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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Update 5/23/2010 Terrific piece by Michael Pollan in the NYRB June 10, 2010, "The Food Movement, Rising" in which he reviews five books: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, Terra Madre: Forging a New Global Network of Sustainable Food Communities, All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, Eating Animals

I am beginning to wallow and bask in the mire of food politics, subject of Pollan's piece. It's interesting to read the comments section after any article dealing with meat or vegetarianism. One can almost see the participants spitting on each other. It's like watching Mormon fundamentalists defend polygamy to the College of Cardinals. To quote Troy Duster (from Pollan's piece) "No movement is as coherent and integrated as it seems from afar, and no movement is as incoherent and fractured as it seems from up close." And as we learned from OD, food is all politics from the huge changes initiated by the Nixon administration to bring down the price of food to Michelle Obama's efforts to change the way kids eat. As long as there is government to promote the interests of one group or another, there will be these kinds of battles, but I doubt any of us would wish the total absence of regulation desired by Joel Salatin - except maybe Rand Paul.

It's an interesting communitarian movement, perhaps a throwback to the sixties, but one that appeals to both right and left: the desire to localize and remove oneself from the larger society. That is largely what I meant when I referred elsewhere to Pollan's book as a Libertarian Manifesto. In his 2006 book Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, ... America, Rod Dreher identifies a strain of libertarian conservatism, often evangelical, that regards fast food as anathema to family values, and has seized on local food as a kind of culinary counterpart to home schooling.

Major editing 5/23/2010 about half the content identical to my review of Foer's Eating Animals.

minor editing 4/16/10

Let's see, things we can't or shouldn't eat: butter, steak, meat, spinach because of the salmonella (or maybe it's only the organic spinach that gets contaminated), apples because of the alar, salt, sugar, fat, any food not bought at a farmer's market, any food bought at a non-union grocery, any food bought at a chain, any food that's not organic, any food that's labeled organic by the USDA because their standards aren't strict enough, kosher food, non-kosher, non-grass fed beef (and now we've learned that grass-fed beef is salmonella contaminated, too -,) pasteurized milk, raw milk, etc. etc),

This issue seems to engender as much animosity as whether communion should be allowed to non-Catholics. Factions abound, each with a slightly different take on the issue: those who believe eating meat is immoral; those who believe eating meat from factory farms is immoral; those who believe eating meat is immoral because it's environmentally unsound; those who believe eating meat is bad for your health; those who believe eating meat is fine; those who believe eating some kinds of meat is fine; those who believe eating meat is immoral because animals are sentient beings; and those who think the issue is cultural rather than moral or environmental. How to reconcile these views and where does each of the authors take a stance. All of these views represent a moral position, i.e. a personal one in which the believer needs to persuade others of the necessity of adopting his view to the exclusion of the others and convince that not to do so will result in calamity. Up front we have to recognize that only people who have tons of food available, i.e., the rich, would even consider any of the positions.

Let me state my biases up front. I am very skeptical of any argument that proposes calamity will result if a particular position is not adopted. I am skeptical of moral arguments (not ethical ones). I believe that the most difficult decisions require choosing between grays, not black and white; that sentience as we understand it requires some form of self-awareness and we have little way to judge that in beings that we don't understand (can't communicate with) and that sentience varies tremendously across species, indeed across individuals within that species; and that pain as we understand it may be very different across animals and plants with structures. (David Foster Wallace in "Consider the Lobster" discusses scientific evidence that lobsters, because of their structure, may in fact feel a state of euphoria when being boiled rather than pain as we understand it.)

I worked on two dairy farms for several years, milking about 120 cows, both in stanchions and and parlors, dehorning calves, and shoveling shit. Contrary to Foer's claims, cows are not treated regularly with antibiotics. A test tube of milk coming out of the farmer's tank is pulled before loading on the truck, and this is tested at the plant before being mixed with the rest, and if any suspicion of antibiotic is found, the entire load is dumped and the farmer loses the value of the entire load. We were meticulous about dumping milk from any treated cow (usually for mastitis) for the required period before selling it. Those who think drinking raw milk is the answer are asking for trouble. We did, but that was probably stupid. Besides that I saw what was in the strainer sometimes. None of that milk is tested and come on folks, there's a good reason why we started pasteurizing milk. It saved a lot of lives. I don't have any experience with feedlots, but I do know that stress on animals is to be avoided at all costs as it slows the rate of growth, cuts profits, and leads to disease.

It's impossible to discuss these books in a vacuum, and I need to start out by making clear several assumptions:

1. Humans are omnivores biologically and, in fact, only very recently (say about 10,000 years ago) began to farm grains for food. Before that we were hunter/gatherers relying primarily on meat and berries.

2. Everything is interconnected. Just not eating meat will not even begin to address the issues of environmental degradation. Computers, roads, cars, pets, travel, ipods, plastics, toilet paper, etc., all have their downsides. If Foer and Pollan and Berry et all choose to emphasis one aspect of life and deliver broadsides against that particular activity that's fine as long as we understand that limiting that activity will have a minuscule effect on the environment. More effect would be had if all the hand-wringers stopped flying about the country wasting fuel and polluting the environment, just staying put. Problem is that apocalyptic thinking and lecturing is very profitable.

