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Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-08-2006, 05:31 PM   #1
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Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Originally Posted by cube_rat
The movie, Super Size resulted in my cessation in eating fast foods. Shortly after seeing the movie, I read Fast Food Nation and never ate beef again. :P
Thanks for the free lead-in, Cube_rat!

If Eric Schlosser doesn't thoroughly gross you out with his abattoir tour, then Michael Pollan will make you feel horribly guilty about your supermarket meat consumption. However his solution isn't strictly vegan but rather a more humane version of the carnivore's diet (oxymoronic, I know, but lemme explain).

First, the author is way too impressed with his own prose (I'm jealous). Anyone who invokes Linnaeus as an adverb is probably alienating his customers-- but he does enjoy nature, he teaches journalism at Berkely, and this is his fourth book. However slogging through his highfalutin flights of fantasy is worth it for the factoids and his insights.

Second, the omnivore's dilemma is: "What's for dinner?" Pollan claims that only Americans, the great melting pot of immigrant cuisine, could be so dysfunctional about food. Because we imported all our food "traditions" and because McSupermarkets offer us way too many choices, we've effectively developed a national eating disorder. We are also overwhelmingly carnivores, but most of us just feel guilty about it without actually changing our behavior.

Finally, Pollan tours us through several different ways of getting dinner. He starts with corn which, unbelievably, is the biggest component of today's cuisine. Government policies have encouraged such huge corn overproduction that farmers can't make a living without subsidies. Corn that costs about $2.50/bushel to grow (U of Iowa) is only getting $1.45 at the elevator. Monolithic monoculture is stripping the prairie soils, encouraging fertilizer runoff pollution, and contributing to a fishkill area in the Gulf of Mexico known as "the Dead Zone". The corn surplus is choking American agriculture, and now 60% of the crop ends up on the feedlot. It turns out that cows are not corn eaters by nature so a lot of science, medical technology, and engineering goes into fattening cattle for slaughter. The results may be cheap but they are not pretty.

Pollan tracks corn's progress by buying a cow, paying a rancher to raise it, and visiting his cow while it's fattened at the feedlot. After he witnesses its butchering he visits a corn-processing plant and lists all of the products derived from its kernels. He tells the tale of McDonald's "super size" campaign (Ray Kroc didn't believe it would ever work) and gives us a guided tour of a fast food meal-- a four-ounce burger that required a cow to process two pounds of corn, six chicken nuggets requiring another half-pound of corn, and a 32-ounce soda containing 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup refined from a third of a pound of corn. He has a scientist run the meal through a mass spectrometer to measure the sources of its carbon. The soda's carbon is 100% corn, the milk shake 78%, the salad dressing 65% (!), and even the french fries 23%. Their "typical" family fast-food meal for three was 4500 calories-- and that includes the Cobb salad! They eat it on the highway at 55 MPH since 19% of American meals are eaten in the car. Of course the car's engine is burning fuel partly composed of ethanol, another corn derivative.

But there's still hope for carnivores at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia. He's restored 500 acres of eroded Shenandoah wasteland by reforestation and by planting... grass. His system of admittedly complex grazing rotation on 100 acres supports 20 tons of beef, 15 tons of pork, 10,000 broiling chickens, 1200 turkeys, 1000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs per year. He does it without fertilizer (other than compost) and without much of the heavy machinery used on industrial monoculture farms. In fact their farm is so self-sufficient that the only thing he buys at the store is toilet paper and diesel fuel. People drive over 150 miles each way to buy Salatin's chickens, and his eggs are snapped up by local chefs as fast as the hens can produce them. Salatin's system of grazing cows one day, then chickens the next day on the same pasture, and the innovative fencing & henhouses he uses, is the way Jefferson meant American farmers to make their living. Their sustainable-farm products are roughly 50%-100% more expensive but they're not destroying the topsoil, rivers, & Gulf to give us cheap corn. Polyface's eggs are more expensive than Safeway's 99 cents/dozen, but cheaper than Whole Foods' $3.59 organic eggs. Pollan surveys the rest of the American organic agricultural system and prepares a meal from Polyface Farms supplies.

The last part of the book is Pollan's experience of preparing a meal that he gathers entirely by himself, beginning with shooting a wild boar and foraging for mushrooms. You Bay Area people sure do live in an interesting part of the world...

If you started this book as a carnivore then you'll finish it as one, but Pollan makes you think about the crap that we're putting into our bodies under the guise of cheap, plentiful nutrition, and the damage that we're doing to the environment to invisibly subsidize our lifestyle.

