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Book review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma August 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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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.


Book review: The Way We Eat August 11, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Peter Singer, author of the classic 1970s animal welfare text Animal Liberation, has teamed up with Jim Mason to write another book that should be a cornerstone of the animal welfare movement of its time. However, its publication in 2006, the same year as Michael Pollan’s celebrated Omnivore’s Dilemma, may have unfairly relegated it to relative obscurity.

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter is no vegan diatribe against meat; Singer and Mason honestly assess the food animal industry. Those who brand Singer as an extremist or radical will be surprised by his even-handed treatment of animal “growers” and his ungrudging praise for those who do it well. He credits pig farmers like Niman Ranch suppliers Mike Jones and Tim Holmes for creating farms where “pigs really can be pigs” and has mostly positive things to say about big retailers like Chipotle and Whole Foods who are serious about animal welfare. Further, against the liberal intellectual tide, he turns a critical eye to such sacred cows as eating local, eating organic, and the horrors of genetically modified foods. Though in the end he cautiously agrees with the standard liberal views of these practices, he presents the cons as well as the pros and does not pretend that the debates are satisfactorily closed.

Ultimately Singer does affirm a vegan diet as the optimal ethical choice, the one “sure way of completely avoiding participation in the abuse of farm animals.” He does this partly for environmental reasons, though he allows that a vegan diet is not necessarily better in this respect than a diet that “includes some organic animal products from animals grazing in a sustainable way on pasture that is unsuitable for growing crops.” His support for veganism is largely based on the hidden abuses that even most humanely-raised animals suffer: the killing of superfluous male chicks and perpetual hunger of breeder hens in chicken farming; the unanesthetized castration of male piglets in the pork industry; the short life spans of all farmed animals.

Singer is a philosopher, and his writing is never as lyrical, his anecdotes never as engaging, as a stylist like Pollan’s. Framing his investigation of the food animal industry as a peek into the pantries of three families – the standard Americans, the conscientious omnivores, and the vegans – is an attempt to personalize the project that ultimately distracts more than it illuminates. But his honest, unsentimental, and thorough examination of how we use animals for food makes The Way We Eat a must-read.

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