Book review: Righteous Porkchop June 11, 2012Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, book review, Food ethics
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In Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, Nicollette Hahn Niman layers an amusing memoir of her journey from New York lawyer to California rancher over an investigative journalism-style exposé of conventional animal farming. Hahn Niman does a pretty good job of interweaving these two projects, so we wind up doing what I suspected she was hoping for in writing this book: absorbing the important but often dry facts about the modern livestock industry without dying of boredom.
Hahn Niman’s tone is at times self-deprecating and at times earnest, but always engaging and forthright. I find her a kindred spirit, which is perhaps not surprising given that her priorities are exactly the same as mine. Animal welfare is priority number one; sustainability comes second; and local comes nowhere on the list. As she points out, local farms and slaughterhouses can exemplify the worst evils of the factory farm industry. Smithfield’s pig CAFOs, which Hahn Niman profiles, are local for the North Carolinians unfortunate enough to live near them. And sometimes meat is marketed as local even if components of it, like feed and manure, are transported long distances.
Hahn Niman discusses all the major species used for food in the US and her analyses mostly hit the mark. She doesn’t attempt to catalogue every welfare concern with raising animals conventionally for food, so readers shouldn’t assume that RP tells the whole story. (For example, she doesn’t touch on the ubiquity of hunger in the breeding stock of meat chickens, which I consider to be one of the biggest problems.) After pointing out the flaws in the conventional industry, Hahn Niman showcases the virtues of humane, sustainable family farms and ranches like the one she lives on. Versus someone like Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, she recognizes that animals’ lives can be worth living (and therefore it can be morally acceptable for us to raise them for food) even if they’re not perfect. “Of course…there will be moments of stress, discomfort, and pain. But such moments will be part of every animal’s life, including every human’s.” (140) Couldn’t have said it better myself.
One thing that might rankle for some of her readers, though, is that despite making all the right noises about eating ethically-produced meat, Hahn Niman is herself a long-standing vegetarian. She argues that meat-eating is morally justified because it is enshrined in the natural order of things. She sees “ospreys, hawks, bobcats, and coyotes” eating other animals on her ranch all the time (258), and accepts human omnivorism as part and parcel of nature’s rhythms. Two criticisms of that very common line of thought: first, other species don’t have the capacity for moral judgment, so their actions cannot be taken as a model for humans, who do have that ability. Animals also sometimes eat their own young; that doesn’t mean it’s OK for humans to do so. Second, Hahn Niman’s philosophical support for eating meat makes one wonder why she eschews it, and the fact that she does might make her seem insincere. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but I could see how some readers would be.
If you’re looking for a good solid (but not exhaustive) discussion of conventional animal farming and its alternatives that’s also a diverting read, RP is a good place to start.
Book review: No Impact Man May 16, 2012Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: book review, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming
My first thought on reading the opening pages of Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man: yet another unflinchingly honest look in the mirror from a liberal with an overactive conscience. It seems to be the zeitgeist these days (think Eating Animals, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). In the end, though, the book turned out to be, dare I say it, insightful.
Disclaimer: NIM is only glancingly relevant to the topic of this blog. As part of his project to live his life without using up any of the earth’s resources, Beavan does embrace no-impact eating, but he doesn’t touch on debates about the sustainability of meat and dairy. He merely notes that the UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” blames modern beef production for a large part of climate change, and decides to go vegetarian.
But since I read it all anyway, I may as well give my two cents on NIM. For about the first two-thirds, I seesawed between enjoying anecdotes like the one about the chaos that ensued when he brought his own Tupperware to the grocery store, and being annoyed at his proselytizing. I also found his discoveries of how scaling back changed his life a bit too good to be true. Amazingly, every sacrifice Beavan and his family made on the altar of sustainability ended up making their lives easier, tastier… happier! Apparently, there was no convenience of our modern, unsustainable lifestyles – not TV, nor cars, nor air conditioning, nor toilet paper – that the Beavan family missed in the slightest. Really? But I turned around when Beavan finally admitted that going without a washing machine was no fun at all.
And in the last third of the book, I connected with what he hit upon as the real reason for our consumerist, more-is-better (unsustainable) habits: that the race to get more, more, more gives us something to distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t know what the hell the meaning of our lives is. Oh, and that the things we really care about (our health, our children) can be snatched from us by a stray bacterium or a neuron that forgets to fire.