I think I'm going to take care of our fruit trees after all, and maybe someday I'll figure out how to turn the lawn into an efficiently-irrigated raised-bed veggie garden. I only eat steak a few times a year and ground beef a couple times a week. Schlosser didn't make me a vegan, but Pollan might get us to throttle back on even that...
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-08-2006, 06:02 PM   #2
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Originally Posted by Nords
a four-ounce burger that required a cow to process two pounds of corn, six chicken nuggets requiring another half-pound of corn
And what's wrong with corn-based carbon?

Here's a blurb from an anti-corn-fed-beef site:

This is certainly an advantage for grass-fed beef, but it comes with a cost. The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition contributes to flavors and odors in grass-fed meat that most people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grass-fed animals to be characterized by "off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour."

I think I'll stick with the corn-fed variety.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-08-2006, 08:11 PM   #3
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Go to small rural communities and you can see this occur on a small scale.

Let the cows graze. Follow them up with chickens in the field eating grubs, etc and pooping in the field. Now the field is nice a fertile and can be rotated to something else. Growing grass for cows if nothing else.

Wab, haven't you eaten wild game? Corn fed beef is tasteless. Give me venison.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-08-2006, 08:34 PM   #4
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Originally Posted by wab
And what's wrong with corn-based carbon?
Here's a blurb from an anti-corn-fed-beef site:
This is certainly an advantage for grass-fed beef, but it comes with a cost. The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition contributes to flavors and odors in grass-fed meat that most people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grass-fed animals to be characterized by "off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour."
I think I'll stick with the corn-fed variety.
Well, the cattle have a lot of trouble digesting the corn, so they're fed other supplements to help with that. Because they're not digesting well, they get sick more easily. Cattle are being bred to be able to metabolize corn more effectively, but that also leads to inbreeding and susceptibilities to disease. Then they're all crowded together in the feedlot swapping their diseases, so antibiotic use runs rampant. The hormone supplements in the feed have an effect on wildlife and are suspected to also have an estrogen effect on human development.

Apparently cattle are still being fed prions in their "supplements", which is part of the chain of bovine spongiform encephaly but not entirely stamped out. Some of the more common varieties of today's E. coli bacteria were unknown before 1980 and can be traced to cattle feedlots.

Frankly, after reading the descriptions of the corn feedlot vs the grass-fed cows, I'm inclined to go with grass-fed cows but even more interested in poultry & vegetable protein. The USDA makes it very difficult for farmers to process their own beef so no matter what it eats it eventually ends up in an industrial slaughterhouse.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-09-2006, 10:28 AM   #5
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Sorry to have to say this, but it's my job:

This is in part an overpopulation issue. If there were fewer people per acre of farmland, we wouldn't have to resort to these measures to feed people. Yes, it's partly due to farmers wanting to make more money, but the economics would change if the population of the US were 150 million instead of 300 million.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-09-2006, 11:13 AM   #6
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Sorry to have to say this, but it's my job:
This is in part an overpopulation issue.* If there were fewer people per acre of farmland, we wouldn't have to resort to these measures to feed people.* Yes, it's partly due to farmers wanting to make more money, but the economics would change if the population of the US were 150 million instead of 300 million.
I'm sorry too.* If by "these measures" you're referring to monoculture, then overpopulation has nothing to do with this.* It's all money & politics.* There's plenty of farmland for everyone, but it's growing the wrong crops.

Food is cheaper today than ever before in history.* A much smaller portion of the median family budget is spent on corn, chicken, beef, and other staples.* Of course "non-staple" junk food is even cheaper-- Pollan points out that a dollar can buy 1200 calories of junk food and only a couple hundred calories of vegetables.* The hidden cost of cheap food is environmental abuse like fertilizer runoff, manure-pond contamination, and the rise of deadly threats like BSE & E. coli.

[Edit: In fact, today there are more overfat people than malnourished people.
http://www.slate.com/id/2148756/?GT1=8592]

There's plenty of available land-- it's just being wasted growing corn that nobody wants.* The infrastructure exists to move Argentinian beef or Thai pineapple around the globe in 24 hours, so it can also provide for local farms like Polyface with local customers.* Both Swoope, VA and NYC can continue their lifestyles (for whatever reason).* However ADM & Cargill will continue to support politicians who want to subsidize cheap corn.* (As an aside into ADM's corporate ethics breakdown in the '90s, read Kurt Eichenwald's "The Informant".

