OmnivoresDilemma full.jpgI recently finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It took me all winter to slog through this book. I read it because many people quote it to me, and several of my yuppie Seattleite coworkers have recommended it. It’s definitely considered a “must read” by anyone interested in the food supply.

I found the book to be so. boring. I don’t think it would be to everyone, however. The book basically chronicle’s the author’s personal journey of investigating various common foods back to their source. He starts out, like all of us do, with a lot of preconceived notions about what is right, healthy, natural, humane, and good. And as he digs in, he comes to realize, it’s complicated. It’s… a dilemma.

So for anyone who has already traveled this metamorphosis, of realizing that there aren’t simple answers to all these concerns we have about food, health, ethics, and environment, the book’s conclusions are kind of old news.

Our Corn Overlord

The book starts out expounding on corn. I became annoyed  with it right off, because the author paints a really manipulative picture of corn. He employs every journalistic method possible to make the reader come to hate corn (and it works, judging by the number of people I have met who do hate corn). He exaggerates its evils to the point of portraying it as an alien species which has taken us over and manipulates us to serve its higher good. I grant, we probably put corn in way too many foods, and it’s concerning how dependent we are on this single monoculture crop, and on a single variety of it, number 2 field corn. (Field corn, many people are surprised to learn, tastes disgusting. It is not sweet corn like we eat at summer BBQs, it is only good as a commodity to be split into its parts, or as livestock feed).

The author then leaps to corn-fed  feedlot beef, equating it to nothing more than corn in another form. Then to a McDonalds fast food meal, all made up of corn, and things to which corn was fed. Cheap, fast, easy, convenient, unhealthy; but most of us have to admit to eating it at least now and then! Hail to the Corn King!

Joel, Gold-plated

Then he goes to Joel Salatin’s farm. Yadda yadda. I like Joel Salatin and I think he has benefitted parts of the small-scale farming industry by speaking out about regulation and how it makes farming hard for small family farms. He provides hope that there is income potential left in farming. And I think he has good things to say about polycultures versus monocultures; that in many instances, they can be better, and more sustainable.

But Joel is also a clever devil of a marketer. John Q. Public loves Joel because they see pastoral photos of his cows and chickens on grass in pure sunshine, because he evokes the romanticism of old-time farming and he employs catchy terms, like Salad Bar Beef. Though they are out there, we don’t often see pictures of Joel’s farm during the muddy season, or during the winter when the animals are not on grass and enjoying charming weather. If you farm, you know, there are parts that are pastoral, and there are parts that are gritty…

And, because of Joel’s celebrity status, he appears to have an unending line of volunteer farm apprentices willing to work for cheap or free. This makes his high-labor model do-able for him, but probably not for everybody. Oh, what I could do with volunteer farm help, which is not legal in our state…

Joel sells product to people who can afford to pay more for food with a romantic story. And there is nothing wrong with that. But I believe it may be naïve to suggest that our whole country can convert to farming Joel’s way, and that everyone can afford to pay more for their food. Though we find it a distasteful reality, a portion of our country’s working poor can barely put food on the table with feedlot beef and number 2 corn derivatives. So to ask those people to become concerned with organic agriculture, polyculture and permaculture theories, and only buying local is ludicrous. These people just feel lucky to feed their kids at all.

I’ve run into city coworkers and acquaintances who tell me, you should, you should, you should. They’ve read this book from their downtown lanai, and they tell me I should get pigs and broilers and rabbits and cows and farm them this way, just like it says in the book. I gently remind them that to purchase all of the shelters, feeders, handling equipment, vehicles and fuel to support this diverse system would cost thousands in investment. I would have to shift to full-time farming and hire a crew; and developing the marketing channels for all those commodities would take years. Right now, I only have equipment for sheep and laying hens; I would have to double that investment for every species I add. It’s not something you just dive into because you read a book about agriculture written by a journalist. That is the whole law of specialization versus diversification; and why most sustainable companies choose to mostly specialize, and only carefully diversify. It’s a balance.

So, that’s what I have to say about the glorification of Joel Salatin’s farm. It’s an important part of the discussion, but it’s not the end-all answer for everybody, and it’s not as simple as a book makes it sound.

Back to the Caveman

The last third of the book is dedicated to personal foraging: both hunting and gathering. This part of the book feels like a long psychotherapy session for a person struggling through the realization that hunting may actually be kind of fun, rewarding, and even thrilling. And, that butchering meat is rather gross, but easily gotten over once we see a fabulous steak on the grill or a savory leg of fried chicken. The author seems very disturbed to have accessed this primal part of self he didn’t know existed. As we read, we’re right there with him, as if we’re scouring his most personal thoughts in diary. I grew impatient again with this, thinking, mmm hmm, just get over it already. But, I’m constantly impatient with the dissociation between people and food, and the naiveté that abounds in our culture, which is generations divorced from agriculture.

Complex Systems

The best parts of the book, I think, are where the author uncovers some of the reality of the marketplace, supply and demand, and the complex forces of politics, lobbies, and government policy. It’s interesting to read his disappointed realization that now that organic is in high demand, factory farms have moved right into that niche and taken it over, pushing out most of the little guys. And that it’s probably not what we had in mind when the term organic was first coined.

He uses the term supermarket pastoral, I think, to describe the Whole Foods customers who latch onto labels with paintings of animals on sunshine-ey, grassy pastures just like Joel Salatin’s. Most of us don’t take the time to actually verify if these cartoons on the label at all reflect the reality of the farm behind the scene. We don’t really care, we just want to consume the idea, more than anything.

The Dilemma

I found the book to be a little disjointed, the title broaches the subject of four meals, the book is split into three sections, and it jumps all over the place, touching lightly on many different aspects of agriculture, but never going very deep with any of them. But it does have a common thread throughout, and that is the idea of the dilemma.

Borrowed from research on rats, the theory goes that omnivores must evolve large and complex brains to make sense of all the variety of foods which could either nourish or poison them. And though we may consider ourselves highly evolved and our food technology quite sophisticated, we’ve never really escaped this fundamental dilemma. The dilemma in perusing the food choices before us, figuring out which are good choices, and then actually making them.

Though the author emotionally travels through different omnivore fads, organic-ism, vegetarianism and veganism; in the end, he seems to throw up his hands and revert back to the “whatever” mentality to which most of us end up conceding at the end of such a journey. We can all try to do better, eat healthier, more local, more environmentally friendly, more humane. But it’s impossible to make morally, environmentally and health-wise pure choices, because there are tradeoffs to every single option we have. So, yes, it truly is a dilemma.