Any book that reminds us of these fundamental truths in a fresh and immediate way is worth a read, so I’ll give a thumbs-up to NIM.
Book review: Slaughterhouse March 23, 2012Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, book review, Food ethics, slaughterhouses
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It sucks that the people who most need to read this book will never pick it up. The people who most need to read it are the ones who eat meat and dairy from conventional producers, and they’ll never pick it up because the title will scare them off. In fact, I’m not sure who would pick up this book, other than already converted vegans looking for something to confirm their righteous anger at the livestock industry.
And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot to learn from Slaughterhouse. Author Gail Eisnitz, an avowed animal welfare activist who counts the Humane Society of the US and the Humane Farming Association among her employers, set out to expose violations of the federal Humane Slaughter Act at American slaughterhouses. Much of the book consists of interviews with slaughterhouse employees that reveal a morally and physically disgusting industry in which live animals are subjected to no end of abuse. I was prepared for some pretty gory stuff as I dug into Slaughterhouse, but nonetheless felt my stomach drop reading snippets like this one from Donny Tice, a “sticker” (guy who slits animals’ throats) at the Morell packing plant in Sioux City, IA:
One time I took my knife – it’s sharp enough – and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my hand – I was wearing a rubber glove – and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. (p. 93)
OK, so abuse occurs at slaughterhouses, but I knew that before opening the book. What I was hoping Eisnitz would illuminate was how widespread inhumane treatment was. Industry representatives often try to write off people like Tice as bad apples in a mostly good industry.
But the breadth of Eisnitz’s research and the range of her sources convinced me that problems like animals getting “stuck,” hung by their hooves on hooks, and even scalded or skinned while still alive are not exceptions. Eisnitz interviews employees of five slaughter plants and two hog farms, stretching geographically from Florida to Washington state. One is owned by Smithfield and another by Tyson. Eisnitz also talks with USDA officials who are willing to admit that welfare issues are not isolated occurrences, but endemic problems.
But why do people treat these animals so horribly? Eisnitz rarely indicts the line workers, choosing instead to blame their supervisors, who want to maximize production at any cost. She also asks why the USDA, which has staff at each and every plant to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act, so rarely stops the abuse. Again, she refrains from blaming the inspectors themselves, and in fact documents them complaining to their supervisors and even to other agencies. She points out that the USDA has an inherent conflict of interest (something I’ve written about before here) and that agency bigwigs are often plucked straight from the companies they’re supposed to regulate. Case in point: JoAnn Smith, former president of the National Cattlemen’s Association and a client of one of the slaughterhouses profiled by Eisnitz, became Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the USDA’s Marketing and Inspection Services. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.
So, Slaughterhouse is eye-opening. If you can stomach it, read it. But do yourself a favor – not at bedtime.
Book review: Eating Animals April 22, 2010Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, book review, Food ethics, slaughterhouses
Once I read this book I had to forgive Jonathan Safran Foer for stealing my original blog name for its title. (For a brief moment in time before it became From Animal To Meat, this blog was called Eating Animals.) Well, since he was working on the book for a couple of years before the blog even became a twinkle in my eye, I guess he didn’t really steal it, but still.
Eating Animals is pretty wonderful, in a grim, gory, factory-farm exposé sort of way. From my own research, I’d say Safran Foer’s descriptions of the revolting underside of conventional livestock production are not sensationalized but merely accurate. He also stresses, and often has statistical data to back up, the depressing frequency of inhumanity. For example, he notes that welfare auditor Temple Grandin reported in 1988 that she’d witnessed “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32% of the slaughter plants she’d visited. After over a decade of supposed improvements, reviews and audits in 2005 and 2008 revealed inhumane treatment at 26% of chicken slaughterhouses and 25% of cattle facilities.*
What I find even more intriguing about EA than its revelations on factory farming, though, is that Safran Foer asks tough questions about the purportedly humane alternatives. Unlike Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who uncritically champions small-scale, back-to-nature farming, Safran Foer examines these methods with a gaze just as penetrating as the one he applies to factory farming. What he finds is that in almost all cases, even the most compassionate farmers still brand, castrate, and dehorn their cattle, or rely on unscrupulous breeders to supply their stock. For him, this is a reason to turn away from eating meat and advocate vegetarianism. (Why he doesn’t take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and promote veganism, I’m not sure. His failure to even mention it is a disappointing omission.)
