Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I recently finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma and despite typing the word dilemma at least 100 times over the past month or so I still spell it so incorrectly that I have to retype it about 5 times to get something close enough for spell check to recognize. The book was almost a direct response to my November, Why Organic? post so I assume that Michael Pollan has been psychically stalking me and poaching my thoughts for the benefit of his writing career, I would be angry but it’s not like I have the funding or the patience to write a book myself – someone might as well make use of my brilliant mental insights.

About two weeks into reading the book I had a dream that I was in a grocery store staring at a case of frozen chickens paralyzed over the decision between the standard chicken and the $4/lb more expensive organic free range version. In the dream I was so agitated that I started arguing with other customers and must have lingered in the meat aisle for days on end. Dream Brianna was obsessed with determining if the free range organic super powered chicken led a slightly less tortured life than boring old conventional chicken but, of course, could not determine this based on any of the information being offered by the packaging. This proves that my dream self is much more tortured and annoying than the waking Brianna – all of you should count yourselves lucky. (This also proves that my subconscious is ridiculously lazy when it comes to putting together interesting dream scenarios. Frankly, I think I’m getting screwed. This dream took up valuable time that could have been spent listening to Jack White sing a love song he wrote just for me while Rhett Miller feeds me spoonful after spoonful of premium ice cream. But back to food politics -- talk like that might keep all of my new readers coming back and I’m working pretty hard at scaring them away with a long boring diatribe.) In real life I am not so troubled as to attack other shoppers over the organic vs. local vs. conventional food choices that I make everyday but The Omnivore’s Dilemma has certainly further complicated the already stressful task of feeding myself.

Pollan’s research into the world of industrial organic food confirms many of my fears about the organic food industry. Despite what marketing claims much of the organic food on the market is only marginally “better” than most conventional options. The truth is that very very little of the US food supply begins life in the bucolic farmland featured in the pictures on the back of most food packaging. Sure, no pesticides were used in growing the organic produce but the operation likely required the use of more industrial machinery and it had to be carted to you from half way around the country (or even the world) both of which add up to more gasoline use which means more pollution for the planet in general. Organic standards seem even more irrelevant when applied to meat and dairy now that organic feedlots are a common occurrence. My father read The Omnivore’s Dilemma before me and the chapter on industrial organic led him to concluded that all organic food is a scam, but despite the somewhat dismal picture painted by Pollan I still haven’t completely closed my wallet on organic. If I could reliably find organic semi-local food that wasn’t ridiculously more expensive than the conventional alternative I would buy it. As my all organic all the time friend Sky (yeah, you think I had hippy parents…) said, “Isn’t less pesticide ALWAYS better even if it’s not perfect?” Sure, but that's hardly the only factor to consider. Usually it is all but impossible to know if the food I’m buying is sustainably farmed or humanly ranched. Large organic companies have mastered the game of “find the loophole” and are now often organic in name and legality alone. CSA season started last week so I’ll be happily living the dream of clean food for most of my produce until November (we even get fruit and some meat and eggs this year) but when I placed my Fresh Direct order on Monday the only organic food I bought were apples that the claimed were from a local orchard.

The “best” food conclusion Pollen comes to is that local food from a reputable farmer is probably the healthiest choice for your body, the bodies of farm workers and the planet in general. The chapter about Polyface Farm in Virginia has me all but convinced that I should just move as close to that farm as possible. In an ideal world the answer should probably be growing and hunting as much of your own food as possible. Despite Pollan’s assertion that this is a highly unrealistic goal my parents pretty much live this life. Growing up I had no idea that this was anything other than normal (this statement is a hilarious description of my entire life experience from age 0-18). My parents (yes, Mom too; she’s badass) went deer hunting evey October, in July they often purchased a pig or lamb from the 4-H auction, we ate out of the garden all summer and supped on jars of spaghetti sauce, dilly beans, jam and dried fruits all winter long. We had rabbits that we killed and froze; we went fishing and stocked up on trout. Dinner was eaten at the table as a family almost every night (apparently 47% of Americans claim this as the norm so even though “family dinner” seems to have a pretty loose interpretation in some households this puts my family on the cusp of normal for about the first time ever.). I blame this ridiculous upbringing for my inability to be at peace with food without knowing the intimate details of its origin – Thanks Mom and Dad.

I grew up in a family of hunters but Pollan was the first person to ever inspire in me a small desire to kill and eat an animal. I know that some of my vegetarian readers might now be wondering if I’m famous enough to warrant a PETA assault on my character (sadly, probably not) but I urge everyone to hear me out. I eat meat. I don’t really have problems with eating meat. I do however have a beef with the meat industry in this country (let’s hear it for bad puns!). So hunting offers the cleanest opportunity for procuring meat and I feel a little of that, “if you can eat it you should be able to kill it,” lefty carnivore guilt. The hunting chapter also reminded me of something my father once said during a conversation about a couple of friends who had gone vegan. The desire to completely remove oneself from the food chain seems to imply a want to further distance humans from the wild. Similarly it is somehow considered morally questionable to humanly kill a wild animal that has had a chance to live a healthy life but morally clean to buy packaged hamburger that likely originated at a factory farm where the animal lived and died in dismal conditions. (Though it seems possible that looking down on hunters is as much related to social hierarchy as to society’s feelings on killing animals).

