Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is an exceptionally good writer, and it was wonderful to feel yourself glide over four hundred pages of such effortless prose – effortless for the reader that is, who knows what labours the writer has gone to. Pollan is never at loss for the very right word, making the reader’s job of understanding so much the easier.

The task Pollan sets himself is to trace back the origins of his food. This seems to be a popular task nowadays, with several books devoted to the subject of finding out exactly how our food is produced and processed.

Pollan is an American author, and so concentrates on how food – meat and grains and vegetables – are produced in America. Unhappily, especially for the animals, the Americans have some of the worst and cruellest practises for the industrial farming of animals.

One of the basic thrusts of his book is that in our rush to ‘rationalise’ food production, that is, make so much of it for so cheap, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by creating an environmental and health catastrophe.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma starts out with the production of corn. Due to the fact that so much of it can be produced for so cheap, it has found its way, in various disguises, into everything. It is even fed to cows, who we know are genetically wired to graze and eat grass.

Instead the market has declared it good economic sense to feed cows a mix of corn. Making matters worse, they are even putting cow into the cow’s feed, making them cannibals. (This was how mad cow’s disease happened, from this business ‘rationale’.)

Adding to the insufferable conditions that cows must endure, they also are forced to wade in their own shit. The stench is horrifying to visiting humans. Imagine what it must be like for the poor creatures.

Oh, and one last horror I forgot to mention. Huge numbers of these cows are actually very, very sick. That’s why they have to be fed so many anti-biotics.

As Michael Pollan says, even if you are a committed meat eater, you have to recognise that this system of food production is completely mad.

That’s the cows, I haven’t even described what happens to chickens.

Pollan in the course of his book visits what you’d call a sustainable, organic farm, where animals are raised for slaughter. Happily for the animals, they get to live as animals should, grazing and feeding off grass.

Their chickens they slaughter themselves in the open air for anyone to see. Obviously this is not as popular a sight as staring into the window of a candy shop.

Pollan himself kills some chickens, something he dreads doing, but realises he must if he is to go on eating meat. Interestingly, we learn that the farm owner doesn’t think you should spend too much time slaughtering as this can dehumanise you, and Pollan himself refers to studies, or the studies of one person rather, that find the same results.

I did well with this book until I got to the section called the ethics of eating meat. It all seemed so wildly contradictory, and by the end I felt myself throwing up my hands and saying, For God’s sake, what’s all the fuss and bother. If you like meat, just stop with all this carry on and eat it without it bothering your conscience so much.

Pollan tries to defend his eating of meat, but can’t really find a resolution for any of the questions he raises. Finally he says that we should show more care when slaughtering animals, and turn it into a more reverential, ceremonial and religious act. So much taboo around eating meat!

One thing you can’t call Pollan though is a hypocrite, and this is one of the things he’s trying to confront in his book. He goes on to shoot a pig at the book’s end, in order to make a meal he has both hunted and gathered.

This section in the book swings like a pendulum between all emotional extremes. When he’s killed the animal he feels exultant, almost like some sort of mythical hero. Then when he is helping to carve up the animal (he has a hunter guide and expert, Angelo), the author feels utmost disgust: ‘This is disgusting’.

We should talk more about Angelo, Pollan’s guide in the wild. He’s an Italian with a love for food who hunts all the time and turns his catches into various Italian meats. So really Pollan barely does anything when it comes to preparing the pig he’s killed. It’s Angelo who really has to do all the messy work, and who has all the skills, knows where and what to cut, and how to do it. It’s also Angelo who has a giant freezer to keep the animal preserved. Without Angelo the author would have failed entirely in his mission.

Anyhoo, Pollan eventually cooks his pig and mushrooms he’s gathered and has friends over to dinner. In closing his book he says it was a good learning lesson, but that he couldn’t do it all the time. Indeed, you wonder if he ever would kill his own pig again.

The take away from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, if I can put it like that, is that we need to learn the true cost of what we eat. At the moment so many of the environmental and heath costs of what we eat are hidden from view.

Despite my disagreements with Pollan over his strange chapter on meat eating, this is a fascinating book that I would urge all sorts of eaters – vegan, vegetarian and omnivore – to get a copy of and read carefully.

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