Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I picked up a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma recently at my local library, and I must say it's a very eye-opening read. For those who don't know, The Omnivore's Dilemma is an examination of several of the paths taken by the food we eat; specifically the industrial path, the organic paths, and the foraging path. So far, I've gotten past the industrial section and am deep into the organic part.

The industrial section puts forth the thesis that pretty much all the processed food we eat (and in the book, "processed" extends to pretty much every conventional food item) derives from the massive quantities of corn that are grown by agribusiness every year. It goes into great detail about the governmental policies that have led to an oversupply of corn, and how the food industry goes about reducing that surplus. A review online had the comment "you'll never look at corn the same way", and I think I have to agree. Generally speaking, I subscribe to the shopping philosophy of "buy most of your stuff from the outer-rings of the market, and very little from the middle", so I don't buy a lot of what we usually think of as "processed" foods. Unfortunately, if the book makes you want to try and avoid corn in your food, you can't get away from it when you eat any kind of animal product, either. I don't know that "depressing" is the right word, but it does seem like something's a little out of whack with our conventional food supply.

Unfortunately, the organic section really doesn't do much to lift a reader's spirits. Apparently, a lot of the organic farms are very similar to conventional industrial farms in how they generate their product, and much of the marketing and labeling effort of organic foods goes into producing an aura of "feel-good"ism that probably isn't true. For example, the author talks about free-range chickens grown by a producer in California that only have access to "free-range" for a two week window of their (very short) seven week life span, and that most birds don't even range/forage at all. The feeling I get from the book is that if you're organic and want to make real money, you kind of have to buy into the conventional food industry model.
Pollan's description of "big organic" makes me wonder, though, about taste tests comparing organic to "processed" products (like tomatoes, or chickens), and how much selection bias plays into results where the organics win. I mean, from the book, the way an organic chicken lives sounds an awful lot like how the Perdue chickens my grandparents raised lived.

That's about as far as I've gotten. It's a good read, and it's compelling stuff. At the end of the day, I don't know what the answers are to the way we eat. Much like Fast Food Nation, the book gives you an overwhelming amount of information about how bad things are, but little (at least so far) in the way of solutions. Maybe the rest of the book gets more into that side of things, or maybe it's enough sometimes to describe a problem, and let others solve it. I don't know.
But I do recommend the book.

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