Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Dilemma of Food

The Omnivore's Dilemma What should we have for dinner? To one degree or another this simple question assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat. Anthropologists call it the omnivore's dilemma. Choosing from among the countless potential foods nature offers, humans have had to learn what is safe, and what isn't - which mushrooms should be avoided, for example, and which berries we can enjoy. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore's dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time we're realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore's Dilemma is bestselling author Michael Pollan's brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.

Few of us can really say anymore what’s for dinner. If we could, says Michael Pollan, corn would usually be the answer. Bite into a hamburger and you’re probably dining on a cow that lived on almost nothing but corn for most of its short life. Opt for the trout instead, and it’s just another form of corn-fed meat. Fried in corn oil, sweetened with corn syrup, our cheapest calories trace to the crop most responsive to industrialized agriculture. Big Corn is feeding a hungry world, Pollan says. But it’s also making us sick and poisoning the environment. Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, isn’t pointing this out to shame us. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he carefully documents four paths that food can take before it reaches our tables, then lets readers “figure out their own answers” about what they should eat. The result is an “intelligently gory” book. As chickens’ throats are slashed, cattle are brained by so-called stunners, and Pollan himself guns down a wild boar for his most unmediated meal, you can’t help but admire his “gameness.” His effort chases away the ignorance that separates most of us from the food we eat, and it will be interesting to see how many readers can live with what he shows us. If you think that food raised organically is a no-fault alternative to industrialized agriculture, Pollan’s “clearheaded and sometimes heartbroken” chronicle might make you reconsider. Clearly, “our visions of contented cows and free-range chickens don’t always match the realities.”

Pollan has divided The Omnivore's Dilemma into three parts, one for each of the food chains that sustain us: industrialized food, alternative or "organic" food, and food people obtain by dint of their own hunting, gathering, or gardening. Pollan follows each food chain literally from the ground up to the table, emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the species we depend on. He concludes each section by sitting down to a meal - at McDonald's, at home with his family sharing a dinner from Whole Foods, and in a revolutionary "beyond organic" farm in Virginia. For each meal he traces the provenance of everything consumed, revealing the hidden components we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods reflects our environmental and biological inheritance.

We are indeed what we eat-and what we eat remakes the world. A society of voracious and increasingly confused omnivores, we are just beginning to recognize the profound consequences of the simplest everyday food choices, both for ourselves and for the natural world. Pollan is also too much a realist to suggest that the hunter-gatherer path he explores in the book’s final section can become anything more than an occasional ritual. The “dilemma” of Pollan’s title refers to the fact that human beings can choose any number of foods for their survival. While the choice is made difficult enough by the knowledge that we are what we eat, this “brilliant and eye-opening book” makes us face the harder truth that “what we eat remakes the world.”

A few facts and figures from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
- Of the 38 ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, there are at least 13 that are derived from corn. 45 different menu items at Mcdonald’s are made from corn.
- One in every three American children eats fast food every day.
- One in every five American meals today is eaten in the car.
- The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States¯more than we burn with our cars and more than any other industry consumes.
- It takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.
- A single strawberry contains about five calories. To get that strawberry from a field in California to a plate on the east coast requires 435 calories of energy.
- Industrial fertilizer and industrial pesticides both owe their existence to the conversion of the World War II munitions industry to civilian uses—nerve gases became pesticides, and ammonium nitrate explosives became nitrogen fertilizers.
- Because of the obesity epidemic, today’s generation of children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than their parents’ life expectancy.
- In 2000 the UN reported that the number of people in the world suffering from overnutrition—a billion—exceeded for the first time in history the number suffering from undernutrition—800 million. The great food problem of our time is that there is too much of it, not too little.
- Super-sizing works as a marketing strategy because people presented with larger portions don’t stop eating when they are full, but rather will eat more than 30% than they otherwise would. Why? Probably because our bodies evolved in an environment of feast or famine, when it made sense to eat as much as possible when food was available.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Michael Pollan
The Penguin Press, Hardcove, 6 x 9 inches, 320 pages, ISBN 1594200823

The Omnivore's Dilemma
Michael Pollan