The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I’ve been wanting to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for months, but just finally picked it up yesterday. I’m only on chapter two, but I already I know that this is a very well written, thought provoking book. In the following excerpt, he writes about a corn and soybean farm in Iowa owned by George Naylor (note that I have edited this for length).

The story of the Naylor farm since 1919, when George’s grandfather bought it, closely tracks the twentieth-century story of American agriculture. It begins with a farmer supporting a family on a dozen different species of plants and animals. There would have been a fair amount of corn then too, but also pigs, cattle, chickens, and horses. One of every four Americans lived on a farm when Naylor’s grandfather arriver here; his land and labor supplied enough food to feed his family and twelve other Americans besides. Less than a century after, fewer than 2 million Americans still farm – and they grow enough to feed the rest of us. What that means is that Naylor’s grandson, raising nothing but corn and soybeans on a fairly typical Iowa farm, is in effect feeding some 129 Americans.

Yet George Naylor is all but going broke – and he’s doing better than many of his neighbors. For though this farm might feed 129, it can no longer support the four who live in it, nor can it literally feed the Naylor family, as it did in grandfather Naylor’s day. George’s crops are basically inedible – they’re commodities that must be processed or fed to livestock before they can feed people. Water, water everwhere and not a drop to drink: like most of Iowa, which now imports 80 percent of its food, George’s farm (apart from his garden, his laying hens and his fruit trees) is basically a food desert.

Reading this book, I had a bit of an aha moment. All my life I have been one of the fortunate few who has never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. Food was something I took for granted; I didn’t really give it too much thought. Of course I tried to cook and eat healthy meals (although that certainly didn’t always happen – I’ve eaten my fair share of junk food and fast food) but food wasn’t a great deal more than a way to fuel my body and satisfy my hunger.

At some point recently (I don’t even know when this happened – I think it was a gradual shift) I came to see just how precious our food is and how important it is that I put some thought into what I put into my mouth. I think growing a vegetable garden had something to do with it (although maybe it was because of my shift in thinking that I decided to grow my own food, and not the other way around).

Whatever has happened, I have become quite militant about the issue to the point where I must be insufferable to live with at times. The latest example of this is when I pronounced to Joe (after the Maple Leaf meat recall) that I would not be buying any more sliced meats: that we had plenty of caribou sausages in the freezer and that would serve us quite well thank you very much. When he ventured to suggest that perhaps having sliced meat once in a while wouldn’t hurt, I quite adamently disagreed and declared that it was my job to keep my family healthy and therefore I would certainly not be buying these chemically-laden, processed, disease ridden meats. Insufferable, right?

But my point is this: food is a big deal. Our choices do make a difference.

Of course I’m not totally naive: I realize it’s a heck of a lot easier for me to eat thoughtfully than it is for a single mom who’s struggling to make ends meet or a kid living on the streets or the family in India that barely has enough food to keep themselves alive. It’s because I am so priviledged that I have an even greater responsibility to try to do the right thing when it comes to food. The selections we ‘haves’ make will ultimately affect the ‘have-nots’. It will also affect most other living things on this planet, not to mention the earth itself.

OK – I’ll get off my soap box now. I told you…insufferable!

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2 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. Perhaps insufferable at times, one could argue, but definitely worthy. I too have struggled with what I put in my mouth. It started when I lived in Scotland and the little girl who lived with me kept asking what we were doing to Mother Earth.

    We started to buy organic milk, eggs and cheese, joined an organization called ‘Earthshare” and bought organic meat and bread. It was more expensive but I felt it was worth it to support the sustainable farmers, especially when I knew them personally.

    “Earthshare” was organized so that the members paid for their ‘shares’ in advance of the growing season, allowing the farmers to prepared the land and buy the seeds. Then we picked up our share of produce every Friday through the harvesting season and washed it ourselves. It made me very aware of the pests, weather and growing season.

    When I came back to Vancouver, I tried to maintain my newly acquired food habits. To my surprise, Vancouver was not as far ahead as Scotland. Over the last 11 years, things have improved a great deal but the prices have increased at an alarming rate, especially over the past year.

    I now find myself having to make harder and harder choices about what I can afford to buy and still stay organic. I feel its actually a political statement. I’m exercising my vote with my pocket book which seems to speak louder than the ballot box just now. Next, I may have to take up gardening like you!

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  2. Haha! I doubt you’re actually insufferable to live with. 🙂 I’ve gone through this, too — I stopped buying deli meats for about a year and a half, more for the health aspect of avoiding nitrites. (You can sometimes find chicken or turkey breast that doesn’t contain them, but precious little else.) Then one day we bought a ham. And Jade liked the ham so much, deli meats started creeping back into our life again. I *do* enjoy using real chicken breast or roast beef in sandwiches, though, and it’s a good alternative, I think.

    I admire you for growing so many vegetables. Alas, we haven’t had a vegetable garden these past two years for various reasons, but I’m hoping the greenhouse portion of our new out-building will mean next year we’ll be able to start planting again!

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