This is where I part ways with Safran Foer. He would subject the livestock industry to an impossibly high standard – guaranteeing a completely pain-free life and death to its animals – to justify consuming its products. But no life, whether on the farm or in the wild, whether animal or human, is completely free from suffering. That inescapable fact does not imply that no life is worth living. If the lives we provide farm animals are reasonably good, the unattainability of perfection should not keep us from breeding, raising, and, yes, killing them for food.
Respectful disagreements aside, thanks and kudos to Safran Foer for confronting the issue honestly and thoughtfully. I just hope the title of his book doesn’t deter those who perhaps haven’t been as reflective about their own omnivorous habits from picking it up.
Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle February 18, 2010Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, Animal welfare, book review, environment, Food ethics, organic
Barbara Kingsolver has created a paean to fresh, local food with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I harbor some serious misgivings about the locavore movement (see February 5′s post) but Kingsolver’s loving descriptions of the vegetables and birds she and her family coax through life and death inspired a yearning for fresh, homegrown food in even this grouchy urbanite. If food delights you – not just in the eating, but in the seeing and smelling and preparing – you will revel in this book, not for its arguments in favor of locavorism, but for its mouthwatering portrayal of what a year of local, seasonal food in southern Appalachia is like.
That’s really what the bulk of AVM is devoted to, in all its fascinating detail: untangling the mysteries of turkey hatching, celebrating the first vegetable of spring (the reedy asparagus), struggling to prevent boisterous zucchini from overtaking your summer kitchen. It’s lovely, all of it. And if Kingsolver stopped at the pure celebration of all this wonderful food, I would have no bone to pick with her book. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. She insists that we should all participate in the creation of what we eat as she does: by growing it (or at least purchasing it from local growers) and by making it from scratch in the kitchen. Although she doesn’t identify what type of imperative this is, whether moral, spiritual, or cultural, it’s clear that she thinks that a life spent in intimate communion with food is, in some deep sense, superior to one that’s not.
Kingsolver isn’t the first or the only food writer to make this point; Michael Pollan enjoins us to tend gardens and Mark Bittman wants us to spend more time in the kitchen. But this review is about Kingsolver’s book, so I’ll pick on her. The injunction that we should all devote more time to communing with food seems to have something to do with how central it is to our survival, but no one suggests that we all need to be experts on construction because shelter is central to our survival. It’s ridiculous to think that we would somehow be better people if we all took part in building our own homes, so why do we become better people if we all take part in building our own meals? Why not leave it to the experts, if we don’t happen to enjoy it?
That’s another thing: Kingsolver seems to be incredulous that someone could garden or cook and actually discover that they don’t like it. She agrees that women’s liberation means that “…we’ve earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food was cooked and eaten, these were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater.” I have to say that for yours truly, no chore, not even dusting, is more stupefying than chopping veggies. Does that make me hopelessly out of touch with the meaning of life?
Not only is it possible to dislike preparing food, it’s also possible to be bad at it. That otherwise unassailable people can turn to be bad cooks or bad gardeners brings up a third failing of Kingsolver and her peers: in their haste to erect a democracy of food preparation, they don’t give themselves enough credit for having something not everyone has: talent. There is such a thing as a green thumb, and why must you force yourself on unsuspecting lettuces if you don’t have it?
There are some other inconsistencies in AVM which are common to the local/seasonal food movement. Kingsolver attacks us for our lack of restraint in eating foods regardless of seasonality; we tell our teens, she says, to wait before having sex, but these are “…words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now.” Yet her own approach to winter is to can 60-plus jars of tomato sauce so that her family can, well, enjoy tomatoes out of season. She touts the idea of a native food culture, yet offers recipes from cuisines that originated in places as diverse as Asia, South America, and Europe. She champions using local ingredients, and this is probably the ideal she most consistently upholds. But if her reason for doing so is to save on all the energy used in transport, which she alludes to a couple of times, she must respond to the critique of the locavore movement that points out that transport is one of the food chain’s smallest gas guzzlers. The energy used for fertilizers and for kitchen food preparation each dwarf it. Kingsolver devotes exactly one paragraph of this 350-page book to acknowledge these issues, and in it chooses to pooh-pooh them rather than discuss them.