The book also has me curious about mushrooms to the point of obsession. Until today I hadn’t been successful in locating any possibilities for wild mushroom hunting in the New York area and thought I would be reduced to scattering store bought fungi in Astoria Park and playing Easter egg hunt some Sunday afternoon (please join me, crazy is more fun in groups!). But today I found this radio program on the wild foods of Central Park and apparently there are tons of edible mushrooms hiding in the park including oyster mushrooms! I’m now ready to sign up for a park tour with the Wildman. He mentioned that the best tour is in the fall but I can’t wait and think I’ll be at the July 1 Central Park tour. Since I have reason to believe that poor website design is a sign of an awesome food tour to come I’m feeling pretty psyched about these plans.

About a year ago I started feeling better about the US food situation. Organic was picking up, fast food was tanking, and the populous seemed to be hearing the message of Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me and the organic movement. The US food system was in serious trouble and we, as a society, needed to work together to improve things. Today I don’t even know who to root for. I used to occasionally buy organic food under the guise of voting with my dollars, I felt like taking my money away from Con Agra and their ilk would send the message that I want the food system to change. Change is here but The Omnivore’s Dilemma leaves me even more unsure that we’ve improved upon the status quo.


Joshua said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kajal said...

Thank you Brianna for doing all this food thinking for me. I'm too lazy to do the thinking and reading, although I do care. While you are at it, I wonder if you can also do some research on where our clothing comes from. I love to buy cheap clothes, but I always feel a twinge of guilt about whether the labor conditions were fair. Let me know...I'm waiting.

jason k said...


How does becoming vegan involve removing oneself from the food chain? Vegans still eat food. In making the statement you did, you imply that there's some "natural ordering" to who is supposed to eat whom. If you can tell me where this notion of an order comes from, other than tradition, I'd like to hear it.

One could make the case that killing other humans is "natural" since the practice has occurred essentially forever through wars/punishments/etc. Pacifists want to stop that unnecessary killing, and vegans want to stop unnecessary killing as well.

Ultimately, it's about respecting others' lives.

Brianna said...

Kajal: will you just eat whatever I tell you from now on? That might make doing all of the thinking worthwhile...

Jason: Of course vegans still eat food. I was referring to removing themselves from the natural world where animals kill one another (in even more gruesome ways than those common at slaughterhouses) everyday. I am not making an argument (at all actually) for eating meat based on tradition -- though humans did evolve to be omnivores -- but just wondering out loud about what veganism says about our society. My guess is that you feel it says we, as a people, are finally evolved enough to act against the innate cruelties in nature. While that may be true it's not a battle I relish joining, Mother nature is a cold hearted warrior.

ymmartin said...

" like that might keep all of my new readers coming back and I’m working pretty hard at scaring them away with a long boring diatribe."

Oh well, you're going to have to do much better than that to scare some of us off. Great post, its definitely very difficult situation, becoming more informed certainly makes it more difficult to make the best decision. It's almost the 'lesser of two evils' scenario. What surprises me is
1) you don't mention farmers market, now some, especially in NYC, aren't great, but some truly are buying the real thing, from real local farmers
2) How far have you traveled outside NYC? One of the advantages of actually having been born and raised in NY is knowing that NY has some great farms where you can drive up to and pick up what you want. Yes that does involve driving, but nothings perfect. You'd be surprised what you can find in Northern Westchester, Rockland and Ductchess counties, all within an hour - hour and a half drive.
3)Fish - hmm, you know just as I was about to hit publish I remember the Fulton Fish market (now in the Bronx where I live), where alot of restaurants go directly to pick up some fresh catch. Again, not an easy option, but still an option.

My point is that if your primary food shopping choices are only going to be what you can find at store - even Whole Foods, well than you take what you can get. But you'd be surprised what's out there.

themikestand said...

As you and I have discussed organics, certification, and the gamut of making choices that are somehow, in some way "susatinable", I won't go into any great detail. I clearly should be reading this book (will I see your copy in the mail anytime soon?)

I would also support the idea that good things to seek out are: local, organic, fair trade, sustainably harvested (fish), and any combination of the above. And where the (now popularized) 100-mile diet will inevitably fall short of making the 'organic' cut, the impacts on the environment from transportation (depending on your view of CO2 being "tree food", thankyouverymuch ExxonMobil) will be minimized.

What am I saying? I guess I'm saying that if you make choices based on your values, it's better than not making them at all and just assuming the status quo is the best option out there. And the next step is to push ourselves to do a little more.

How's that for gettin' all diatribey?

Brianna said...

ymmartin: I'm a carless individual so many of your suggestions arn't implementable. I also live in Queens, land of no good farmers markets. I do frequent the union square market on occasion and in general love farmer's markets. Fish wise I'm pretty hooked up -- My parents go fishing in Alaska every year and I usually poach from their stock.

Mike: I do hope that I've come a long way just by thinking about these things -- I just wish the answers were less complicated.

Kathryn said...

Very interesting post, but I must admit I don't know what to believe anymore. I am current reading a book called "What to Eat" (I think) and it has some strong arguments in favor of organics over conventional foods - primarily in terms of what it better for you, but also in terms of slightly better affects on the environment.

I agree that buying local is the best, but as I have started looking (over the past two weeks) I have found only 1 item in my local grocery stores (I looked in four) that is from any local states.

What's a girl to do?