Saturday, December 31, 2011

Audiobook: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

[I listened to this as an audiobook which I highly recommend if you've got an Audible account, since so many of the other books on my reading list aren't available in that format, and it is nice to give the eyes some time off.]

The basic approach of tracking the path from an original plant in the ground through all the intervening stages and ending up on a plate is a way-cool method of structuring this information - I'm sure I wouldn't have made it through all the philosophy and ethics without the story to hold it together. A lot of the details are eye-opening, as in "I've kinda heard this before, in bits and pieces, but I've never given it much attention and I really didn't want to think about it."

Industrial Corn

This was a very uncomfortable listen. Incredibly cheap food means incredible economies of scale in food production, and that efficiency comes at the expense of farmer compensation, ethical treatment of food animals, diversity in diet, unhealthy caloric options, and huge quantities of fossil fuels.

Farming corn and soybeans is such a losing proposition that second jobs are needed to make ends meet - is that a farmer who drives a big rig, or is that a truck driver who has a multi-hundred acre farm hobby? It seems a strange world in which competing means chasing bigger and bigger yields (5 tons per acre - twice as much as Fukuoka's rice fields!) only to lose money more slowly.

Pollan draws a clean connection between governmental policies and the astonishingly huge surplus of corn that we produce every year. The theme of "how can we get rid of the corn" or more charitably "what opportunities does this reservoir of organic material offer us" runs through this section, and the answer is "everything is corn." The mass spectrometer results on a McDonald's meal are a testament to this - I wish he had carried through with the math a little further to get the weighted average, but even guessing the relative masses the meal is more than 50% corn in various forms.

To round it out - the fossil fuel cost, 10 calories burned for every calorie of food on the plate, is the most depressing statistic of all. Not a sustainable answer.

Industrial Organic

Again the economies of scale need to kick in, so that in many ways there is not much difference between big organic and non-organic food production - the organic certification establishes minimum standards, and as much as we'd like to imagine it differently, companies that want to be profitable will do the very least they have to in order to achieve the label.

But those minimums do have a meaning and a benefit - removing the pesticides, chemical fertilizer, antibiotics and hormones does produce food that is better for us and for the planet.

Except for the fossil cost. The energy costs on the farm are a little better, but once in the distribution stream to get to consumers we are still in the range of 7-10 calories burned for each one that is on the plate. Still not sustainable. I don't like the trend line here!

Small Organic - Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm

And here's the permaculture - Salatin's farm is an interconnected web of stacked functions that sounds amazing! Polyculture grasses at the heart of everything, with rotational grazing, chickens that follow the cows (on day 3, not day 4 - maximize the fly larvae egg size but on't let them hatch), pigs and hens that work with the rabbit manure, turkeys in the orchard. The thought and innovation in these systems is beautiful; by almost every measure of sustainability Salatin is a huge winner.

Wait, "almost?" Yep, though it might just be me. Salatin is a huge promoter of bioregionalism - he won't ship any of his meats ("Just because we can ship organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley, or organic cut flowers from Peru, doesn’t mean we should do it, not if we’re really serious about energy and seasonality and bioregionalism. I’m afraid if you want to try one of our chickens, you’re going to have to drive down here to Swoope to pick it up.") - and this is my only major quibble: no discussion of the last mile problem. One of his customers says: "I drive 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family." At 31,000 food calories per gallon of gas and 30 mpg, this one customer is burning 310,000 calories for his meat - he's got to drive off with over 46 pounds of beef or 59 pounds of chicken to do better than big organic's 7 calories of fossil fuel per calorie on plate.

That customer is an extreme case, and Salatin does sell at farmer's markets, local restaurants and buying clubs, so it is hard to imagine him doing more to minimize the effects of distribution, but I wanted a little discussion around one of the major complaints against industrial and big organic.

Quibble aside, I envy Pollan his week on the Polyface Farm, and I want all of my meat and eggs raised that way! I wish I lived near enough to be in his bioregion. Fortunately, I don't have to, and neither do you - Pollan mentions a website that helps you find the nearby farms that work like this - lots of transparency, and I'm eager to visit a few.


The last meal goes out the other side of sustainability and puts the personal pronoun into providing the food. I enjoyed his foray into vegetarianism and found myself quite grateful that he came out the other side having reasoned his way through to an ethical position that includes eating meat - that is not a journey I'm inclined to take myself though I respect those who choose that lifestyle for themselves (as long as they also respect my choice).

Pollan is clear that this sort of approach is not a lifestyle recommendation, nor is it a sustainable choice for any sizable portion of our population. Once again, he does not tote up the environmental costs of this meal (apparently that sort of examination is left for the methods of which he disapproves), though his personal fossil cost in transportation to all of the various hunting and gathering sites has got to end up in a ratio a lot worse that the industrial 10-to-1.

But that isn't the point of this meal - it is the logical endpoint of the structure he put around this book - distance from food source to table. Along the way he examined questions of ethics and sustainability, but this book isn't a game plan for how people should eat - it is an exploration, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Highly recommended!

(Seriously, the first five books are all "highly recommended" - probably just because I'm reading by Amazon ratings - I'm sure there is some dross out there somewhere...)

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