This is gross to think about, but in terms of diet, we humans have a lot in common with rats. Both of us our omnivores, meaning we can eat just about anything. And even though this offers us (both) great variety in terms of diet, it also brings a daily (or more often than that) dilemma: what should we eat?
Michael Pollan probes that question in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, where he takes a close look at how humans make choices about food and explains (which was even more interesting to me) where our food comes from.
The book is divided into four basic sections, and each of them revolves around a meal. The first meal (McDonald's) is the product of industrial agriculture, and even more surprising--mostly corn. Corn, or its byproducts, are in the pop (high fructose corn syrup), in the burger and nuggets (filler, starch, frying oil, batter, and much more), in the ketchup, the salad dressing, even partly in the gas tank of his car. Now, corn is a veggie, so it's good for us, right? Well, yes, but I am thinking that THAT much corn may not be. And Pollan proposes (eloquently) that the more stops your food makes between the farm and your dinner plate, the less beneficial it is to your body.
We've all heard stories lately about the horrors of animal processing facilities, but Michael Pollan explains why they are wrong: not just hurtful to the animals but hurtful to us as well. See, cows are made to eat grass, right? That's why they have all those stomachs. But cows in feedlots eat mostly corn (along with antibiotics and liquefied chicken fat) and their bodies aren't really built for it. So they get gassy and need more medicine. And some of that is bound to end up in our meat. Doesn't this sound yummy? Don't get me started on industrial chickens, who are bred to have enormous breasts--and end up so front heavy their legs can't support their weight. Good thing they don't live very long.
Pollan's premise is that all this industrialized food is harmful to the environment as well as our bodies. Planting just one product on hundreds of acres--never any variety--leaches nutrients from the soil, and the pesticides add toxins to the earth. Also, transportation of those goods from the farms to the supermarkets uses up fossil fuels. And when we consume this processed food (fast food, convenience food, you know what I'm talking about), we consume complex, chemically engineered ingredients our bodies don't need--even, perhaps, can't process. Pollan says this is why our nation struggles as it does with obesity and ill health.
And he blames capitalism for all of it. But I'll get to that later.
Next, Pollan investigates organic, and it is a two-pronged investigation. First, he looks at the organic products we could get at a store like Whole Foods. He finds that the nature of the store (national chain) doesn't truly lend itself to the ideals of organic food. Because it is a chain and because it seeks to turn a large profit, it must transport its products across great distances and buy from large producers. Suddenly, organic seems a lot like industrial agriculture.
Pollan waxes most poetic when he writes about a farm in Virginia. The farmer, Joel Salatin, calls himself a grass farmer because grass feeds his enterprise. Most of his animal enclosures are movable, and Joel moves his cows and chickens daily in a complicated rotational pattern to allow them to take full advantage of the grass, the insects, and the fertility of manure. Michael stays on the farm for two weeks, helping move animals, slaughter chickens, and turn compost. He is impressed at Joel's genius for his craft and his deep appreciation for nature. Joel sells his products locally to households and restaurants, refusing to ship anything--for that would compromise his firm belief in the value of freshness.
Pollan's last meal is the product of his garden as well as hunting and foraging expeditions. He says he has gardened since he was a child, but he has to learn how to hunt and forage. He kills a wild pig and learns to hunt mushrooms. This meal, which he shares with those who have taught him to hunt and harvest, is (he says) perfect. But it takes months, really, to prepare. And how much of us have the time, the inclination, or even the opportunity to hunt and gather all we need to survive?
But Pollan says that the intelligent choice is to eschew supermarkets entirely and fight the capitalist system that is sending American into a spiral of obesity and ill health. How realistic is that? We don't all have a Joel Salatin in our neighborhoods, and even if we did, we couldn't all afford him. So what should the intelligent eater do? Languish in dietary misery as I follow one fad after the next? Spend half my income on locally grown produce and cage-free/hormone-free/antibibotic-free/you-name-it-free meats? I don't think it's possible.
But even if Pollan's ideas aren't entirely practical for me or most Americans, in the end, I am glad I read this book. If nothing else, Pollan made me consider the ingredients in my food and renew my desire to eat more local produce (meaning: totally pilfer from my dad's fabulous garden) and to preserve what we don't eat in its season. He's right: locally grown seasonal fruits and veggies ARE much tastier than those you can buy at the supermarket--especially if you buy them out of season. I'm not ever going to be a vegetarian, but I am going to look for alternate sources of meat--and protein.
And there were two more things that made me like the book, one at the beginning and one at the end. In the beginning, Salatin knocks fad diets like the Atkin's diet, which prohibits the consumption of carbs. He says mankind has been eating bread for millenia, so why should we suddenly stop now--and ruin a perfectly good meal? Great point; wholehearted agreement. Then at the end of the book, he compares Joel Salatin (the hero) to Luther (because both men want(ed) to change the system, not destroy it). Endorsements for good bread and Luther: you can't get any better than that.