Thursday, June 03, 2010

Required Reading

My high school biology teacher spoke with some derision about my generation, because he said we didn't know how to cut up a chicken. I have long forgotten his exact words, but the gist was that we thought meat originated a supermarket, all wrapped up in shiny packaging. My own children think that meat from a grocery store is "kinda gross" and prefer to think that it comes from the kitchen of a restaurant, preferably sliced, diced, cooked, and slathered with melted cheese. But, I am a farmer's daughter, and I know how everything from bacon to chicken wings gets from farm to freezer case. My dad grew tens of thousands of chickens, but wouldn't eat it. Ever.

As a reader with a strong preference for fiction, I wouldn't have chosen The Omnivore's Dilemma for my to-be-read stack of books. My daughter didn't choose it either, but one of her professors had it on his reading list for ecology. As she worked her way through the text, she kept saying, "Mom, you have to read this." So, when her semester ended, the book ended up in my stack of books. Last week, this non-fiction examination of the American way of eating became my book of the week. Due to its length, it took more than a week for me to digest it, pun intended, but I have enjoyed the feast. The author, Michael Pollan, is a a professor and sometimes columnist for the New York Times. In this book, named one of the best books of 2006 by the New York Times, he puts to work his ability to explain complexities in a way that a layperson can grasp. Seldom have I encountered anything so well-written, yet so basic to life.

"What's for dinner?" used to have more to do with what was in season in the garden and/or what the hunter had been able to shoot than the policies of some federal agency, but no more. Americans are living and breathing corn. Yes, corn. There's corn in the fuel tank of your car, and there's more in the DNA of your hair. That's because U.S. government policy pays farmers exorbitant amounts of money to grow corn, and once harvested it is transported to various industrial settings and made into darned near everything average Americans eat. There's high fructose corn syrup for sodas and baked goods; then it is made into additives with weird names which contribute to processed foods, and it is the principle component in feed for livestock. Even if the livestock, such as cows, don't normally eat corn because it can't be properly digested. In our country, bovines are "corn-fed" because there is a government sponsored industry which makes it so, and the main consumer of antibiotics is the livestock industry. Without the drugs, the cattle would sicken and die.

When Pollan describes the feedlot where Steer 534 eats a combination of hybrid corn, urea, antibiotics, and animal waste, I cringed. That is, of course, the reaction that is intended. Anyone who both reads and thinks will have to force down a commercially produced burger, once having seen the feedlot and slaughter house in this detailed exposé of the industrial farm system. The pastoral Virginia farm where cows dine on grass and chickens fertilize pastures and produce eggs which are so good that they are marketed to gourmet restaurants is quite a contrast. For those Americans who hunger for change, the industrial farming/food technology system is a great place to start.

Lest the reader think this book is mostly negative, please realize that Pollan takes the reader through four different nature-to-table scenarios: modern industrial food technology, organic food technology, locally grown farm products, and the hunter/gatherer mode of way back when. Each one has some merit, as well as some faults.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, is a big book. Not just in length, but in the subject matter. It tackles the interwoven relationships which affect and are affected by our nation's food chain. This includes the environment, politics, the economy, the health of the planet and our nation. This book blends enlightenment and motivation. Being a "locavore" will foster better health, for people, animals, and for the planet.

The prof was right— it should be required reading for everyone.

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