Read AVM to relish the miracles that daily spring out of the ground to feed us. Just don’t be lulled into believing that you’ve found more than that.
Book review: Just Food December 10, 2009Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, book review, carbon footprint, climate change, environment, Food ethics, Global warming, organic
James McWilliams styles Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly as a heroic underdog’s battle against the popular but shallow and misguided eat-local movement. He would love to drink the Kool-Aid and spend his afternoons lolling about the farmers market, he tells us, but his gosh-darned integrity just won’t allow him to sink mindlessly into the morass of locavorism.
Unfortunately his laziness won’t allow him to sustain a compelling argument for an alternative either. He briefly discusses the intriguing alternative of life-cycle assessments, according to which all the energy costs, not just the ones involved in transporting food over long distances, are calculated to determine how environmentally friendly a food is. McWilliams is of course right that it is better to look at all energy costs than only the portion that locavores are concerned with. But without a life-cycle grade on every piece of food we buy (which the government of Sweden is implementing, but is not available elsewhere in the world), how is the consumer supposed to rank the different contributions to energy use that go into food production? Should I buy a fish caught by an ocean trawler – a huge energy sink – if I can save household energy by searing it for only a couple of minutes on the stove, or should I buy dried pinto beans whose production is relatively green, but which require simmering for two and a half hours? McWilliams isn’t offering us any help here; discussing the energy-intensive components of food production, McWilliams says “these findings leave one wondering how much energy could be saved if we threw out less food, cooked smaller amounts, ate less in general, used energy-efficient ovens and refrigerators, composted all organic matter not eaten, and developed more energy-efficient menus…” Yes, they leave one wondering because McWilliams hasn’t bothered to do the calculation for us, or even helped us rank these sometimes competing priorities.
The annoying habit of substituting rhetorical questions for tough analysis pops up at other intervals in JF. When discussing – and dismissing – the possibility of scaling up local food production, McWilliams asks “…how could any storage and distribution service stay in business if it depended on seasonal produce from small growers spread over a vast region?” Well, I don’t know McWilliams, how about interviewing regional grocery chains like Lunds that are incorporating local food into their assortment to find out how their distribution chains handle it? Again, when he reviews sustainable, free-range methods of pig farming, he wonders whether all pig farming could be this way, saying that to answer that question, “One could begin by asking if the resources, labor, expert knowledge, patience, and land exist for the world to convert to such forms of pork production while maintaining the same rates of meat consumption. We don’t have the answer to this hypothetical question…” Well, we could at least begin to answer it by multiplying annual pig consumption by the average number of acres required to raise free-range pigs in places that are already doing so. And we could interview free-range pig farmers to find out how much labor they use to manage their pigs. We could, but McWilliams chooses not to.
McWilliams’ analysis is lazy in other ways, too. He cites secondary sources of important research rather than going straight to the original studies, for example when he discusses Charles Benbrooke’s work on GM soybean yields. I’ll admit that this is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s a non-trivial concern. Had McWilliams read Benbrooke’s actual report, published five years before his own book, he would have seen that Benbrooke found that herbicide application rates on GM soybeans actually went up after the initial few years of adoption, and not down, as McWilliams states.
Perhaps I’m too harsh of a critic here; McWilliams does have some interesting things to say about aquaculture, for example, and the promise of aquaponics to sustainably provide protein for a ballooning world population. The section on subsidies and how their structure should be changed to level the playing field between environmentally costly and environmentally friendly foods makes a lot of sense, although McWilliams fails to own up to the fact that in this case, leveling the playing field means increasing the prices consumers will pay for currently cheap food. Since its expense is one of the most common challenges thrown to advocates of sustainable eating, it’s a big one to ignore.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to cut McWilliams a break, especially when he has so little faith in his readers. At the end of the first chapter, when he discusses initiatives to reduce the cost of food transport like using bigger trucks, he says to us “And you’re thinking to yourself, Yawn.” If he doesn’t credit his readers with the attention span or interest level to delve deeply into these issues, then why write this book for them?
