Pollan, M.. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Group, New York, New York. P185-273.
It was a weekday evening when I decided I would sit down and begin to read this weeks reading of, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I noticed the reading this week was quite long so I decided to get a head start on it. I had prepared a cup of my herbal, caffeine free coffee (to trick my brain into thinking it was getting caffeine) and placed it on the nightstand beside my bed. As I sat there all cozied up in my bed excited to see what Pollan had to say this time, I turned to page 185. The title read, “Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture.” Okay… not the most riveting topic but I convinced myself Pollan would be able to make it interesting. However, for the first time, Pollan disappointed me. I read maybe ten pages before I decided to turn off Micheal Pollan and turn on some Micheal Scott (watch “The Office”). It would take me another two days to gather the willpower to start reading it again.
This reading details Pollan’s week long experience at a progressive, alternative style farm. He describes the methods of the farm, his personal experience and the story of the farmers. However, I felt as if the first third of this reading told the same story over and over. That story is Pollan wakes up tired, Pollan talks about why modern farming is unsustainable, Pollan talks about why grass farming is better, Pollan is tired again. Although I respect the science behind why grass farming is more sustainable than conventional farming, I just wasn’t interested in hearing about Pollan’s experience of moving cows from one area of grass to another. I found this first section very hard to get through. For me, the reading started getting interesting in chapter 11, “The Animals: Practicing Complexity.”
Pollan’s use of descriptive language in this chapter was exceptional. On page 209 he describes, “As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut.” I found this writing to be both descriptive and poetic. Not only could I picture the scene Pollan was describing, but I felt as if I was also touched by the beauty of the scene.
Another scene Pollan describes in the same manner is when he is slaughtering the chickens. “The viscera were surprisingly beautiful, glistening in a whole palette of slightly electric colors, from the steely blue striation of the heart muscle to the sleek milk chocolate liver to the dull mustard of the gall bladder (pg. 234).” Even though Pollan is describing the image of a slaughtered chicken, he somehow makes the image sound very beautiful. I find it interesting that he uses foods (milk chocolate and dull mustard) to describe the colour of the organs. It feels as if Pollan is subtly trying to make the reader connect that this image of chicken organs isn’t far off from the chicken breasts that we eat for dinner. Why is it that when we see a slaughtered chicken cut open, organs exposed, we think “gross!” But, when we see a cooked chicken breast we think, “yum!”
Something I noticed that comes up a couple times during this chapter is how unfair the regulations imposed on small scale farms are. On page 230, Joel tells Pollan, “… we’re at war with the bureaucrats, who would like nothing better than to put us out of business.” Joel also mentions that the government imposes such impossible regulations on small scale farms because of their goal to centralize production and processing of food. Pollan thinks that Joel is perhaps being a bit paranoid thinking that the government is out to get him. Being a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself, I have heard claims and watched documentaries about the USDA shutting down small farms or putting them out of business by imposing impossible regulations. Hearing Bev’s story about his attempt at opening a small meat-processing plant only confirmed my beliefs. Pollan explains, “… the USDA abruptly pulled its inspector, effectively shutting him down. They explained Bev wasn’t processing enough animals fast enough to justify the inspectors time – in other words, he wasn’t sufficiently industrial, which of course was precisely the point of the whole venture (pg. 246).” It seems to me that this minimum requirement to be considered worthy of having an inspector supports Joel’s claim that the bureaucrats are trying to put these smaller farms out of business. Pollan also mentions the globalization of food into a global marketplace. “It took capitalism less than a quarter century to turn even something as ephemeral as bagged salads of cut and washed organic mesclun, of all things, into a cheap international commodity retailed in a new organic supermarket (pg. 257).”
Pollan mentions that every time we buy food, we are voting for the type of food system we approve of. “We can still decide, every day, what we’re going to put in our bodies, what sort of food chain we want to participate in (pg. 257).” Although I do believe in this statement, I disagree with Pollan in thinking that our food system will be able to transition from the current global supermarket to a food system based on local food. Sure, I love the idea of supporting local farmers! Who wouldn’t? However, in today’s society we have gotten so used to being able to go to the grocery store and buy whatever we want regardless of distance or season. Something I have learned over the years is that asking someone to change how they eat is like asking them to change who they are. Maybe I have a pessimistic view, but if you can’t convince someone to stop eating sugar-filled processed foods because it is bad for their health, how are you supposed to convince someone to switch to eating only local, in season food because it’s better for the environment, animals and farmers? I hope one day we can live in a world that is as sustainable as Joel’s farm but I just don’t see that happening…