Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I am near the end of Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma and I must state that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed (am still enjoying) this book.  He examines the age-old question, What should we have for dinner?  In doing so, he explores a number of different choices that we can make.  Shall we eat fast food?  Organic?  Local?  Vegetarian?  Or shall we hunt for our food?  No matter the choice, there is no doubt that whatever we do has a direct impact on the environment.

If we eat fast food, we are buying into a complex agro-industrial machine that delivers not so much our fresh meat and vegetables, but laboratory managed and organized protein and vitamins that dulls the senses in terms of our own personal ethics.  Do any of us really want to look inside the industrial killing sheds of the large beef, pork, or poultry producers?  Do any of us want to do the killing?  Do we want to know how the food was handled from the farm to the drive through?

While it may seem logical that organically produced meats and vegetables would be better, the reality is that the industrial scale of organic food production is not all that different from standard food production in most instances.  Instead, the delivery of the feed, the growing of the crops are as much out of The Matrix as is the non-organic food.  The process is different, but the scale is often the same.

Of course, we could eat local foods and make an effort to buy as much as we can from small farmers.  However, such food is typically more expensive than food one could buy at a local grocery store.  Plus the means of getting the food are expensive:  more stops and greater travel distances.  Yet, overall, this seems to be the most ethical and healthy way to eat.

Then, there is the hunting and gathering approach to eating.  This too seems healthy and ethical if one buys into the belief, as I do, that hunting wild animals is moral.  Yet, if everyone took to the woods with a gun, the woods would not be able to sustain our population.

Of course, we could also choose vegetarianism, one of the most moral choices one could make from a food ethics viewpoint.  But here too, we run into the industrial, organic, and local questions as to access, food safety, and cost.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book was the subtle case the author makes as to the cultural significance of food in our moral lives.  He refers often to the traditional approaches to slaughtering or killing animals in the Jewish or Native American traditions.  With food being more of an industrial product in our society, we are divorced from the sources of food or the moral implications of its production.  Would we eat or waste as much if we took part in the production of the food, if we had to experience the slaughter of animals, or if we had a strong moral connection to food?

In a time when we are debating whether or not Taco Bell's meat contains meat it is hard to find broad moral connections around food in today's society.  Yet, there are those out there making exactly those connections.   Farmers, activists, community farm volunteers, farmers market enthusiasts, and others are participating in the start of a food revolution that has the potential to revolutionize food production in the developed world.

If consumers begin to select this type of food over others, I can imagine that some of the larger agricultural companies will begin to recreate the diversified family farm under a corporate umbrella.  While this may not be a particularly good thing for local farmers, there is no doubt that the emerging agriculturalists are somewhat dispersed and disorganized.  There is opportunity for investment and organizational leadership within this field.

Back now to Pollan's question, What's for dinner?  I can state that the answer has varied wildly throughout my life and I would imagine that is true for many.  Today, my food choices are the product of decades of cultural experiences.

1 comment:

Cherie said...

Hello Bobby!!! :)

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about The Omnivore's Dilemma. Honestly there is no one answer to what should be for dinner. In a country where quantity is valued more than quality, there seems little hope for change in the future. It is not as simple as just eating organic products, especially when most Americans cannot afford to spend almost double on their groceries in doing so. If you take away the fact that factory farms do not treat their livestock ethically, and just look at the fact that the meat produced is much more fatty and is filled with growth hormones and antibiotics, one can make an argument that eating these proteins is not the best choice for dinner. Sadly, there are more chickens in the world than there are humans. A fact precipitated by the demand for cheap meat. What can farmers do other than supply? And with a growing supply comes cutting corners in production methods. I think that with more education about the meat industry consumers can make better choices. Instead of eating a McDonald's hamburger Saturday night, why not buy certified organic buffalo meat instead? In any case the more people are informed the better as ignorance is not truly bliss.