Questioning the Grocery Store Poets: A Review of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’

“Our cows are given access to pasture year round and fed a grass-intensive diet.” So reads the message on a half gallon of milk I bought from Harris Teeter. It’s suspect, to say the least. What does access to pasture mean? Why a grass intensive diet, and not just a grass diet?

As I came to learn from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we have good reason to question such ambiguous labeling.

Cover of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The book was named by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2006. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A journalist and food writer by trade, Pollan embarks on a long journey to discover where exactly our food comes from, what it takes for food to qualify as organic, and what our alternatives are to conventional grocery store shopping. He visits corn fields, factory farms, and the idyllic Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. He even tries his hand at hunting wild boar.

We learn early on about an unlikely cornerstone of American agriculture: corn. Corn is resilient, easy to grow, and high-yielding. We feed it to the animals we eat even though it is not a natural part of their diet. (Over-feed is the better word: it’s economical to fatten animals quickly so they can be slaughtered sooner.) We turn excess corn into high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—a major contributor to obesity. And thanks to fluctuating market prices and government subsidies, farmers are incentivized to grow as much of it as possible. That means there is always a surplus, which has peculiar results: the price of corn falls, farmers grow even more to offset losses, and corporations hustle to monetize the excess by feeding it to animals and making more HFCS.

We also learn, or are merely reminded, that the pastoral ideal so often portrayed on food packaging is far from accurate. If you buy your food from Giant or Harris Teeter, it does not come from a family farm where animals roam about singing happy songs. Like as not it comes a large-scale, machine-dominated industrial operation where everything is grown, reaped, slaughtered, packaged, and transported hundreds of miles as efficiently as possible. Enormous amounts of energy are expended in the process, and the animals are treated so horribly that if we forced ourselves to watch, we’d probably start a riot after vomiting with disgust.

Is buying organic food a better strategy? What does that magical term mean, anyway? It is, after all, what stores like Whole Foods purport to offer: wholesome food that re-connects us with green pastures and happy animals. These stores assure us of their food’s freshness with an array of product labels written by what Pollan calls the “grocery store poets.” Here is milk from cows “free from unnecessary fear and distress”! Here are eggs from “sustainably farmed” chickens! And then of course there’s the label on my milk container: “Access to pasture year round!” Okay. Well, that’s better than keeping them cooped up in a CAFO, isn’t it?

But just what do organic farms look like, and how closely do they reflect the stories told by the grocery store poets?

It turns out that organic farms can look and operate quite a lot like their non-organic industrial counterparts. The produce just needs to be grown on soil that hasn’t been treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in the past several years. As for meat, you must ensure that the animals aren’t given antiobiotics or growth hormones, are fed organic meals, and are given the ability to roam around.

These standards are important gains in the food industry, to be sure, but there are plenty of loopholes—so many, in fact, that Pollan wonders if the organic label amounts to little more than the subtraction of chemicals. As a simple example, chickens can be called “cage-free” even when they are crowded into large enclosed spaces and never see the sun. And “access to pasture” doesn’t mean the cows actually used the pasture, or were even encouraged to do so for very long. You don’t even know how much pasture they are allowed to use, or what the “access” point looks like (is it a wide open door that is easy for the cows to find, or just some small opening at the rear somewhere?). As Pollan observes, the phrase is “so vague to be meaningless—and therefore unenforceable.”

Given the brokenness of the industrial food chain and the questionable compromises of big organic, Pollan argues that our best alternative is to bypass the supermarkets altogether and go directly to the local farms themselves—or at least to your local farmers market where you can look the farmer in the eye and inquire about the food.

You could be forgiven for thinking that that is a lot to ask. Buying local is more expensive and a lot less convenient than your average grocery store trip. But Pollan’s insights about the genius of local farms and the hidden costs of industrial agriculture are intriguing.

First consider the ecological and environment benefits. At Polyface Farm, for example, the cows feed on local grass, which itself is sustained by a 100% renewable energy resource—the sun. That means there’s no need to purchase feed from other regions, and the carbon footprint is considerably reduced. The waste from cows can be used as fertilizer, and if you have chickens, you can have them follow the cows to pick the “tasty grubs and fly larvae out of the cow pats, in the process spreading the manure and eliminating parasites.” No chemical parasiticides required.

There are other key ecological benefits. Trees are a simple example. Polyface embraces trees (rather than clearing them out to create more space for farming) because they prevent erosion and offer shade for animals, thus reducing stress on them during the summer. The trees themselves can benefit from pigs that graze and root around in the soil, thereby allowing grass seeds to germinate.

In short, by coordinating and leveraging the natural symbiosis between plants and animals, local farmers can run things in such a way so as to reduce or eliminate the need to buy any machinery, feed, or chemicals. There is an art and a rigor to this type of farming, and the market is not exactly crying out for it; but the quantity of output is high, and the genius of its sustainability model is attractive and inspiring.

