If We Are What We Eat, We Are Corn

28 Nov

Written by Adam Wile


There are few questions we will face in life as often as the question “what’s for dinner?” While this may seem like the simplest of questions it is actually one that deserves far more time and consideration than we often give it. After all, how simple can the answer be when the local grocery store alone will provide us with nearly fifty thousand choices? Couple those fifty thousand with a myriad of fast food, delivery, dine in, take out,and street vendor options and it is amazing we ever choose what to eat at all. Indeed as Michael Pollan writes in his enlightening book on the food we eat, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “ when you can eat just about anything nature has to offer deciding what to eat will inevitably stir anxiety.”

This is the essence of the omnivore’s dilemma. Nature has given humans the gift to eat almost anything. With increased globalization in recent decades it is now possible to get any food at any time of year. The problem now is that we are faced with so many options, we have stopped thinking not only about how what we are eating affects ourselves, but also the world we live in. Pollan, through three different meals he refers to as the Industrial, the Pastoral, and the Personal, examines where the food we are eating comes from and how it affects the world we live in.

There is a famous saying that we are what we eat. Michael Pollan would disagree. His answer would be rather that we are what we consume, and thus American’s specifically are corn and fossil fuels. In search of his model Industrial meal Pollan visits a corn farm in Iowa and a feedlot in Kansas where he learns the negative economic and environmental affects of America’s broken agricultural system, which helps neither the land, the farmer, nor the consumer. Pollan shockingly describes the amount of corn in almost everything American’s eat, and the copious use of fossil fuels in order to make this possible.

Pollan’s second meal is one he refers to as the Pastoral, however he divides this into two sections; the big organic pastoral such as Whole Foods, and the beyond organic which finds from a polyculture farm in Virginia. Pollan starts off by browsing his local Whole Foods where he reads wonderful stories about organic free-range chickens and small farm asparagus flown in from South America. What Pollan finds upon further inspection is certainly far from encouraging. What once had started as a small movement has now been taken over by the industrial to meet an increasing demand. In doing so it has become only marginally better for the consumer, the environment, and the animals themselves than its non-organic counterparts. But what about small organic? Pollan then explores Polyface Farm, where owner Joel Salatin works along side nature in a shining example of how sustainable agriculture is possible on a small scale. The animals are treated humanely and next to nothing is wasted. Chefs from the local community all rave about the product. As Pollan later himself learns while eating his Pastoral meal, the closer the farm is to your table and the more natural the farm is, the better the food is going to taste. Polyface chickens taste “chickenier” while the big organic asparagus was described as woody and lifeless.

Pollan’s final meal is what he entitles the Personal. In this meal he attempts to hunt, forage, and gather all of his own food for a meal. He forces himself to kill a wild boar and forages for local mushrooms and fruits. While the final meal is admirable, Pollan makes it very clear that it is by no means the answer to how we should be responsible eaters. As much as McDonald’s was “fast food,” this meal was the epitome of “slow food,” and like the McDonald’s meal, should not be eaten every day.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a must read for anyone who is interested in sustainable foods or just wants to know more about where the food we eat comes from. Unfortunately, while Pollan’s argument is well informed, it lacks real solutions. Pollan ends his quest satisfied that anyone who reads his book will simply be better-informed and, when given the opportunity, would choose food from places like Polyface Farm. But the truth of the matter is Pollan’s primary readership was probably doing that already. The question Pollan leaves unanswered is what can we do to advocate sustainable farms as our food supply and how can they meet national demand? Are we doomed to eat Walmart’s version of organic if we don’t have access to the good stuff? If so, we may eventually have to ask the question “what’s for dinner?” under much more grave circumstances.

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