Omnivore’s Dilemma has taught me more about the food I eat than any other book I have ever read. For this reason, I can say without a doubt that this book must be read by all personal trainers and healthcare practitioners alike. There are so many pieces of information provided by journalist and author Michael Pollan that it is no wonder that this book was rated in the Top 10 in 2009 by The New York Times or that Mr. Pollan is one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I have nothing to gain here by saying this so I will, dude is badass.
The book caught me by surprise because it started off with over 100 pages on corn and I never knew that lessons in corn could be so insightful and entertaining. Pollan starts off by visiting corn farms in Iowa, all of which contain hundreds of acres of corn. And not the type II corn that is used for eating, but the type that is used for feeding cattle and making corn syrup. For a grain that I thought was a vegetable, I quickly became amazed at all the products that contain corn in some form or fashion. Everything from ketchup to chicken nuggets to salad dressing contains corn. And its many uses immediately made me begin to think about George Washington Carver and the peanut. Carver was a black botanist and inventor born into slavery in Missouri, who found over 300 ways to use peanuts. Today corn is the most prolific product in our supermarkets. In fact, Pollan calls Americans living today the processed corn people a modern day take on the Aztecs who often referred to themselves as the corn people due to the vast number of food items they could derive from corn.
While corn is a dynamic commodity, and its varied use makes it a hot commodity, it is often used to make high fructose corn syrup and to feed cows. While I try to avoid high fructose corn syrup at all costs, I am most troubled by eating beef from corn-fed cattle. While it makes the meat more marbled, cows have a rumen or second stomach so they can eat grass with no problem. Grass is innate to cows and corn is not. Human beings don’t have the digestive system necessary for consuming grass, but thanks to cows, we don’t have to fret over this biological limitation. We can just eat the cow. As Pollan says, all flesh is grass, or should I say is supposed to be. However, due to the high demand for low-cost beef, e.g.-McDonald’s, many farmers are feeding corn to their cattle because it fattens them up for slaughter much faster which means faster money, and even the poor can afford it. Not to mention the government subsidizing that keeps many farms alive, albeit less diverse.
Overtaken by the shear amount of information that Pollan was sharing and inspired by the hands-on approach he was taking to learn more about the food that ends up on our tables, I was completely overwhelmed with joy when he flew to Augusta County, Virginia to continue his story. I was born and raised in this county until I graduated from high school and went off to college. I couldn’t have been more proud when I learned that one of America’s quintessential grass farms, Polyface, was literally in my backyard (only 5 miles away). The antithesis of corn farms, grass farming at Polyface is management-intensive farming and is the image I have in my mind when I think organic, cage-free, or free roaming. Cows are rotated to fresh grass periodically so that there is always plenty of grass for them to eat. Chickens are brought in behind cattle that have eaten all of the grass in order to pick out the nutritious parts of the cows’ manure and naturally fertilize the land by spreading the rest of the manure that cannot be eaten. This is an amazing process for humans, animals and the environment.
Corn farming is factory farming or industrial farming and animals are not rotated on the land. They are often caged in or barred in and must stand in their own feces. The former is much healthier for our bodies and much safer for the environment. The latter is used to make money and feed large swaths of
people cheaply, but leaves a trail of unwanted pollutants in its path. Grass farms don’t rely on pesticides, insecticides or any other -cides. Nature fertilizes itself when you don’t take advantage of it. True grass farmers believe in these ideals and will not forsake them. Grass farmers are much like the starving Jewish woman I read about in Eating Animals, who received a piece of pork and refused to eat it. When asked why she refused even though the pork would save her life she replied, it wasn’t kosher. Not even to save your life? Listen she said, if nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.
Much of what I retained from this book has already been stated, but there are sections on foraging and hunting that I read with interest as well. However, the real meat of this book is factory farming versus grass farming and the many dilemmas that face the omnivore. Meat? If so what animals? And at what cost to the environment? In my opinion, grass farms must be saved and we must stop paying for meat that is raised for profit versus nutritionally valuable and environmentally friendly meat. Often too hurried to cook slow food, we allow agribusiness to dictate what we will put on our plates and we do not allow our voices of indifference to be heard. Farms like Polyface are raising animals humanely, feeding them according to their natural tendencies, and are environmentally friendly. Not to mention the food produced is much healthier for the human body. Now the costs for this type of food is often looked upon as more expensive than factory farmed food, but it really is not. Once you factor in all the unwanted tradeoffs that come with factory farming such as disease and pollution, it is actually far less expensive. Every omnivore has a dilemma, better yet a duty to let his voice be heard through the choices he makes. Choose wisely.
“The omnivore’s dilemma is replayed every time we decide whether or not to ingest a wild mushroom, but it also figures in our less primordial encounters with the putatively edible: when we’re deliberating the nutritional claims on the boxes in the cereal aisle; when we’re settling on a weight-loss regimen (low fat or low carb?); or deciding whether to sample McDonald’s newly reformulated chicken nugget; or weighing the costs and benefits of buying the organic strawberries over the conventional ones; or choosing to observe (or flout) kosher or halal rules; or determining whether or not it is ethically defensible to eat meat-that is, whether meat, or any other of these things, is not only good to eat, but good to think as well.” -Michael Pollan