I accidentally borrowed (for Kindle) the "Young Readers" version of this book, but it strikes me as odd that it's a "Young Readers" version since I don't know anyone under 21 who would want to read it, or see the pictures in it of slaughtered animals and read about how that works. The Young Readers version also contains some handy insets that help define terms and provide supplementary information. My wife checked out the original version and had to look up words in the dictionary just to get through the Preface, so I don't regret reading this one.
Having read a sequel to this book, In Defense of Food, I was eager to read this one. I am glad that I read the sequel first, actually. Pollan is on a mission to find out where our food comes from and if it matters. He sets out to make four different meals: A modern meal (from the industrial food chain), an organic meal (which he finds out also comes from the industrial food chain), a local sustainable meal, and a hunter-gatherer meal.
The first few pages grab your attention. Pollan buys his own head of cattle and follows it to the feed lot. He spends time on a modern American corn farm and explains all the ways in which our heavily-subsidized corn affects everything else in the food chain. It requires using modified corn for which the seed has to be bought new from the manufacturer every year. It requires using a ton of nitrogen fertilizer that runs into watersheds and destroys them. It creates a whole class of farmers that would not survive without government subsidies. It takes more energy to produce the corn-based food we buy than what is in the food itself. This is truly modern innovation.
"Maltodextrin? Monosodium glutamate? Ascorbic acid? What are those things? What about lecithin and mono-, di-, and triglycerides? They are all made from corn...Even the citric acid that keeps the nugget “fresh” is made from corn... (H)alf the income of America’s corn farmers comes from government checks. It is these government checks, or subsidies, that keep corn and soybean prices low...Your soft drink or hamburger may be cheaper, but that’s because taxpayers have already paid for part of it...A box of cereal contains four cents worth of corn (or some other grain). Yet that box will sell for close to four dollars."
(For every dollar spent on food, only about 8 cents of it goes to the farmers.)
"How much of the carbon in the various McDonald’s menu items came from corn? In order from most corny to least, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: Soda (100 percent corn) Milk shake (78 percent) Salad dressing (65 percent) Chicken nuggets (56 percent) Cheeseburger (52 percent) French fries (23 percent)."
The corn-fed cattle that are slaughtered may meet their demise more humanely thanks to Temple Grandin's work, but they will not contain the Omega 3's and Omega 6's than a grass-fed cow will.
"The typoe of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you're eating has itself eaten."
Pollan finds that due to increased demand for "organic," the organic markets have also achieved economies of scale by becoming heavily industrialized and are owned by a few large firms. The only thing that makes the food "organic" is that no pesticides were used in the process. An "organic" cow is one fed with corn that was not grown with pesticides. So, better for the environment but perhaps only marginally more healthy.
Pollan then works on a "locally sustainable" farm for a week. The farmer has worked to rehabilitate the land over the years. Cattle graze on grass, and are followed in the same spot by the chickens who pick through the cow patties and leave their own droppings to fertilize the grass to grow again. The animals are slaughtered in open-air facilities for all to see. Chickens don't die at the high rate (10%) they do on industrial farms. They are tastier and healthier, but all of the meat and produce are available seasonally. The food is sold only locally, compared to the average 1,500 miles the rest of our food travels to get to our plates.
"We have forgotten that meats used to be as seasonal as fruits and vegetables...If local food chains are going to succeed, customers will have to get used to eating that way again."
For the last meal, Pollan had to get a hunting license, and rely on the help of experts to help him find wild game and mushrooms-- plus his own garden and fruit trees found locally. It was the much harder meal to make, but the one that put him closest in touch with his food. The sheer effort -- months-- it took to put together that meal gives the reader pause.
I enjoyed this book and learned a lot about the food chain. For the last year, I have vowed to live "low on the food chain" on a mainly plant-based diet. I will also only eat meat if I know where it came from. After reading this book, my convictions are reinforced. I think Christians need to work out a theology of food and agriculture. If my friend Lucas is reading this, he is probably cringing at how late I was to figure that out. Some of the details are a little much, but it's still an easy read. 4 stars out of 5.
"I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace."