02 October 2011

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I finally did it! I finally finished The Omnivore's Dilemma. I felt a little out of touch because I hadn't read this sooner (or faster). Michael Pollan's provided such a rich, wonderful, and ultimately scary description of the modern food system. The feedlot and CAFO issues are something I've known about for years: I worked with small family farmers and communities in Iowa and we were often fighting to keep these types of confinement structures out of the community due to economic and environmental impacts. I even worked with George Naylor, who features prominently in the first third of Pollan's book.

I did not, however, know about how much corn is in our food. It's everywhere and it's disturbing. Nate and I try to limit the amount of processed foods we eat. I make a lot of stuff from scratch, save for things like pasta and bread and whatnot. We don't eat fast food either. Benny has never been to McDonald's or any other fast food chain. That's not to say we don't consume plenty of processed foods, but Pollan's book gives me plenty of reasons to continue to make things from scratch.

While Pollan puts much of the blame for the current food system of the government, I am conflicted about how much the farmer fits into this picture. My dad is a farmer. He's the son of a farmer and the grandson of a farmer. The way he farms has changed drastically even since I moved away from home. He uses industrialized methods and he is paying big prices for using big tractors and lots of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. He is certainly part of the system. He has switched from producing many edible things - like dried beans, sunflowers, and other crops, to almost strictly planting corn and beans. Those are the subsidized crops. In order to make a living he plants more and more of those two crops.

It is clear from Pollan's account how much needs to change systemically, culturally, and economically for this to change. People need to start buying local food and supporting local farmers. The government needs to stop paying subsidies to huge corporations and start supporting small, local farmers.

The book is a great read and I learned quite a bit. I was a little disappointed with the final chapter. Pollan makes a meal from hunting and foraging food. It's a little too existential to me and it watered down the earlier accounts of what is happening to food in America.

I was having a conversation with a co-worker a few months back about the politics of food. She looked at me like I was crazy. I guess it will take a lot of education to make most Americans realize that being conscious of what they're eating is a political decision. Overall, it was a great book.


Amanda said...

I finished it a few months ago. Even if you consider yourself an "educated eater" this book blows your mind away.

I love how Pollan points out the farmer's conundrum of growing more corn and soy to make more money, even though it actually costs more to produce those crops than what they get back. But ultimately I totally agree that we somehow need to get back to investing in small, local farms that are producing REAL FOOD. I'm at a loss at to how we will defeat big agribusiness lobby arms though...

Sara Struckman said...

Me too. Those lobby arms are everywhere and besides, most people are completely oblivious. We've lived with cheap, crappy, convenient food for too long...