I've actually been reading a lot lately but have been neglecting my reviewing duties. Friends and family know that I've read this book, because I can't stop talking about it.
Michael Pollan is a writer for the New York Times. I heard him speak on the radio about our food and how it is made. It was intriguing and I picked up the book for our trip to Hawaii.
Basically, Pollan looks at how food gets to the supermarkets where the vast majority of Americans shop. The reality he explains is astounding. Now, before you think I'm just some hippy on the net hyping the latest granola-eating idea that comes down the pipe, let me describe my food habits. We buy the majority of our food at Pavilions and Ralph's supermarkets, with the occasional trip to Trader Joe's for unique items. We eat fast food a couple times a week as a family and I personally eat out every day at lunch. We do buy organic eggs and milk and when the opportunity arises 'free range' and organic meat.
In his examination of the corn industry, I was amazed at the absolute insanity of the system of corn farming. Due to the government's intervention on behalf of the large food processors (like ADM), the price of corn is less than the cost to grow it and the corn industry has become dependent on oil-based fertilizer (surprise!). The amount of corn produced is huge and the food processors invented high fructose corn syrup in the early 80s to find a use for all the corn produced. Today, with corn syrup in pretty much everything we eat, the new corn product being pushed is... ethanol (surprise!).
Next he looks at what the label 'organic' really means. Again, I found this fascinating. In short, organic just means that a farmer doesn't use pesticide or fertilizer on plants and doesn't use hormones or anti-biotics on animals. The majority of 'organic' food is still grown by mega-agribusiness in huge amounts. Thinking now about people that shop at places like Whole Foods get their food as opposed to the 'regular' supermarket is a bit funny. Organically labled food is the same whether you buy it at Safeway or Whole Foods. The silliness of it even gets bigger when you start thinking about buying organic out of season fruits that rode in exhaust spewing aircraft to get from South America to the US in the name of being 'healthier'.
I do have to say that buy buying organic, you are getting a product that doesn't have pesticides or fertilizers in them. That is a good thing, but organic foods are not the panacea to America's food problems.
Polland describes the Polyface farm as an example of a sustainable farming method that by all accounts is the best way you could hope to get your food. I have to admit I was enamored when reading it, but some of the concepts don't scale to amount of food needed to feed cities of hungry people. If I lived near Polyface Farm in Virgina, I'd go out of my way to buy their food. Pollan leads from hear into a brief desciption of the 'slow food' and 'eat local' movements. Both movements argue that eating food that is produced near to where you live is better in almost every way than eating food that is produced far away and shipped to you.
The point Polland makes about food labeling is superb. When was the last time you went to the store and saw the name of the farm where your oranges were grown? Was it in Florida or California? If you had questions about the farm where your 'free range' chicken was raised, who coudl you ask? Big agribusiness does not want you asking or thinking these kinds of questions. They want you to think that all eggs and oranges and apples and milk is exactly the same. You know this isn't true.
Why do you think the good chefs are picky about the food they cook with? It's because the little things matter in food. Honey made by bees that live near Clover is much different than the honey made by bees near tupelo. Beef from cows that eat grass is different than that from 'corn fed' cows.
After reading the book, I went to our local farmer's market with the kids. Sure enough, the people there could tell you exactly where the food came from, most of it local. But the selection just isn't there. Eating local means no corn in winter and no grapes in the spring. I liked the ideas, but it takes real effort to eat local and sustainably. It's more than driving to Whole Foods.
The last part of the book deals with hunting and gathering. This part was interesting, but not particularly revealing. Those that have qualms about eating meat yet do may find it deeper, but I came to grips with being carnivorous ethically long ago. Each person needs to make up their mind about eating meat. Either eat meat or go vegan I don't care, but I do care if you haven't given the matter some thought.
If you can't tell already, I highly recommend the book to anyone that has a passing interest in what they eat. If you haven't done much reading about food before, you won't be disappointed.
Pollan has a good weblog about these idea at the New York Times, but it's behind the pay wall where most people can't read it. We read the printed on paper Times, so we get to read it. It's a shame that the Times can't find sponors to make the column free to read.Posted by michael at June 04, 2006 07:58 PM