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The Omnivore’s Dilemma

7 April 2009

yeah, yeah, I know this is belated. Sue me.

I have finally made it through Michael Pollan’s engaging book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. I am probably the last foodie on the internet to have read it.

Our dependence on the industrial food system is sobering. Frightening is our refusal as a society to think about it. Pollan’s approach is open-minded and curious, following the simple question “What should I eat” backwards to “what am I eating”?”, “Where did it come from?” Questions that more of us would rather not have answered.

My overall impressions is that it was well presented and accessible, and while I had more background knowledge than the average reader, it still told me new things and made me think. I often found myself drawing conclusions from the text that Pollan made explicit a few pages later.

Below are my thoughts on the individual sections.


Part I: Corn
Two statistics from this section stood out for me:

One: Americans are more corn than Mexicans.

As a half mexican, this is boggling. In Mexico, corn is literally our daily bread. But we see the corn we eat. It’s not hidden in our sodas or candy (cane sugar is cheaper) or in our food additives or “natural and artificial flavors.” The amount of energy (read: petroleum) it takes to break corn down into it’s constituent parts and reconstruct it into every ingredient you don’t recognize (and many you do) in preserved foods. Our meat even, is now longer fed on grass or scraps (both of which are inedible to humans), but grain. Enough corn to feed the third world we give to livestock these days.

(How do we know this? Corn carbon atoms have an extra hydrogen atom than most plants. We can measure how much of a body is made up of this extra-atom carbon and have a good idea of how much corn the person is)

Two: Without artificial fertilizer, “two out of every five humans on earth today would not be alive” (pg43)

This has some very scary implications. The primary one being that 40% of the world’s population would die if the world went organic. Puts a bit of a moral conundrum on the shoulders of those against conventional industrial farming, don’t it?
But artificial nitrogen fertilizer has always been a petroleum resource, and no matter what estimates on the remaining oil supply is, fossil fuels are a finite substance. So there are two and a half billion people are living on borrowed time. Oil prices are in flux, as is the supply. Those who are going to lose out first are those who can least afford to.
I’m not sure how we can win this one. I’m not sure we can. The obvious solution, decreasing population (or to start, decreasing population growth) is dauntingly impossible.
I don’t know if to hope Pollan is wrong, or if his statement does not include modern intensively-sustainable techniques (which are proven to show larger yields per acre), but also while knowing full well that we’ve long been living above capacity on our planet, yet it is not the fault of any one of the 2.5 billion people living on borrowed time (and more like it’s 40% of each of us, instead). It’s not out fault but we must take responsibility. Somehow.

Part II: Grass
This section was my favorite. Joel Stalatin, the grass-farmer, is wicked smart. Obsessive yet, but an economist at heart. Economics is really all about resource management, using the least amount of inputs to produce the largest amount of outputs. Yes there’s all this about inflation and profit maximization and financial markets and asymmetrical information, but all that is nuance. Many times it is the most basic concepts that get glossed over.

For what could be more simple, what could be more complex, than your daily bread, your daily meat. How many inputs are needed to make something as thoughtless as a hamburger? A live animal yes, and a butcher of skill. Some fire too. But behind that? Years of labor by the farmer and the butcher, a pasture of grass of fifty different varieties. The sun and rain that makes the grass grow, the climate and weather system that brings the rain. The soil, a product of eons, and all it’s microbiotic inhabitants. Petroleum and ore that allow the meat to be transferred, the knowledge of a civilization that tells us how meat is to be grown, cooked, and stored. Is all that really captured when ground chuck goes on sale for 1.99/lb?

Economics is about resource management. It doesn’t tell you to use all your resources now to create the largest amount of output in the present, nor that money is the path to happiness. Those are human inferences. In fact, economics would be happier if your resource use was paced and sustainable. Look beyond microeconomics…there is a long run, an equilibrium.

Equilibrium through resource management is what Joel Stalatin has found. He knows his grass, his soil, his weather, his animals, and efficiency is his obsession. His output his maximized mostly by waste minimization: manure is not waste, but a valuable input to maintain the quality of his grass and soil. His animals graze the grass to where Marginal Cost = Marginal Benefit, and moves them before they take a bite too much. He grows complementary animals to increase output without corroding resources. He produces up to the very limit of his land’s carrying capacity, and not a chicken over.

That’s what some people find difficult to realize: Economics is not about producing as much as possible. Its about producing as much as possible given your resources. You can just as easily produce too much as too little. The right amount in the right amount.

Of course, he has nothing to the planet’s greatest economist, Mother Nature herself, but Joel Stalatin, I salute you.

Part III: The Forest
This section taught me the most, though I think I have the least to say about it. I didn’t know much about the elusive mushrooms before. Again, forging is a good use of human’s intelligence applied to food, “the cognitive niche”. Can humans sustain themselves on forage and hunted game alone? Of course not. But our mind was wired to it, and it taps in to a sense of observation and concentration that so few of us use these days. Haven’t we all been obsessively hungry at one point or another? I’m hypoglycemic, I know. You can’t think about anything else, and you wonder what you can eat. Probably we should all be required to try it, to look at the world in hunger and reverence. A rite of passage even. It shows us what we do know (when did we learn that all compounded fruits are edible?), what we don’t know (is this mushroom edible? Will it kill me?), and what we might never know (why do morels only grow after a forest fire? Why can’t we cultivate truffles?).

Why do we presume to know nature so well? We really don’t.

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