The Omnivore’s Dilemma
A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan
Reviewed by Alan H. Lockwood, M.D., PSR Board member
When is a hamburger not a hamburger? Michael Pollan might answer, “When it is the final product of the industrial food chain, responsible for the cornification of the food system. Your burger is really a thinly disguised pile of corn.”
In this rich and fascinating book, Pollan takes us up the food chain from its very beginnings in the soil to four meals. The first was a 4,510 calorie fast food lunch for three consisting of a burger, chicken nuggets, fries, a garden salad, a soft drink, and a milkshake. All were eaten in less than ten minutes in a top-down convertible traveling at 65 miles per hour. He then takes us through two organic meals, one derived from mass-produced organic food with the other grown on a farm that is largely self-sufficient. Finally, he serves up a meal of food he hunted or gathered without paying for anything (not that there weren’t costs incurred).
In the first section, Pollan tells us that the chicken nugget ingredient list consists of 38 items, including 13 derived from corn (counting the corn-fed chicken), and an antifoaming agent that is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorogen, and that has reproductive effects. The beef, of course, was produced by cattle that are corn-fed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations where cattle wallow in their own manure and, in spite of regular use of antibiotics frequently have abscesses in their livers at the time of slaughter. We also learn that it took 1.3 gallons of oil to manufacture this meal. This counts fuel used by the farmer to work the land, the fertilizers and pesticides (including Atrazine, banned in the European Union) used to coerce prodigious quantities of corn from Iowa farmland, and to transport corn to markets and factories where it is a raw material, etc. A total of six pounds of corn were needed to produce the meal. The low cost is the result of huge governmental subsidies to big agribusinesses such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland that leave the farmer struggling to break even. Are these highly manufactured products really “food?”
The picture brightens a bit during the industrialized organic meal. At least the pesticide residue and antibiotic concentrations are lower, but large amounts of energy are required to grow, transport, triple wash, and produce salad greens bagged in an inert gas mixture to preserve freshness. The free-range chickens rarely venture outside of the barns where they are raised. We humans must wear reverse-isolation suites when we enter, least we infect these birds that have a notable lack of genetic diversity.
The sun shines brightly on Polyface Farms, the source of the third meal. Here, solar energy is captured by grass that feeds the cattle that are moved daily to new pastures. Chickens follow the cattle, feeding on the insects growing in the fresh manure. Little additional energy is required.
His final meal, a gourmet extravaganza, was produced from a pig that he shot, mushrooms that he gathered, bread leavened by wild yeast, and cherries that he picked. It took a lot of effort and no small amount of fuel to travel from place to place. But, you get the point. It was simple and not manufactured.
There are messages here for PSR. To halt and reverse global warming and be mindful of the energy-security link, we need to change our energy use habits. Consume what Pollan would call “real food”, food that your grandmother would recognize as food, food that is free of pesticides, antibiotics, and chemicals. Eat food that is grown near the point of consumption. Be mindful of the report Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (www.virtualcentre.org/en/frame.htm) that tells us that livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land, that deforestation in Central America and the Amazon basin is designed to increase livestock production, and, finally, the livestock sector accounts for the production of more greenhouse gases, as CO2 equivalents, than the transportation sector. Pollan gives us real food for thought.
Michael Pollan writes frequently for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Botany of Desire. He teaches journalism at The University of California at Berkeley.
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Page Updated August 12, 2013