Omnivore’s Dilemma

Posted on Tuesday 20 January 2009

Currently, I am reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. I am about halfway through the book.  Thus far, this is a fascinating book that takes a look at America’s modern food supply chain and how it has been corrupted by the oil, chemical, pharmaceutical industries and government intervention because of political, corporate and military reasons.

The first part of the book deals with the highly-efficient monoculture production of corn in this country and how unnatural the production process is. Pollan examines how corn became so important that we should subsidize growing it in spite of all the environmental problems a corn-based agricultural system causes. Pollan looks at the unmentioned externalities that America’s industrial food supply chain has imposed and the costs to the environment, the planet, the health and well-being of the American people, which never seem to be mentioned in the mass media.

An interesting analysis of a McDonalds dinner for his family of three shows how prevalent corn has become in the modern diet of highly processed foods.  The meal, which consisted of a Cobb salad with Caesar dressing, a classic cheeseburger, two orders of large fries, a large coke, an order of Chicken McNuggets, a double-thick vanilla shake, and a dessert of freeze-dried ice cream pellets, based on mass spectrometer analysis, broke down as having corn as the primary ingredient in some form as follows:

Soda—100%, milk shake—78%, salad dressing—65%, chicken nuggets—56%, cheeseburger—52%, and french fries—23%.

The soda is primarily high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), so that really isn’t a big surprise.  The milk shake has a large portion of HFCS as well as cellulose, probably derived from the corn plant as well. Many of the clearly artificial components of the salad dressing, like Xanthan Gum, and such are derived from the corn plant.  The chicken nuggets use binders, emulsifiers and the breaded coating are predominantly derived from corn-based products.  The cheeseburger is rather surprising, but the beef is most likely corn fed, and the cheese and bun probably have significant corn-based ingredients as well.  The french fries get most of their corn content from the oil they are fried in. Considering that human beings are omnivores, that’s a disturbingly high proportion of our diet that is derived from a single plant.

The second section of the book focuses on a small alternative agriculture farm in Virigina, while taking a brief look at the gigantic organic industrial farming system that has arisen.  The Polyface farm is beyond organic in many ways.  Unfortunately, the holistic farming practices used by the Salatin family do not scale to fit the larger industrial farms in many ways.

The look at Salatin’s Polyface farm, which features a nearly closed cycle of great biodiversity contrasts greatly with that of the corporate-based monocultural systems of corn, beef, pork and poultry seen in the first section.  Where Salatin’s farm recycles the waste from the livestock, and uses it to enrich the environment of his farm and the livestock and land therein—the waste from the industrial concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) becomes highly toxic environmental waste that serves no good purpose and can destroy surrounding environments if released as seen in this recent news story.

Polyface farms uses a more natural approach that is clearly sustainable over the long term.  The vast additions of artificial fertilizers, antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals required by the industrialized large-scale monoculture farms and CAFOs is not required.  Salatin’s approach to farming is clearly far better for the environment, and requires far less energy—in the form of fossil fuels, which are used in the production of most of the chemicals used in industrial agriculture—to sustain it. The only real input to his farm is some additional grain for use as chicken feed.  Much of what would become toxic waste on a CAFO is recycled instead—Polyface farm has no need of a toxic manure waste lagoon.

Pollan also examines the quality of the food coming from the both the predominantly corn-based industrial food supply and the alternative, more environmentally friendly agricultural systems.  The comparisons of food that is produced by the modern industrial agribusiness—cattle being fed food they were not evolved to eat along with antibiotics and artificial growth hormones, and plants that are being raised using fertilizers and pesticides—and that of food being produced by alternative, more “organic” farming methods is eye-opening.  A carrot is clearly not a carrot.  How they are grown and where has drastic effects on the nutrition the food can provide.

I’ll report back when I’ve finished the book.  Serious food for thought about food in the book thus far though.




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