Book review: In Defense Of Food November 12, 2009Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, book review, organic
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I’m cheating a bit by posting a review of Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, on this blog. The book doesn’t focus on food ethics, but is mostly a commentary on food history and culture, so its topic is tangential to mine. But it’s Michael Pollan, so I can’t resist at least giving it a mention (insert sheepish shrug).
Pollan kicks off IDOF with an attack on nutritionism, the notion that we can explain everything important about food in terms of its component nutrients. The arrogant assumption accompanying nutritionism is that scientists can create a comprehensive list of everything human health requires and then engineer foods – or processed food-like substances – that deliver them to us, thereby making and keeping us healthy. Pollan lays bare the sad history of scientists’ attempts to do so, culminating in the advice to avoid fat and cholesterol that has so influenced the American diet over the past 30 years and is in the process of being debunked. He follows that up with a discussion of the current western diet and its links to the western diseases: heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. And finally, he gives some advice for how we should eat instead.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan proves himself a lyrical writer capable of evoking the misery of the feedlot or the electricity of the hunt, but in IDOF he is best when he sticks to pure journalism, as when he reveals the absurdity of the scientific community’s reliance on a couple of obviously flawed studies to shape Americans’ eating habits for generations. He anticipates and convincingly deflects challenges, like the oft-heard proposal that we are only seeing more cases of heart disease and cancer because health care advances cause people to live longer, and older. (As Pollan points out, life expectancy has mostly increased because infant and childhood death rates have dropped, not because people who would have died at 50 are now living to 70 and getting cancer in their old age.) He takes the care to document evidence that lazier writers merely gesture at – for example, the studies that show that conventional produce is becoming less nutritious over time.
One does get the feeling that his huge success has taken a small toll on the quality of his writing. Pollan has a few shrill or self-indulgent moments, which I haven’t noticed in his previous work. (Do we really need to be prodded along with “Say what?” (p. 43) and “Do I need to go on?” (p. 189) to appreciate Pollan’s points?) Also, his closing advice on how to eat needs more thought. He wants us to embrace a traditional food culture, but also to eat healthily, and is thrown off by cases in which those two ideals conflict, as they may in his own traditional Eastern European Jewish diet. Still, if you’re interested in the topic, he is the one to read.
Book review: Skinny Bitch September 13, 2009Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, book review, Food ethics
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How far a good title will take you. Even when you disavow it in the last chapter, as Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do in Skinny Bitch, their New York Times best-selling tirade against unhealthy food, animal cruelty, and the irresponsible government that lets it all happen. As Freedman and Barnouin state, despite repeated admonishments throughout the book to “Get Skinny” they only use the skinny thing as a ploy to get people to buy the book. They really want you to Get Vegan.
So if, as a reader, you can get over being suckered into buying a book you didn’t want to read, is it worth reading? Yes and no. If you like cardio classes taught by drill sergeant cut-the-crap types, you’ll probably like the tough-love writing style. Just be prepared that the content is entirely one-sided. The “facts” are not always facts. (For example, SB claims, “Half of all antibiotics made in the United States each year are administered to farm animals, causing antibiotic resistance in the humans who eat them.” But the link between animal antibiotic use and human resistance, though plausible, has never been proven.) The sources are too often secondary and have their own predictably extreme orientation (e.g., “Milk Sucks” from PETA.org).
Having said that, SB does effectively expose the machinations of the USDA, the EPA, and the FDA to keep the meat industry running at all costs. And the many quotes from the book Slaughterhouse are a grimly hard-hitting reminder of why this all matters in the first place. So SB may be worth a skim, with your BS radar on.
Book review: Dominion August 17, 2009Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, book review, Food ethics
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Matthew Scully offers what is often termed “the Christian Right defense” of animal welfare in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Expecting to open the book to an account that, while perhaps academically interesting, would be irrelevant for a secularist like myself, I was surprised at how little Scully’s argument relies on Christian faith. He engages in a mere ten pages of biblical exegesis in a 400-page book, and that to refute Christians who conveniently interpret Genesis as an invitation to “go forth and subdue.” The rest of the book is relevant for any believer in the virtues of compassion and mercy.
