve forgotten where food comes from.”  Through the vehicle of his book, Pollan wants to remind people that “we eat by the grace of nature, not of industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.”

Pollan likens our current eating condition to when sailors ate plenty of food, but in the absence of vitamin C, found themselves victims of scurvy.  There was plenty of “food,” but it did not contain what the sailors really needed.  Essentially, we’re sailing on the same sea, thinking we’re eating well but still discovering nutrients in our food that we hadn’t known were there — that we don’t yet know we need.

One thing is for certain in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the information that Pollan presents and the overarching lessons and trends he sets forth are things that have been kept, no doubt deliberately, from the American food consumer for far too long.

Let’s face it…there are few things more important to our health than the food we eat.  And yet, so many of the decisions that are being made regarding our food supply — including what gets produced and how — are shrouded in secrecy and shielded from public view or discussion.   In the meantime, the consequences of those decisions — on public health, on the environment, on animal welfare, and so on — are buried even more deeply underground.

By exposing the food industry for what it really is, Pollan’s book gives us information that is likely at first to outrage us and then cause us to take action—which is the only way we will ever take back control of our food supply from the conglomerates that are presently calling all of the shots concerning what we eat.

Corn and Oil—What We Eat
Pollan makes it clear that our food bears little resemblance to its natural substance.  “In the United States,” Pollan points out, “we’re mostly fed by two things: corn and oil. We may not sit down to bowls of petroleum, but almost everything we eat has used enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Oil products are part of the fertilizers that feed plants, the pesticides that keep insects away from them, the fuels used by the trains and trucks that transport them across the country, and the packaging in which they’re wrapped.”

Oil underlies Pollan’s story about agribusiness, but corn is its focus. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to most vitamin pills. He indicates that American cattle fatten on corn and that corn also feeds poultry, pigs, sheep, and even farmed fish. But that’s just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste.

“Tell me what you eat,” said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.”  We’re corn.

Each bushel of industrial corn grown, Pollan notes, uses the equivalent of up to a third of a gallon of oil. Some of the oil products evaporate and acidify rain; some seep into the water table; some wash into rivers, affecting drinking water and poisoning marine ecosystems.

Like other critics of industrial food, Pollan seizes on corn — the most heavily subsidized and prolific U.S. crop — as the epitome of a food system gone rancid. “There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them contain corn,” Pollan reports.

And it doesn’t end there—as corn is a staple in the diet of feedlot cattle, too.  For all the nightmarish stuff feedlot cows eat, the most damaging of all may be their staple, corn, which tends to damage their livers. Evidently, corn-fed cows become sick as a matter of course, a fact accepted by the industry as a cost of doing business. “Between 15 and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers,” Pollan writes.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the stark contrast Pollan is able to draw between the industrial food supply and the sustainable farming practiced at Polyface a small farm in Virginia owned and operated by Joel Salatin.   Salatin has created an almost entirely self-sufficient (i.e., closed) ecosystem that comes close to mimicking nature; the grass, chicken, beef, turkeys, laying hens, rabbits and sweet corn that he raises are interlocked together in an amazing symbiotic symphony, the outputs of one serving as the inputs of another.   The result is as efficient as Nature– there is no waste product, there is no need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or antibiotics, and each animal is able — more or less — to act out in precisely the way Nature intended.   Thus, cows graze on grass to create beef, laying hens dine on larvae to produce protein-rich eggs, and manure from all of the animals nourishes the soil that, in turn, feeds the grass.

The industrial system, on the other hand, is characterized by waste, toxins, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, animal pharmaceuticals, degradation of the environment, exacerbation of global warming, abuse of animals, and adverse impacts on public health — to name just a few.   Pollan convincingly demonstrates that, for a whole host of historical, geopolitical, and economic reasons, our country’s official policy has long been to encourage farmers to produce as much of one particular crop as humanly possible–and that one crop is corn.

This senseless “river of corn,” as Pollan calls it, directly benefits a number of large corporate interests—and not our health. 

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