The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a great treaty on industrial and large scale production of food.
It mostly focuses on the bad side, but I found it eye opening.
- The huge options for food today make it hard to choose
- The industrialized way of production is unethical to animals
- Animals fed and raised in poor conditions are cheap but bad for our health
The options of food have exploded in the last decades. Just walk into a supermarket and you are greeted by thousands of different option.
Lots of options though doesn’t necessarily mean they are all good for you. How to know what to eat these days?
Industrial Agriculture: Cheap Prices, High Costs
In the past raising livestock for food was local and non-mechanized. It was a high effort, time-consuming endeavor.
And naturally cost of meat back then was also higher.
These days though things are much different. Industrial farming methods mechanized the whole process and systematically looked for money-saving processes along the whole chain.
The result is that meat, today, is incredibly cheap.
Produce is also available the whole year round thanks to world shipping and to crop modified to last longer.
Some might argue this is good for the people.
But it also comes at a cost, including:
- Pollution of air, water and soil
- Lower quality meat
- Chemical and pesticide usage which can cause diseases
- Unethical treatment of animals
The Corn Scourge
A clear example of the efficient methods of industrial production is corn.
Corn became a widespread crop because it’s robust and it harvest quicker than other crops.
However, farmers still got to work to make it even more efficient. Just think of this: in 1920 the production of corn was 20 bushels per acre.
Today it’s 180.
Too Much Corn
The corn production and consumption cycle is the US also heavily altered by government subsidies. When in 2005 the price of corn dropped below the costs of production, the government stepped in to pay for the difference to keep the corn producers in business.
The subsidies created an artificial supply of corn which flooded the market at unnaturally low prices.
Genetically Modified Corn is Everywhere
With so much corn at low prices, the food industry found it was a very cheap way of using as the starting ingredient for all their synthetic derivatives, which then find their ways both to make processed food for us and to feed to livestock animals.
These days one every four items in the typical American supermarket contains corn in one shape or another.
Take chicken nuggets for example: they are made of cornstarch, corn oil and… Guess what the chicken was eating? Yep, corn.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) are facilities for raising livestock and selling meat.
In the ever ongoing quest for efficiency (and profit) maximization they cram as many animals as possible into the as small a space as possible.
They try to make them grow quicker with hormones and they keep cost low by feeding them the excess, synthesized corn.
Even to animals who wouldn’t normally eat corn.
Animal (and Human) Diseases
However, many animals weren’t evolved to eat corn and as a consequence of the wrong food and of the dire conditions, they grow ill.
To keep them alive until slaughter day comes, CAFOs pump them with antibiotics.
Packing an animal with antibiotics to keep it alive doesn’t make for a very healthy meat. But that’s not the only risk.
Indeed bacteria can grow antibiotic resistant, which would lead to the man-made “superbugs” that can eventually start attacking humans too.
And also consider the animal’s excrement are used as fertilizer for industrial farms which, in turn, might help further spreading new dangerous bacteria.
Organic Food Business
Organic food started as a grass root movement.
However, it’s partly being the victim of its own success.
As the demand increased, the local producers tried to keep up. And how could they keep up? By adopting some of the methods of big industry.
Big industry also jumped in the movement and lobbied for laxer standards to get the “organic” food label. And they won out.
Under the new guidelines for example you can still cram chickens into a small barn, then grant them 2 weeks of free grazing and use the label “free range”.
Most organic food you find in supermarkets today are not from small producers but from large corporations which cut corners.
What’s the Alternative?
Michael Pollan proposes we buy locally.
Buying locally should reduce the pollution footprint of moving food across states and continents and puts more money into the local farmers’ pockets instead of the big multinationals which run the CAFOs.
Buy locally whenever you can and you do a favor to yourself, to the animals, to the farmers and to the world.
Whenever you do, you can be proud of yourself (and a big thanks from me and the world).
Pollan makes the case organic is not that much better. Indeed. But it is a bit better. Hence it’s an option you might want to consider.
Buying Locally Doesn’t Fix Pollution
Buying locally is not necessary the best answer to the problem of pollution.
A study showed that distance is not always a great indicator of environmental impact. For example, food imported to the UK from New Zeland still had lower energy and emissions per tonne of comparative UK products.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma focuses mostly on the negatives of corn and mass production. Mind you, corn doesn’t have to be a killer crop and mass production did bring benefits as well.
It might also be a system to improve on, rather than to completely discard -which would be very costly and possibly not feasible-.
Omnivore’s Dilemma is an awesome book to learn how intensive food production works. And it’s not pretty.
This book can become a life changer for many of those who are not aware of what they are eating when they buy cheap meat.
Here’s the rule of thumb:
When it comes to food, cutting prices might as well mean cutting your life short
-The Power Moves
The Omnivore’s Dilemma could easily be the best book to encourage people embracing a life of vegetarianism.
I found it eye opening and it further convinced me we all need to be more aware of how the money we spend affects the world at large.