The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan
Awesome book. Deep dive into what we eat and where it comes from. I never thought I’d know this much about corn.
To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal’s pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.
Few plants can manufacture quite as much organic matter (and calories) from the same quantities of sunlight and water and basic elements as corn. (Ninety-seven percent of what a corn plant is comes from the air, three percent from the ground.)
Though we insist on speaking of the “invention” of agriculture as if it were our idea, like double-entry bookkeeping or the light-bulb, in fact it makes just as much sense to regard agriculture as a brilliant (if unconscious) evolutionary strategy on the part of the plants and animals involved to get us to advance their interests.
No part of the big grass went to waste: The husks could be woven into rugs and twine; the leaves and stalks made good silage for livestock; the shelled cobs were burned for heat and stacked by the privy as a rough substitute for toilet paper. (Hence the American slang term “corn hole.”)
If, as has sometimes been said, the discovery of agriculture represented the first fall of man from the state of nature, then the discovery of synthetic fertility is surely a second precipitous fall.
Assuming 534 continues to eat twenty-five pounds of corn a day and reaches a weight of twelve hundred pounds, he will have consumed in his lifetime the equivalent of thirty-five gallons of oil nearly a barrel. So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is a ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.
Of a dollar spent on a whole food such as eggs, $0.40 finds its way back to the farmer. By comparison, George Naylor will see only $0.04 of every dollar spent on corn sweeteners; ADM and Coca-Cola and General Mills capture most of the rest.
(Come to think of it, agribusiness has long since mastered this trick of turning petroleum into steak, though it still needs corn and cattle to do it.)
A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 5 7 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food.
carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true.
carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida. Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true. But in an agricultural system dedicated to quantity rather than quality, the fiction that all foods are created equal is essential.
The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do).
The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.
The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn’t take account of that meal’s true costto 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. If not for this sort of blind-man’s accounting, grass would make a lot more sense than it now does.
“Farming is not adapted to large-scale operations because of the following reasons: Farming is concerned with plants and animals that live, grow, and die.”
“Part of the problem is, you’ve got a lot of D students left on the farm today,” Joel said, as we drove around Staunton running errands. “The guidance counselors encouraged all the A students to leave home and go to college. There’s been a tremendous brain drain in rural America. Of course that suits Wall Street just fine; Wall Street is always trying to extract brainpower and capital from the countryside. First they take the brightest bulbs off the farm and put them to work in Dilbert’s cubicle, and then they go after the capital of the dimmer ones who stayed behind, by selling them a bunch of gee-whiz solutions to their problems.” This isn’t just the farmer’s problem, either. “It’s a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons.”
“You have just dined,” Emerson once wrote, “and how ever scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”
As a society we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselvesabout a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s. Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world. This suggests that there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food if we chose to.
Yet this artisanal model works only so long as it doesn’t attempt to imitate the industrial model in any respect. It must not try to replace skilled labor with capital; it must not grow for the sake of growth; it should not strive for uniformity in its products but rather make a virtue of variation and seasonality; it shouldn’t invest capital to reach national markets but rather should focus on local markets, relying on reputation and word of mouth rather than on advertising; and lastly, it should rely as much as possible on free solar energy rather than costly fossil fuels.
Since “everything that is edible is at the mercy of his vast appetite,” Brillat-Savarin writes, “the machinery of taste attains a rare perfection in man,” making “man the only gourmand in the whole of nature.”
Several years ago, in a book called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, sociologist Daniel Bell called attention to the tendency of capitalism, in its single-minded pursuit of profit, to erode the various cultural underpinnings that steady a society but often impede the march of commercialization.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests we can draw a distinction between pain, which a great many animals obviously experience, and suffering, which depends on a degree of self-consciousness only a handful of animals appear to command. Suffering in this view is not just lots of pain but pain amplified by distinctly human emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread.
Indeed, it is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of naturerather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our soulsthen eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.
This was not just the stink of pig shit or piss but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it.
As Ortega writes in his Meditations, hunting plunges us into the intertwined enigmas of death and animals, enigmas that admit of no easy answers or resolution. This for him is the wellspring of the hunter’s uneasiness: “He does not have the final and firm conviction that his conduct is correct. But neither, it should be understood, is he certain of the opposite.”
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