Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Omnivore's Dilemma (a review)

Probably, if you were going to read it you have already, but if you haven't ... you might want to pick it up. It was the #1 New York Times Bestseller in 2006 and it's still quite relevant today -- maybe more so, who knows. 

Normally we may think of evolution as a drive toward complexity, but bacteria has gone the other direction, it's evolved downward into simplicity and into very niche environments. This is an excellent survival strategy - what will survive any catastrophe you can imagine? Somewhere, bacteria, probably.

But most animals have opted for complexity and flexibility instead. They are able to move about and adapt to new environments. But here's the rub: since they choose to be flexible, they have to be flexible.

There is a direct analogy in the gastronomic world, it turns out. Some creatures have taken the simple approach by consuming a limited range of things. They can afford to do this because they have evolved elaborate intestines with which to work food over thoroughly and in which to harbor bacteria which converts one sort of input into all the various nutrients their bodies need. These are the herbivores and carnivores, and genetic code alone, which we call instinct, is sufficient to get them fed. On the other hand, omnivores have taken the high road; their innards are leaner and less elaborate so they must gather the right mix of inputs themselves.   And in doing so, they must avoid the dangerous ones. This requires a lot of care, and thought, and therefore ... big brains. It's a tradeoff of a simple lifestyle and an elaborate belly, or a complicated lifestyle, and a lean interior. So the omnivore's dilemma is gathering how to gather the right foods and not take in the harmful kind.  That in itself is a dilemma, but Pollan points out there are plenty of moral quandries as well.

The book is as entertaining as The Botany of Desire (2001), in which he looked at the story of apples, potatos, tulips, and marijuana from the plants' perspective. Here he takes on corn, grass, meat, and fungus, and once again we benefit from his careful research and introspection (the latter, occasionally laid on a little thick, for my taste). He also does a great deal of field observation, visiting the food factories and farms, talking to many different kinds of people, gathering mushrooms, and even slitting some chicken necks himself, and shooting a wild boar.  He describes much of this so well I felt I had done it too.

His best field trips included a large sustainable farm in Virginia where production is high, costs are relatively low, waste is almost nil, and the animals are mostly content. It's most impressive in the cleverness with which it all works, and the owner explains that in detail.  It's a stark contrast to some of the more corporate operations - like a standard corn-fed feedlot, a poultry farm, even an organic farm that turned out to be pretty much like the others. In these chapters the moral dilemmas come into the sharpest focus.

Food -- if you haven't noticed --  has become a new moral battleground, and when Pollan disparaged the new methods, and the lower quality of food they sometimes produce at times I felt he didn't fully appreciate the countervailing moral implications of the much larger quantities turned out now.  All that food is a good thing, too.  When he marveled that corn production increased from 75 bu/acre in 1950 to 180 in 2006 (140% increase, and often to the detriment of small time farmers), he didn't mention that world population increased by 172% in the same period.   Sometimes I though it was a little one-sided because the older methods could not easily produce the food we need now.  Hybrid vigor, that gives us pumped up ears of corn, is itself infertile.  That's not a Monsanto conspiracy -- as he intimates -- it is a fact of nature.  Vigorous hybrids, like mules, are often -- oddly -- infertile.  In the end it appears he was sometimes just exploring some of the more extreme views of his interviewees, as his own conclusions seemed balanced and reasonable, in my opinion.  As a reader I felt I had been treated fairly.

First, it's corn's dizzying ascendency as a food source, with the field trip to a chemical plant that rips the kernal pulp apart, sending it out in a tangle of different spigots -- some headed for the gas tank, others to the various mixers of myriad foodstuffs, others to make non-edibles.   There's a good discussion of the political and economic forces driving the corn industry too.  In the second section, on  "grass," he works on a the sustainable Virginia farm, among other things. When it comes to meat, he compares the sustainable approach to that in a large organic poultry operation, a feedlot, and commercial slaughterhouse, and more.   And all through the book he comments on underlying philosophical issues.

And the section of fungus (mushrooms) is interesting from a botanical perspective, mostly.  It could have been in The Botany of Desire.  In the end he pulls the story together by describing his "perfect meal" made up of perfect ingredients, served to perfect guests.  That just seemed unnecessary, to me but by that time I'd had a good enough intellectual and philosophical material to chew on - enough food for thought, you might say - to forgive him a little retrospective self-indulgence.

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