Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Vote With Your Fork

I would have posted sooner but I was so close to the end of Seeing that I had to finish and then I had to have a bit of a sob over the ending and then my dog got upset and licked my tears which set me off again because of Constant, the dog of tears who was in Blindness and in this book too. I can't say more about the book right now or I will start crying again. I'll post about it in a day or two when I'm more stable. So, on the Michael Pollan. I thought the event started at 7 so rushed out the door at 6:30, arriving at 6:40 to find out it started at 7:30! I was kicking myself for being so early and went and took a seat on a folding chair with a cushion. There were four other people there ahead of me so I didn't feel lonely. I settled in to wait while reading Pollan's book. Certainly not a bad way to pass the time! When I looked up about 15 minutes later, every one of the 70 chairs was filled! I was suddenly quite glad I had gotten the time wrong and was so early. By 7:15 there were people crammed in everywhere, sitting on the floor, standing wherever they could find a place, and fanning out into the bookstore aisles between bookshelves. There must have been about 150 people, all of us surprised at the turn out. The reading actually began a few minutes early, another surprise since in my experience, these things usually start late. Pollan is a tall, lean man, tan and fit. He looks like he probably runs. He started right off by telling us we were all crazy for being there because it was so beautiful outside. Then he got to it. He describes himself as a nature writer who doesn't like to go camping so he writes about stuff close to home like gardening and food. He decided to become a food detective for Ominivore's Dilemma when he realized a few years ago just how bad America's eating disorder is. The Atkin's diet had just taken off and nearly overnight it seemed everyone believed carbs were bad. We lack a national food culture like France or Italy and what food culture we did have has been systematically dismantled. Over the last 50 years, Americans have changed the way they eat more than any group of people in the last 1,000 years. Given the Atkin's craze, Pollan decided to find out just what we should eat. And to do that, he had to look at how we eat and where our food comes from. What he thought was a simple question took him over four hundred pages to answer. The fact that it took him so many pages is also part of the point. He then read a bit from the first section of his book about industrial agriculture which is based on corn. Corn it turns out is everywhere from food additives to the wax that adds shine to the produce to the cardboard boxes the produce was shipped in to the very wallboard of the supermarket and the car you drive in to get there. After reading the passage--which he did very well and got some good laughs from the manner in which he read it--he closed the book and just started talking. Over 125,000 square miles of land in the U.S. is planted with corn. This is dangerous for everyone because if something ever happens to corn like what happened to potatoes during the Irish potato famine, we are all in big trouble. It is also bad from a nutritional standpoint. Humans are omnivores and meant to eat a large variety of food. We cannot get all of our nutrition from one source like a koala that only eats eucalyptus leaves does. Yet a large part of our diet is based on corn, even when you aren't eating corn you are eating corn. The hamburger that used to be a cow was raised on corn. Even something like a McDonald's milkshake is 70% corn. Pollan next spoke about industrial organic agriculture. He is--was--a frequent Whole Foods shopper so he went there to begin his investigation. What he found out in the end is that places like Whole Foods, while they sell organic food, are really selling a good story. He visited an organic "free range" chicken farm that sells to Whole Foods. They made him put on a haz mat suit so he wouldn't make the chickens sick. The free range farm consisted of barn after barn holding about 20,000 chickens each. Granted, they were not crammed into tiny cages, they seemed well cared for, but he wanted to know where the free range part came in. Turns out there is a door at each end of the barn that the chickens can exit into a green grassy area about the size of a front lawn. But the chickens never go outside. They are raised indoors from the very beginning and even if they wanted to go outside, they couldn't until they were five months old for fear that they would get sick. At five months they can out but having never been outside they don't want to. Then at 7 months old they are sent to slaughter. Compare that to Polyface Farm, a 100 acre farm that raises a variety of meat animals. Pollan worked on the farm for a week so he could see how it operated. He said that except for when he was trying to decipher US Farm policy, it was the hardest part of his research. Hard because of the physical labor involved. Polyface Farm grows nothing but grass. With the use of collapsable electric fencing, cattle are brought to a section of pasture to feed on the grass for a specific number of days. They are then moved and chickens are put in the section of pasture the cows were just in. The chickens eat the maggots in the cow patties and spread the manure around. After so many days the chickens are moved on, the fence is taken down and within a few weeks the grass has grown back and can be grazed again. It is highly intensive, precision farming and it works. Pollan insists industrial agriculture--even organic--is not sustainable. Both depend on huge amounts of fossil fuels and our ignorance of how food is made. But we have a choice. Pollan says we have to get out of the supermarkets and start going to farmers markets or joining CSAs. And he suggests we will have to change ourselves as eaters before the food system will change. The least healthy calories in the supermarket are the cheapest because the system subsidizes processed food. And because it is the cookies and the spaghetti-os that are cheapest, it is the poor who suffer the most, even to the point of mal-nutrition. He urged everyone who can to "vote with your fork." If you want to see what is going on with farm policy, Pollan suggested getting your information from American Farmland Trust. I've read just past the introduction in Omnivore's Dilemma and from what I've read and after hearing Pollan talk, it's going to be good.