Literary Tuesday

Soylent Green is Corn! The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by
Michael Pollan

When my parents came to visit in May, it was clear that my stepfather
had Gotten Religion. “You have to read The Omnivore’s
Dilemma,” he gushed. “It has completely changed the way I eat.”

I reluctantly promised, dreading what I might find inside its pages.
You see, I’d already completely changed the way I ate. Several times.
When I was twelve, I followed my best friend into vegetarianism,
promptly fell off the wagon, and rededicated myself a year later. At
twenty-two, just out of the hospital and feeling woozy, I began to eat
meat again. Over the next several years I dove into Atkins, lapsed
into South Beach, abandoned all hope (and gained twenty-five pounds)
with McDonalds and Burger King, de-toxed (and lost twenty-five pounds)
with Whole Foods, and eventually settled into a comfortable routine I
liked to call “Not Worrying About It.” So it was with some
trepidation that I began to read.

My anxiety was well-founded. Pollan’s book traces the history of four
meals, which he calls in turn Industrial, Organic Industrial,
Grass-Fed, and The Perfect Meal. In each section, he delicately
weaves together the story of the development of modern North American
gustatory culture with his personal adventures in consumption. The
resulting picture isn’t pretty.

We are, asserts a biologist quoted in the first chapter, “corn chips
with legs.” From soda (high fructose corn syrup) to hamburgers (cattle are corn
fed, which leads to all kinds of problems) to fresh cucumbers
(corn-derived wax), Zea Mays is everywhere. The most highly
subsidized crop in the United States, an industry invested in
producing cheap, well-preserved foods would be foolish not to
use it wherever possible. The result? Pollan’s Industrial Meal, from
McDonalds, is revealed by a mass spectrometer to be made mostly of
corn – in fact, the menu item which contains the least amount
of corn is the French fry, at 23%.

The rest of the book is no more heartening. To eat well, it turns
out, is both a complicated and an expensive proposition. Whole Foods,
that paragon of Health and Nature, is revealed to be a
less-than-perfect compromise between what is good for the individual
and what is good for the planet. While foods found there may not
contain pesticides, they may well have traveled over 500 miles via
fossil-fuel-guzzling, smoke-belching vehicles in order to rest,
deceptively pristine, in a rustic-looking crate.

Pollan devotes his longest single chapter to this phenomenon, which he
terms “Big Organic.” This chapter, in fact, was my only sticking
point in the book. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of
Four Meals
, would seem, from the table of contents, to contain
only three. Its subdivisions are: Industrial/Corn,
Pastoral/Grass, and Personal/The Forest. The Big
Organic chapter reads as if it had been written after the rest of the
book, when Pollan realized that the tense marriage between Organic and
Industry would not fit neatly into any of the three sections. Thus, it
has been squeezed into the second section. Nor does the culminating
description of the Organic Industrial meal rate its own chapter, as do
the other meals, but rather is only briefly described before an
agonized debate over the ethics of Big Organic, summed up with the pat
sentence, “Oh well, at least we didn’t eat it in the car.”*

After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have once again changed the
way I eat, though not completely. I still shop at Whole
Foods, though I make a more concerted effort to buy local produce and
meat whenever possible. I don’t eat less processed food, but then I
ate very little before reading the book. I have not eaten red meat,
nor will I again in the foreseeable future, unless I am certain that
it is grass-fed. The biggest boon I have received from this book is
my increased awareness of the route my dinner has taken to reach my
table, and for that I am grateful to Michael Pollan. My husband may
not share my gratitude, however, as he is heartily sick of my new
mantra: “Did you know there’s corn in that, too?”

*Lest I seem overly critical, the subject of this chapter is immense,
and truly requires its own book. I hope Pollan writes that book; I
look forward to reading it.

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15 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    miss kendra said,

    your research assistant is hot.

  2. 2

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    I don’t get it – since when is corn a bad thing? Was there another social movement that I completely missed out on?

    And, Miss K is correct – very hot.

  3. 3

    uccellina said,

    It’s not that corn is bad per se; it’s just that humans are designed to eat a variety of foods, and it’s not healthy to eat only one. Which is essentially what we’re doing with the corn. Also, many of us eat cows who eat corn, but cows aren’t supposed to eat corn – it makes them very, very sick – which means we’re eating bad meat. Something like 70% of beef cattle are found to have abscessed livers at slaughter.

    The rest of the cow feed is made up of things even more disturbing than corn, like chicken poo. Seriously, read the book.

  4. 4

    SilliGirl said,

    I am mostly done with the book now. It took me forever to make it through the corn chapter, because I knew most of it already (although not in the detail Pollan describes, which is why I struggled through it). I loved the industrial organic stuff because it gave me ammunition when arguing with people about why it’s maybe not such a great thing that bix box supermarkets are starting to carry more organic. I wish he had talked more about how awful Horizon is, for instance. My understanding is that the organics that make it into those stores are often even worse than the ones going to Whole Foods.

    The chapter on Polyface (grass-fed) was fabulous, of course, and I feel very fortunate to live so close to them. We’re actually planning a trip down there sometime soon, and now I want to go on a slaughter day as well. One thing I got from this chapter, though, was how impossible it is for everyone (well, me) to do what Joel Salatin is doing. I mean, he’s second generation on that land, his son has stayed on to help him, and he has two interns. What I realized is that instead of being determined to, say, provide all my own produce for the year (a goal of mine for a couple years now), I should concentrate more on growing what I can, getting everything else locally, and doing my own preserving. Which is actually really do-able here.

