Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilema

I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilema. It was a fascinating and disturbing read.
It is divided into three parts. The first follows the path of corn in our country as it is regulated by the government to be one of the largest produced foods in our country. Our farms grow massive amounts of corn and, thanks to government regulation, risk bankruptcy to do so. Our pigs, chickens and cows are fed corn to try to consume some of the massive amounts of corn we have. And our food scientists develop process after process to squeeze every fiber of sugar and starch out of every kernel. The problem? Corn is a high calorie food that is simply energy. It makes more calories from the same air and water and soil than most other plants can. So the cows that eat it (not that they were naturally designed to) have more "marbling" or fat in their meat. The grocery store is stocked full of processed foods mostly made of sugars from corn. And the foods we eat are often worse for us having been made to such a great degree with this high calorie food. The obesity epidemic in this country should take a good hard look at the role corn and its sugars play in the American diet. And the voters should take a good hard look at how big government has played such a vital role in causing the modern obesity epidemic.

The second part of the book takes a closer look at the Organic food market as well as farms that strive to grow foods according to their nature. The chickens roam and eat bugs, the cows eat grass, etc. Local chefs praise such food products as being superior in color and taste. They do cost a bit more, though one farmer said he could compete better with lower prices if the government didn't try to regulate the small farm the way it does industrial food.

The third part, I found, a bit silly and impractical. He creates a multi-course meal from foods he has hunted or foraged or grown. The practicality of this for most people, or lack of practicality, made this section less interesting for me.

One important point he tries to make from a secular point but was heavy in my mind from a Catholic perspective is the social teaching that God made human beings the stewards of the earth and we have to question just how well we are fulfilling that role if we are keeping chickens in such small cages that they stress out to the point of hurting each other or if we are treating pigs such that they stress out to the point of eating each others' tails. No matter how you look at it, the human race is failing to be good stewards of the wonderful creation God has endowed to us. Just where is our respect for nature or for God in our food practices?

I think the point Pollan is really trying to drive home is to challenge us to ask ourselves just how much do we think about what we eat, where it came from and why we are eating it? Do we just grab something and chomp or is there some thought behind it? How much do we really know about what we put into our bodies? How much should we know? It is irresponsible to ourselves, to creation, and to God, to be so lazy regarding our own bodies and the creation around us to not consider the significance of their God-given value. Are we so focused on hi-definition and cell phones that we have become blind to what we put in our very flesh? If you are what you eat, what are we? For all the rants against government and big corporations, why do we blindly trust what they tell us to eat?

While I wasn't nodding with Pollan over every page, there was some great value to this book and it is worth reading, even if, like me, the part on corn sex does make you want to bang your head against the wall. There is definitely food for thought to be found in it's pages.

As a side note, Pollan recently put his 2 cents on the current healthcare reform rebate.
The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. ... But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.


I so wish people would stop asking the government to do everything. The government is fit to do very few things well and they demonstrate that time and time again.


  1. Funny, the part on corn sex was actually one of my favorite sections. I guess I'm a bit of a geek.

  2. lol, was there a part you wanted to bang your head over?

  3. The Pollan movement has its blind spots, but I think he's really done a lot to get shake people up. Once you start down the road of thinking about what you are eating, it really does totally flip your perspective. When we started eating grass-fed beef from a ranch we went to in person, my kids' eating habits changed. They started to like beef, instead of it being a constant fight because they wanted the mac and cheese or other junk food instead. And we wasted far less food, just naturally, because it was better food but also because throwing it out meant something. I had a harder time feeding them some processed, packaged food after a meal with real food. It's been interesting.

    The gathering food chapter made me doze, too, but I am starting to see it, now. We've got a ton of deer around here and I can really kind of see the cycles with the new births and the herd growing, there really is a natural rhythm that we are completely disconnected to when all our food comes from groceries.