Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I have been on a reading spree lately and there are two books I really want to write about. First, Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma", which was so fascinating and inspiring, I even committed it's message to canvas.

The thesis of the book is that the way in which our society obtains food is unsustainable and unhealthy, and though we as omnivore's are able to adapt to the lower quality of food, it does not mean we should. You may think the book preachy or one-sided, but it is so well researched, eloquent and frankly humorous, that I hope you'll give it a chance.

Pollan writes about four meals - what goes into them, what it took to obtain the ingredients, about the quality of the ingredients themselves, and the impact the meal has on our body (health, mind and spirit). The first meal is the "industrial" one. It begins with fields of corn, where the crop is grown in the usual unsustainable ways (monocrop, soil depletion, fertilizer runoff, pests and pesticides, etc). Machines do most of the work but the farmers don't make any money, because it costs more to produce the corn then what it's worth (the rest is made up by subsidies from the government so farmers can break even). Corn is then used to feed the lifestock, chickens, pigs, trukeys, sheep and even salmon and tilapia. Corn is processed into corn starch, corn oil, corn flour, as well as additives like lecithin, mon-, di-, and triglycerides, food coloring, and vitamins. Most of those things you see on your junk food label are derivatives of corn in one way or another.

Pollan also follows the production of beef in an industrial setting. Calves are born and raised for 6 months on independently owned ranches (complete with actual pastures). After they are weaned they spend several months learning to digest corn, at which point they are sold to feedlots to be fattened up. Some interesting problems arise when feeding corn to a cow. Apparently the high starch/low roughage of the corn makes belching difficult for the cows, causing a foamy slime to form in the rumen, which then inflates like a baloon. Corn is also more acidic then grass, causing the steers to have heartburn and ulcers, the acid eating away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream. So they need antibiotics. The manure of these cattle is so rich in heavy metals and hormones they the can't be re-used as fertilizer, so they sit in ponds on the feedlot. Oh and of course they sleep on a bed of dried poop, which sticks to their hide and gets transfered to the beef during slaughter - hence food poisoning. The final first meal that Pollan and his family ate? McDonalds!

The second meal was industrial organic. Better for you perhaps because it does not contain pesticide or antibiotic/hormone residues, but problematic in other ways. Still monoculture where crops are concerned, still large scale but now using manure for fertilizer and plant derived "organic agents" as pesticide. Since the veggies are not sprayed to preserve them, they need to be packaged and/or prewashed with some bleach. "Organic free range chicken" is an interesting bird. To be organic it is fed organic feed, without drugs or cages. To avoid the use of drugs the birds stay in a shed until they are about five weeks old, at which point a door is opened to the outside courtyard (a small lawn) where they can but don't really go for the remaining two weeks of their lives, hence free range.

The third meal, and by far the most fascinating, is the small scale or "beyond" organic. For this he spent a week on Polyface Farm in Virginia, a family operation that is honestly beyond cool. First there is the pasture. It is so much more than just grass: orchard grass, fescue, clover, millet, bluegrass, plantain, timothy and sweet grass. The cows graze in their allotted space for the day, mowing the grass, while also stomping it with their hooves, which will allow new seeds to germinate, and leave their manure for fertilizer. They will not be returned to this same spot again until he grass has grown (but before it grows to much and hardens). Chickens follow a few days behind the cows, so when they arrive at the spot, maggots have filled the cow patties. The chickens scatter the manure in their search for the maggots, enrich the soil with their own nitrogen rich poop, and in the mean time get fed a plentiful meal they were designed for eating (which leads to some superior tasting meat and eggs, I am told). Turkeys live in the orchard, where they fertilize the trees and vines, eat the bugs and mow the grass. In the winter months cows live inside but their manure is left in place, covered with a fresh layer of wood chips or straw every few days and the whole thing rises at a rate of about a foot per month. A few bucketfuls of corn are also tossed into the mix. All winter long the bedding composts providing heat to warm the barn, and the corn ferments. Once spring arrives, several dozen pigs are brought in, who turn and aerate the compost (killing the pathogens) while looking for the fermented corn. Polyface slaughter their chickens themselves, in broad daylight for "sterilization", and it's open to the people who come to buy the meat in case they want to watch (or help out).

The final meal was hunted and gathered. It involved wild pig, mushrooms, berries and veggies from the family garden. It was also interesting but this post is getting to be WAY TOO LONG again. Sorry about that.

Just a few more interesting facts I learned from this book:
- Most of the carbon atoms in the American body comes from corn. Mexicans have far fewer corn originating carbons because they consider feeding corn to lifestock a big no-no.
- Corn is unable to reproduce without men because the seeds are trapped in the ear (behind the husk) and even if they do get through it, they will die of overcrowding (consider the number of seeds stuck together on an ear).
- After WWII the government had too much ammonium nitrate, main ingriedient in explosives. They considered spreading it on the national forests to help out the timber industry, but in the end they decided to market it as fertilizer.
- The reason corn fed beef is less healthy for us is because it is "marbled" with fat that would not normally be there, making it more rich in saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids.
- Chicken Nuggets contain the carcinogen dimethylpolysiloxene and tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), a form of lighter fluid for "freshness"

Final summary - for food that is good for you, good for the environment and less cruel (if you are into that), buy local organic, preferably from CSAs (community sponsored agriculture) or farmers markets. Yes it is more expensive, but that is because you are paying what the food is actually worth. Spend less money on something else. This is your health and our planet we are talking about! I make exception for the really poor, who are screwed the most by our current food system (though I find that I spend less money on food now that I don't buy meat and shop at a co-op, so go figure...)

To find local farms go to:
http://www.localharvest.org/
http://www.eatwild.com/ (for animal products)

And now the art. Here we have a different kind of dilemma. My first attempt at this painting was really energetic and bold, but thusly less finished and frankly a bit of a mess. For the life of me I could not decide if I loved it or hated it. In the end I decided to tame it a bit, which makes for more pleasing but far less exciting work. I'll let you see both, the first now gone forever under layers of paint. Adieu!

First try:


Second try:

3 comments:

Kathy said...

Paulina,
I understand you have questions about the food you eat. I would be happy to help you sort through the information. You can learn a little about me on my blog, cowartandmore.blogspot.com. I look forward to your email.

Paulina said...

thanks Kathy,
what an interesting site.

James said...

Wow, interesting reading. Got a bit carried away there, considering I'm still at work, but I learnt a lot.

I'm not really liking the idea of "free range" as much any more...