    Okay, I need to stop before my comment winds up longer than your post. Anyway, we should chat soon! Call me! And great review of the book!

  5. 5

    Red Diabla said,

    So, uh, does this mean that whatever I eat, I’m doomed since I don’t grow my own food?

  6. 6

    A said,

    I’m not sure corn will kill me; the stress of worrying about it probably will. QED
    ( :D I just love getting to use QED—such a nerd!)

  7. 7

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    Hmmm. I think I’m with “A”. It *is* possible to think too much.

  8. 8

    I had actual corn for dinner tonight. On the cob. From farmers’ market. Will Michael Pollan forgive me?

  9. 9

    uccellina said,

    Phantom: Actual corn is okay – it’s the processed/hybridized/squozed/mutated/ corn that he’s concerned about. But you knew that :-)

  10. 10

    Carolyn J. said,

    The beef in Alberta is mostly pasture-fed and finished on alfalfa. I travelled to the States a few years back and had my first taste of corn-fed beef – I found it unpalatable (to put it nicely).

    I’m also doing my best to avoid HFCS but dang, it’s hard sometimes. Mostly I just try to keep my head up a read labels.

  11. 11

    Hello Everyone:

    If interested Organically Speaking has released a podcast (audio conversation) with Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

    We our introducing a new audio comment system today, you can now leave an audio comment on any of our posts. You will find an “Insert Audio Comment” link at the bottom of the usual “Add Comment” space. All you need is a microphone!

    Try it out and let Michael and John know what you think about the show!

    http://OrganicallySpeaking.org

    All the best,
    -Ricardo

    Holistic Conversations for a Sustainable World Who Share Your Passion for:

    * high quality organic food
    * natural, sustainable lifestyle
    * ecology
    * holistic health

  12. 12

    cloudscome said,

    I read Pollan’s The Botany of Desire a few years ago and it had a big impact on me. I think the obesity problem we have in the States is related to the high fructose corn syrup and palm oil in all our food, as Pollan points out. I keep wondering why I don’t hear more about that, as he makes his point so well and it makes so much sense.

    I have a very strict diet because I am Celiac Sprue and can’t eat anything with wheat, rye or barley gluten. That means I rely on corn, rice and potatoes. Also I am a single mom to three boys, so my budget is extreemly tight. I just don’t see how I can go local, organic, and meatless with those restrictions, but I am open to sugestions.

  13. 13

    Andrea said,

    Thanks for the review. You’re right; I had already finished reading it, but I always like to get another opinion.

    HIs point–as you say–isn’t that corn is bad; it’s that the government has subsidized corn to the point where there is too much of it, and as a result we’re using it in all kinds of destructive ways, from the obvious (high-fructose corn syrup, feeding corn to animals who are supposed to eat grass and then pumping them full of antibiotics so it doesn’t kill them) to the not-so-obvious (huge research facilities devoted to finding new energy-intensive ways to break corn apart and use its constituent parts to form new foods, often to the point where 57 calories of energy are used to produce 1 calorie of food–not so great, in a world of declining oil supplies and climate change). It’s kind of silly to conflate his arguments about the use of non-edible corn as an industrial feed stock with eating actual corn.

    But I also think that his main point was to argue for a diversity of food systems, which we patently don’t have. We have one food system (industrial, which relies on corn) with one major subsystem (industrial organic, which also relies on corn). I don’t think he was trying to tell people how to eat; I think he was trying to get people to think about the history of the food choices they make and maybe start looking around for alternatives, or asking for them if there aren’t any. I don’t believe he’d criticize anyone for their food choices, but he certainly is critical of the governmetn and corporate decisions that have given most of us only one option for our diets. And rightfully so.

    (Just taking the liberty of answering a few of your commenters. :) )

    I think the biggest change for me is simply the outrage I feel when I’m trying to buy local produce, when it’s in season and it’s being grown on farms all around me, but it is not available in the local supermarket. Rather than selling local strawberries, they ship them in from California by truck–and who cares if they’re organic after that kind of treck? It’s hard, first of all, to determine what the options are (local supermarkets don’t give you any more inforamtion than they are legally required to about where the food comes from, so it’s vague), and then to find the options and use them is even more complicated.

    Thanks for a thoughtful review! I’ll be putting up one of my own in a few weeks, probably.

  14. 14

    Writer2 said,

    Great review. After reading the book I really feel bad for corn-fed animals who have no dietary choices and who get sick in the process of being force-fed stuff that their internal organs are ill-suited to digest in large (exclusive) quantities. They get sick, which requires all sorts of chemicals, medicines, steroids and illness-management, and that’s the meat we get.

    It’s tempting (but not rational) to try to be a purist and to worry your guts out each time you eat, but it’s also plausible, after reading Pollan, just to make smarter, more thoughtful choices and reduce your intake of this stuff. A simple guide is to read labels and to try avoiding items with HFCS indicated. And to avoid eating at fast food places.

  15. 15

    flyinggoose said,

    There are so many books written about healthy food and way of living that it will fill large librarys. But, to me, there is just one thing, we must care about: the way WE live and the way WE act with ourselves and the nature. Is there respect to each living thing on this planet and if we really just take so much we actual need, everything will be alright.
    Those adviser-books just follow two things: making money by selling them and planting more and more seeds of fear in the minds of the readers.

    So, there is my advice: Ten ways to good health:
    less alcohol – more tea
    less meat – more vegetable
    less salt – more vinegar
    less sugar – more fruit
    less eating – more chewing
    less words – more action
    less greed – more giving
    less worry – more sleep
    less driving – more walking
    less anger – more laughter


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