Another benefit is that local produce is generally better for our health. Obviously, there are fewer health risks in food that hasn’t been touched by chemicals, but Pollan also points to research suggesting that animals raised apart from their natural distinctiveness have less to offer us. For example: “Grass-finished beef has a two-to-one ratio of omega-6 to -3 compared to more than ten to one in corn-fed beef” (italics mine). Conclusion: “The species of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you’re eating has itself eaten.”

And of course local food usually tastes better. Speaking from my own experience, the produce, meat, and dairy I can buy from my local farmer’s market have more flavor, richness, and texture compared to the same products from the Harris Teeter next door.

Pollan does not sugarcoat the difficulty of “locavorism,” however. It’s not just that it’s more costly (though it is that), but that it demands a whole different lifestyle. His words:

Much of the appeal of the industrial food chain is its convenience; it offers busy people a way to delegate their cooking (and food preservation) to others. At the other end of the industrial food chain that begins in a cornfield in Iowa sits an industrial eater at a table. (Or, increasingly, in a car.) The achievement of the industrial food system over the past half century has been to transform most of us into precisely that creature. All of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore. One whose sense of taste has ruined him for a Big Mac, and whose sense of place has ruined him for shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart. This is the consumer who understands—or remembers—that, in Wendell Berry’s memorable phrase, “eating is an agricultural act.” He might have added that it’s a political act as well.

Pollan investigates some other options for food acquisition, namely, hunting and foraging. He even considers whether it is ethical to slaughter animals in light of the fact that, in our culture of abundance and mass production, we don’t actually need to eat them.

Many will find this consideration absurd; we assume that animals and humans are qualitatively different, and so we feel no moral qualms in laying on the steak. But as Pollan shows, all you have to do is read a few chapters of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation , an insightful book about the ethics of meat eating and the reasons in favor of vegetarianism, to realize the faulty assumptions embedded in that view.

I actually enjoyed how Pollan grapples with Singer’s argument. He digs deep, gets frustrated (Pollan likes to eat meat, after all), concedes, pushes back, concedes again, pushes back again. Ultimately he rejects the extremism of animals rights while embracing an outlook that values animal welfare and support for your local farmer. Needless to say, I side with Pollan—though to be fair, I am a fan of meat and a Christian who believes in a fundamental distinction between man and animal. (I hasten to add that in my religious tradition, animals are viewed as creations and gifts from God and thus it is crucial to care for their welfare rather than to abuse and exploit them—a theological point about stewardship which I find more or less compatible with Pollan’s take on the matter.) Others will choose to side with Singer and go vegetarian.

At any rate, in order to do what Pollan suggests, we’ll need more than money and a paradigm shift. We can learn about the wretched conditions of farm animals and the threat of industrial agriculture to the environment, but that doesn’t mean much unless we can retrain our tastes and our habits to eschew cheap produce and processed foods in favor of sustainable meat and vegetables. It is kind of like trying to spend less time on TV and social media: you know that it’s generally much better for you to do so, but you’re immersed in habits, routines, and cultural messages that work directly against that decision. We will need to form new desires, and to see food preparation as a joy of life—as something worth taking slowly.

Pollan has done us a great service in writing a book that turns the imagination in that direction, and in offering rejoinders to naysayers who would call his approach too expensive, elitist, and romantic. The more provocative of these is how naive it is to believe that the alternative—cheap, big agriculture—is really all that cheap. The products of big agriculture certainly have a low price tag. But that is because we do not see the many costs of big agriculture’s impact on our environment, our health, and the welfare of the animals we consume.

Or at least that is Pollan’s view, which I think should be weighed against an economist’s perspective. One such perspective comes from Tyler Cowen, who reviewed Pollan’s book and applies his expertise in macro economics to examine the true costs of food production. As Cowen explains, due to the “interconnectedness of markets,” there is simply no way to be fully transparent about all the costs and benefits of a given meal. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, but that it’s unrealistic to expect a holistic answer. He also observes important benefits of global free trade overlooked by Pollan, and shows why the grassroots food solution is far from perfect.

But does it need to be perfect? Even with Cowen’s points in mind, isn’t is it still wise and important to support the local food chain more than we are now? True, not everyone can afford local food—least of all those in economically-depressed communities that don’t even have access to it. And it would be naive to expect large numbers of people to pick up hunting and foraging for mushrooms. But for the many middle-class Americans in this country, it seems to me that spending more cash at a farmers market (and less on other cheap processed food) is an attainable goal, and that the tangible benefits to animals, the environment, and our health are enough to make it a priority.

And yet I’m keenly aware that mere education will not be enough to change people’s behavior. My guess is that something more akin to beauty and storytelling will need to play a more powerful role, along with distancing ourselves from certain life distractions (and here again I am thinking of TV and smart phones) in order to appreciate that beauty. I’m thinking of the beauty of a pasture, the aromas of freshly-picked fruit, the pleasure of biting into an apple grown in the nearby orchard. I’d like to think that the more we can inspire one another with visions and experiences of this kind of beauty, the easier it will be to build momentum around localvorism.

I don’t know. Maybe that is too romantic.

*shrugs and heads to farmers market*

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