Before the industrialization of the '70s, most American farms ran a series of crops and kept chickens/cattle.* As corn subsidies ensured that more corn was available, and as large processors figured out more ways to use cheap corn (like feedlots), the prices dropped and more farmers pared back the "unprofitable" parts of the business.* Taking care of farm animals is "real work" while corn is relatively easy to grow as long as you use massive amounts of fertilizer (runoff).*

Although one is in Iowa and the other is in Virginia, the corn farmer could adapt to Polyface's multi-agricultural model.* (Grass grows pretty good on a prairie!)* The only problems appear to be the costs of making the switch, and Salatin's system involves (*gasp*) real work.* The corn farmer only works seven-eight weeks a year to grow a crop, while Salatin's farm is a full-time year-round job.

Overpopulation is not the issue, and in fact it sounds like Salatin could use more workers.* Read the book.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-09-2006, 07:19 PM   #7
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Contrary to common belief, corn is a grain, not a vegetable, and is definitely not fit as a dietary staple and mainstay, primarily because it contains high amounts of sugar . When early Native Americans changed their diet to one based mostly on corn, they had increased rates of the following:
• Anemia
• Dental cavities
• Osteoarthritis
• Bone infections and other bone problems

Corn is "universally contaminated" with fumonisin and other fungal toxins such as aflatoxin, zearalenone and ochratoxin (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. Mycotoxins: Risks in Plant, Animal and Human Systems. Task Force Report No. 139. Ames, IA. Jan 2003). Fumonisin and aflatoxin are known for their cancer-causing effects, while zearalenone and ochratoxin cause estrogenic and kidney-related problems, respectively. Just as corn is universally contaminated with mycotoxins, our food supply seems to be universally contaminated with corn--it’s everywhere.* A typical chicken nugget at a fast food restaurant consists of a nugget of corn-fed chicken that is covered by a corn-based batter that is sweetened with corn syrup.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-09-2006, 07:42 PM   #8
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Originally Posted by trunk
Contrary to common belief, corn is a grain, not a vegetable, and is definitely not fit as a dietary staple and mainstay, primarily because it contains high amounts of sugar . When early Native Americans changed their diet to one based mostly on corn, they had increased rates of the following:
• Anemia
• Dental cavities
• Osteoarthritis
• Bone infections and other bone problems

Corn is "universally contaminated" with fumonisin and other fungal toxins such as aflatoxin, zearalenone and ochratoxin (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. Mycotoxins: Risks in Plant, Animal and Human Systems. Task Force Report No. 139. Ames, IA. Jan 2003). Fumonisin and aflatoxin are known for their cancer-causing effects, while zearalenone and ochratoxin cause estrogenic and kidney-related problems, respectively. Just as corn is universally contaminated with mycotoxins, our food supply seems to be universally contaminated with corn--it’s everywhere. A typical chicken nugget at a fast food restaurant consists of a nugget of corn-fed chicken that is covered by a corn-based batter that is sweetened with corn syrup.
Don't forget pellagra.
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-10-2006, 11:29 AM   #9
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

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It's all money & politics.
I understand your point, and you may be right. But money and politics are strongly influenced by population.

Quote:
In fact, today there are more overfat people than malnourished people.
The obesity problem does not prove that we don't have enough people to eat the food we're producing.

...researchers meeting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting warned that obesity was becoming a problem even in countries that are extremely poor and where many people are undernourished.

The BBC quoted University of Rhode Island anthropologist Marquisa Lavelle as saying,


In terms of developing countries, we tend to assume their problems are related to under-nutrition rather than over-nutrition. What we have discovered is that worldwide levels of obesity have increased to the point where many cultures and many societies have both under-nutrition and over-nutrition.


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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Old 09-10-2006, 02:28 PM   #10
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Re: Book report: The Omnivore's Dilemma

Quote:
Originally Posted by TromboneAl
Sorry to have to say this, but it's my job:

This is in part an overpopulation issue.* If there were fewer people per acre of farmland, we wouldn't have to resort to these measures to feed people.* Yes, it's partly due to farmers wanting to make more money, but the economics would change if the population of the US were 150 million instead of 300 million.
Actually the reverse is true. It is only because the farmers can grow so much that they need an outlet for their product. And that outlet traditionally has been the feedstock for meat. The abundance of farm raised beef is just a byproduct of the abundance coming out of the farm community.

Now that corn can be converted into ethanol, ethanol production will soak up all of the available corn supply.

my guess is that the price of meat will be going up steeply.
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