Monday, 8 September 2008

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Yes, that's right, I've finished "The Omnivore's Dilemma" - the book that is well coveted by other Calgary Public Library users, and am now writing the highly anticipated review. The book is due back on Tuesday, so finished not a minute too soon. As you know (if you've read previous posts), I LOVE Michael Pollan, and what he stands for in the food community. He's the whistle blower. I don't know why, but I love whistle blowers. I love anyone who tells it up straight - like it is, and doesn't sugar coat it. (funny enough, I made a friend just like that today at church)

In this book, Michael followed the food chain for three different meals. One - the typical every day meal that 80% (rough estimate) of the western world eats - The Corn food Chain; the second one is the Pastoral Grass food chain, and the 3rd is the Forest (hunter/gatherer) food chain. My personal favorite is the Pastoral Grass food chain (it seems to be the one I learned the most from, and really is the way of the future).

As far as corn goes, most of the western world is filled with walking, talking, breathing corn. (we're the walking corn) Corn feeds our cows (cows aren't meant to digest corn), and corn is the basis of most processed foods, it is the base for most fried foods, as they are usually fried in corn oil. We ingest an insane of High Fructose Corn Syrup in the Soda we drink. Corn feeds chickens (again, not the best choice for their feed). The entire McDonald's menu should just be replaced and should have corn next to every price. McCorn all the way down the list. The corn we use for these items, isn't the healthy multi-variety grain that was so prized by the Aztec people. It's standard number 2. Genetically modified in most cases, and a simple - high energy, cost efficient way to feed our livestock. You can imagine - that with corn as the basis of an entire food system, there is not a lot of variety of nutrients, or nutrition in this particular kind of diet. This - simplified is why our food today (all of the processed variety of food - corn) lacks the nutrients we need in order to function at our highest level. It's just pure calories with no nutrition. We wonder why we have an obesity epidemic on our hands? It starts - my friends with our agricultural system and works it's way through our food chain all the way to our plates. The other thing about this section of the book that opened my eyes (though I knew about it before) is the way that animals are treated in order to feed our population. CAFO's are evil. (Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations). There is no reason whatsoever to torture an animal before you eat it, and this - essentially is what is going on in most cases. Animals are seen as dollar signs in the Corn food-chain. Nobody cares in that corporate food world what happens to them, just that they make more of them, and fatter ones, with more meat, and keep them disease free even though we are packing them all inside tiny little areas. In fact, pump them full of anti-biotics just in case they do become susceptible to some disease or other - heck it's bound to happen in that small of an area. This is cruel, AND (sorry to say more important to me) incredibly unhealthy for us!!! These animals are getting little to no variety in their diet, they are pumped full of anti-biotics, and who knows what else. Then, we're all shocked, shocked when there's a Listeria outbreak. Not to mention e-coli, and other deadly diseases that come from having an unvaried diet such as Diabetes, Cancer, etc. This is the source of almost ALL of our health problems in the world today. It starts in the food chain. I've only touched on a couple of issues here, but there are many more in the book. I suggest you read it for the full scope. So, needless to say, the Corn food-chain doesn't impress me as the best way.

The second section on pastoral grass, also opened up my eyes somewhat to the "organic" corporate world. Which - really regulation-wise isn't that much different than the other corporate world, except that their chickens aren't fed anti-biotics (and therefore, could end up with who knows what kinds of diseases), and they do have a slight option of being able to go out into a small yard. (which they never use) This by U.S. organic standards is qualified to be called "organic" and "free-range" Though, this is what is wrong with standardizing organic growing. Organizations want to see what they can get away with in order to cash in on the consumer's obsession with anything organic. I myself am a big organic fan. Though, I'm now slightly more skeptical of what really is worth it. In fact, I was looking at free-range eggs the other day, and the only one I felt really secure was actually free-range was the one that had a stamp on it from the SPCA. Haha. You have to trust the SPCA. These were happy chickens evidently. Anyway, in this world today, you hardly know who to trust. That's why the local food movement has become so popular. When you meet the farmer, and you look them in the eye, and you ask them if this was grown organically, you know whether or not you can trust them. In the book - my favorite thing ever - is when Michael spent a week with a Virginia farmer by the name of Joel Salatin on his "Polyface Inc." farm. Joel is self-proclaimed as beyond organic. Joel practices simple, tried and true farming techniques (with a number of his own state of the art twists - such as the egg-mobile). He practices management intensive grazing - a technique where the farmer lets his herd graze on a plot of land only for a certain amount of time (long enough not to kill the grass, but give it a quick cow-chew mowing) and then moves them onto the next plot of grass. The grasses he grows as well are of many different varieties, and provides the cows with a "salad bar" from which to graze. Cows are ruminants, grass is what they are supposed to eat. They were never meant to eat corn - ever. The only animal that can truly digest corn is the pig. After the cows graze the land, Joel brings in his chickens in their egg-mobile to graze after them, and clean up. It's ingenious really. The result is - healthier, happier animals and tastier, healthier meat. The eggs that come out of that egg-mobile are highly coveted by the chefs in Joel's area. The muscle tone of the egg is the real selling point, if you want to know what the heck that means, you'll have to read the book. So, Joel is pretty much living my dream.

The 3rd section was cool, but as I said - the pastoral life - that's for me. In the Forest, Michael learned how to hunt wild California Pig (which is actually a pest, and really - not native to California) from a lovely gentleman named Angelo. Italians always know where the best food is, after all it is them that started the slow-food movement in protest against a McDonald's restaurant being opened in Rome. So, Angelo taught Michael how to hunt wild California pig, and it's really a great story, totally worth reading. Michael also learned how to gather (and hunt) different varieties of mushroom in his adventures. Chantrelles and Morels to be specific - highly coveted mushrooms (wouldn't know about that - hate mushrooms - but I'm working on not hating them) That was also a highly entertaining read. I liked the part where he learned how to "gather" yeast in order to make his bread. I'll have to remember that technique myself for future use.

As you may know if you've read previous posts, I love the idea of doing things like this myself. When I have had time to do so, I have made cheese, and Yoghurt. I have every intention to one day be able to grow and raise my own food from scratch. There's a kind of satisfaction that comes from knowing exactly where your food comes from, and for me - it's about living healthy more than anything else. There's so many toxins, and endocrine disruptors in our world, and for me (and many others) that's dangerous. My body is highly sensitive to those types of things (who's isn't?) and I just feel a lot better knowing exactly where my food comes from, and how it got to my plate. I'm not saying I don't opt out for convenience like everyone else - anybody who knows me at work knows that I'm a big microwave dinner fan. (not fan so much, as just too busy to really take the time to cook) Ideally though, I want to cook my food from ingredients whose origins I know. The last thing Michael wrote in the book sums it up...

"This is not the way I want to eat every day. I like to be able to open a can of stock and I like to talk about politics, or the movies, at the dinner table sometimes instead of food. But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world."

This book is so worth the read - I think food is a subject everybody should read about - who's life isn't influenced by food?

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