In defending mercy toward animals, Scully shows none of it to those who exploit them: the game hunters, whalers, factory farmers, and scientists who have a deluded and self-interested vision of animal welfare if they have one at all. He is at his best exposing the idiocy of tired truisms so often trotted out to dismiss concern for animals, as in this rejoinder to those who think that concern for animal cruelty comes from a soft urban mindset that shrinks before the harsh reality of rural life: “Another way of looking at this is that the ‘urban’ types are not steeped in the ways of blood spilling and have no financial and emotional attachments to the practices in question. In other contexts, that’s usually called objectivity.” And responding to the criticism that people who care about animals don’t care about people: “…as if for every dolphin spared from the net a homeless person must go unfed, or as if the people who make such accusations are themselves to be found devoting every spare moment to the uplift of their fellow man.” The sarcasm doesn’t drip, it courses from the page.
He is less convincing when addressing the question of cruelty in the natural world. Rightly pointing out that the fact of cruelty between animals does not justify similar behavior from rational, reflective humans, he fails to consider the possibility that some human use of animals for food or sport hunting may be a less cruel fate for them than what would lie in wait in the natural world. He dismisses the possibility of raising the world’s supply of livestock humanely in one sentence. He rejects the potential solution to protecting endangered species offered by making their protection profitable for, say, game parks in South Africa. Granting his point that it would be better if people just protected animals out of the goodness of their hearts, we probably need to realize that not everyone will have enough goodness to work with, and give them other incentives.
Finally, Scully does not tend to brevity, making Dominion at times a bit of a slog. Ultimately it’s worth the effort, though, to relish his biting wit and no-holds-barred argumentation.
Book review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma August 17, 2009Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: agriculture, animal ag, animal rights, Animal welfare, book review, Food ethics
If you haven’t yet read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (aka the Foodie Bible), get your nose out of your bag of Kettle Chips and go pick it up. Books like this are made for people like you.
Pollan’s project is to trace the food chains behind four meals: the fast-food meal, the “big organic” meal, the grass-fed pastoral meal, and the hunted/gathered meal. In the process he fascinates us with descriptions of corn sex and cowpatties in a way that only someone truly in thrall to the natural world could. We shake our heads at the immense impact on our food of the minor players in the story: Fritz Haber (who invented the process for fixing nitrogen in fertilizer), Baron Justus von Liebig (who simplified soil fertility into three little letters, NPK), and Earl Butz (Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture, who set up the modern farm subsidy framework that enables us to eat so cheaply). We live the food chain side-by-side with Joel Salatin, hero of grass-based rotational grazing; Angelo Garro, hunter, wine-maker, and foodie extraordinaire; and #534, a steer Pollan bought to gain insight into Confined Animal Feeding Operations. To Pollan’s credit, not a single anecdote is superfluous; every character and subplot both engages and informs.
However, OD is much more than just a vivid representation of food production from many different perspectives. It is a call to action – to wake up and educate ourselves about the food we eat. Further, while Pollan refrains from urging us to use our newfound knowledge to drop our Chicken McNuggets in favor of delicacies like the Wild East Bay Yeast Levain in his hunted/gathered dinner, it’s pretty clear that he thinks that’s what anyone with any real gustatory sensibility or social conscience would do. Some call that foodie elitism; others call it good taste or good sense. A more serious critique often voiced against Pollan is that even if everyone wanted to heed his advice, only he and his Slow Food friends could afford to. And even if everyone could, does the earth have enough resources to produce food without the space-saving advantages of conventional agriculture? Pollan only lightly touches on these issues, but the virtue of OD is that it has succeeded in sparking this vital debate.
Similarly, Pollan is more suggestive than definitive when addressing the animal welfare concerns and environmental consequences of the food systems he investigates. He openly rejects utilitarianism, so he’s not in the business of meticulously weighing the costs and benefits of alternatives. This leaves the reader a bit vague about what values he’s relying on to make the judgment that we should change the way we eat. His tone hints at a mishmash of pastoral idealism, skepticism about corporate America and even capitalism itself, and (despite his disavowal) utilitarianism. If you’re looking for a more rigorous analysis of the issues that follows a strictly utilitarian calculus, Singer and Mason’s The Way We Eat, published the same year as OD, would be a better choice.
What makes OD still worth the read is precisely that Pollan is not a philosopher like Singer (or a PETA advocate, or a health nut). He’s an omnivore like most of us – who even occasionally gives in to fast food! – who has just thought a little more deeply about what we’re doing when we eat.