3. Environmental activism is very much a white, rich, western game. People who have no money and who live a hand-to-mouth existence can't afford to choose. The best way to promote conscious environmental action is by raising living standards around the world. It also reduces the rate of population growth.

4. My very strong bias is that the only practical solution to the myriad number of problems is technological. Some examples: algae oil is already being used successfully mixed with Jet-A by Continental Airlines and the results are a reduction in carbon-footprint of 60-80% and fuel efficiency of 1-2%; production of methane gas as an energy source (very clean burning) from large factory-farms, something not possible if the animals are parsed out in smaller farms where runoff occurs in large quantities, etc., etc.

5. We quite naturally tend to read and find books and data that support a preconceived opinion and avoid those that present an opposing view.

6. My other bias is that I'm very sympathetic to vegetarianism, not veganism, for I love my bread and butter and cheese way too much. I milked cows for several years, churned my own butter and would gladly have turned several fresh heifers into instant hamburger had I been able to after wiping their manure off my face. (If you've ever milked cows you know exactly what I'm talking about.)

NB: I have a problem with beliefs that are so strongly held that believers think they have to claim apocalypse will result if their beliefs aren't adopted by everyone. The Inuit diet consisted of meat alone and meat taken from what is clearly a sentient animal. To suggest they adopt a western, citified, cereal diet is wrong and ridiculous.

This is why one of my heroes is Norman Borlaug who virtually single-handedly began the green revolution that increased wheat yields spectacularly ( He DID something, unlike the Paul Ehrlichs who just ran around making a fortune proclaiming the sky is falling. ALL of Ehrlich's predictions have been wrong because of people like Borlaug.

I find the definition of what constitutes sentience to be worse than muddled and mixing up moral issues with that and environmental concerns makes the issues even murkier. There are clearly differences in "sentienceness" from one species to another (no one would argue that a snail has the same level of consciousness as a dog) and whether that should play any part in deciding what to eat or not makes an interesting debate. Personally, I wish the discussion would leave the realm of "morality" with its concomitant religious overtones and focus on the more rational (IMHO) environmental concerns.

I very much enjoyed Pollan, much to my surprise. (I actually listened to this and while Scott Brick is one of my favorite readers, he was all wrong for this book. Way too pedantic sounding.) A very interesting book with tons of detail (which I like) displaying the symbiotic relationship we have with corn and fossil fuels, a very destructive relationship, but one that nevertheless has allowed us to feed many, many more people than would have been possible otherwise. Ultimately, something will have to change, we cannot continue to use 1.5 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. Pollan emphasizes the mono-culture of corn but the same problems exist with the banana and other crops. In order to ship food to where it's needed requires products that mature at the same time, don't bruise easily, etc. He also shows that virtually all the food we eat has been genetically modified, if not at the gene level, certainly through seed selection, chosen for productivity , disease resistance, and a variety of other qualities.

I learned that in order to increase yields the nitrogen that was added was in the form of ammonium nitrate which existed as a surplus after world war two, no longer needed for explosives. That nitrogen leaches off the ground, into wells, (blue baby syndrome, too much nitrogen cause respiratory issues,) and into the water supply in other ways. (As an aside, no one around here uses much of that, preferring anhydrous ammonia injection directly into the soil with presumably much less runoff.)

I do have some issues with his very limited perspective on industrial farming, which he never defines, by the way. My neighbors, family farms all, farm thousands of acres. At what point does the size become optimum? Families run feedlots, too. My veterinarian has 40 steers in a feedlot. Is that a factory farm? They have the same conditions, the same feed, etc., as the larger feedlot a few miles away. It's almost as if Pollan had decided that farming on a grand scale was apocalyptic and then pulled together data to support his view. His data with regard to corn prices are woefully out of date. Just check commodity prices over the last five years. His choice of George Naylor must have required considerable searching in order to find someone who thought just the way he did.

The history of price supports and the switch under the Nixon administration from a "loan" program to direct payments was something I had completely forgotten and had no idea how much influence it would have on corn production. On the other hand, Butz's intent was to increase production to take the heat off Nixon following the huge increase in food prices as the price for corn had increased so dramatically.

All that being said, there's a lot of useful information, particularly with regard to government policy, and lots of fuel to support the libertarian side of the equation. There is no question that our over reliance on fossil fuels will get us into serious trouble very soon.

A final comment. All of the recent food books could only have been written by a society that doesn't have to worry about where its next meal is coming from.

The problem we have is scale. Wrigley just changed their gum wrappers from the little foil wrap to paper and thereby saved the equivalent of 60 million cans of aluminum. There's the problem in a nutshell

Fun trivia: the corn plant has 32,000 genes, more than humans. Astonishing. (Knowledge Magazine Mr/Apr 2010)
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