04 November 2007

the omnivore's dilemma

Michael Pollan applies his deft and engaging skills as a literary journalist to the complexities of the American and global food chain. A former editor of Harper's Magazine and professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, Pollan earned praise for his most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

I received The Omnivore's Dilemma as a birthday gift in September and have found it a fascinating and informative treat, though also a challenging one as we continue to make choices about our own patterns of food consumption. What does Christian prudence and discernment look like relative to the enormous complexities of contemporary, industrial food production? What does that look like in terms of our family's health, stewardship of our finances, sustainable care of God's creation, a preferential option for the poor, and political and economic policy?

One of the personal effects of reading the book is my closer scrutiny of food labeling and ingredient lists: adding up the number of corn derivatives in my salad dressing or wondering what "free range" might really have meant for my chicken or who went foraging for the "wild" blueberries in my granola bar.

Pollan's book is divided into three sections: "Industrial: Corn," "Pastoral: Grass," and "Personal: Forest." The first section attempts to follow a field of corn and the life of a steer, from their planting and pasture to a dinner plate. The second section examines the rise of organic farming, both in its more prevalent industrialized variety and its more radical, sustainable "beyond organic" forms. The third section follows Pollan's adventure to hunt and gather an entire meal: meat, vegetables, and fungi.

The Omnivore's Dilemma in its well-crafted narrative, traces the history of agriculture and amasses copious data, defying easy summation. Yet, towards the middle of the book, Pollan's comments bring together some of the most salient aspects of his overall presetantion.

The question concerns the overwhelming triumph of corn in the American diet - not only as a food product itself, on the cob and in tortilla chips, but also as the primary feed for the animals we eat, in the ubiquity of high fructose corn syrup, and in the genealogy of numerous food additives from xantham gum to maltodextrin. Is this a matter of sheer economics, a field of corn producing more total food energy per acre?

Quite simply, no. Research indicates that grass - once a food staple for ruminant animals and poultry - has greater biodiversity and sustainability, not to mention less waste. Moreover, if well-managed grass does not need chemical fertilizers and can capture more solar energy and produce more biomass than a cornfield. So, why does cheap corn prevail?

The answer is complex, involving not only temptations inherent to corn itself (e.g., it can fatten cattle more quickly than grass even though it makes the animal sick), but also various sorts of government policy (e.g., subsidizing corn farms and commercial feedlots, grading meat in a way that favors corn-fed livestock, bending rules for clean air and water, putting tariffs on sugar imports).

The end result is a mind-boggling surplus of cheap corn that needs to be consumed in an ever growing variety of ways. And so, that fast food lunch you grabbed on the run may turn out to be two-thirds corn, even if not a single kernel or grain of corn meal appears on your tray.

The preference for corn, then, makes a certain sort of economic sense, providing a cheap, easily accessible and quality consistent food supply to consumers. Pollan comments,
I say "certain" because that statement depends on the particular method of accounting our economy applies to such questions, one that tends to hide the high cost of cheap food produced from corn. The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost - to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves. (200-201)
The problem then is one of negative externalities - all the costs that for various reasons are left outside the market transactions and exchanges of information that set the retail price of corn in its many manifestations.

The problems here are not simple matters of "free market" solutions over against failed government tinkering with the agricultural economy. For one thing, given the unpredictability of drought, disease, and crop failure, taken together with the relative inflexibility of food demand, no agricultural society has ever opted for an entirely free market in food production.

Yet government policies have had a role in shaping the present kind of agricultural market we face - a market that, in many respects, is not working so well, even apart from the possibility that it may be slowly killing us. This, along with negative externalities, suggest that part of any solution will involve policies that begin to undo some of the damage.

But part of the solution also falls to consumers. On this count, The Omnivore's Dilemma provides a bewildering wealth of information and reflection, which in the end makes Christian prudence and discernment more difficult rather than easier. How we answer the question "What's for dinner?" is problematized and deepened by Pollan's account.

If you haven't picked it up already, The Omnivore's Dilemma is well worth reading. At the very least, you will find yourself looking at your dinner plate and grocery aisle as if you had never really seen them before.