How we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world," says Michael Pollan in his new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin Press), an exploration of what Americans eat and from where it comes.
Pollan, a James Beard Award winner for his magazine work and professor of journalism at University of California at Berkeley, argues that industrial eating consuming a diet of processed foods made with industrially grown agricultural products obscures the connections between farmer and consumer, product and farmer, and ourselves and the land. The result is a nation of consumers unconscious of what they're eating.
There's nothing new about this argument organic farmers of the "back to the land" movement shunned regular American eating habits in the 1960s and '70s. But a new movement is afoot, says Pollan, driven by growing anxiety about the nature of industrial agriculture and what we're putting into our bodies, and catapulted by a booming organic food industry in America.
"I think the issue is ripe," says Pollan, speaking via telephone with the Independent. "I'm finding that when I go speak around the country, I'm struck by how ready people are to hear this message [about the dangers of traditional industrial agriculture].
"When I published a story in the New York Times Magazine a few years back, "Power Steer,' chronicling the life and death of a typical, feedlot-finished steer, ranchers came up and told me their sales of grass-finished beef had soared after the article appeared. Not that my article created a boom, but this nascent industry of grass-finished livestock has been exploding in the last few years. Simply by looking for and buying this product in the supermarket, people are creating a new market.
"And it's not just a market; it's a movement."
Business journalist Samuel Fromartz, author of the just-published Organic, Inc. (Harcourt) agrees.
"What to eat that's the question everybody's asking," says Fromartz. "There is a growing level of anxiety about what to eat. It's ironic, really, because eating itself is such a pleasure."
Fromartz's interest in better-tasting and healthier foods grew when he became an avid home cook, grazing a farmers' market in his hometown of Washington, D.C., and wandering the abundant aisles of his local Whole Foods Market.
"I was trying to do two things in the book," he says. "First, to look at how organic producers really produce, on a small scale and a large scale, and second, to discuss how we, as consumers, deal with our universe of food choices."
To accomplish the first task, Fromartz followed a farmer from his local market through a day's work peddling his produce, then explored two of the country's largest organic producers: Earthbound Farms in California, and White Wave, maker of Silk soy milk, in Boulder.
What he found was an enormous gap between the idealistic origins and principles of organic farming and the realities of industrial-scale organic farming designed to meet the market needs of giant retailers like Whole Foods.
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan uses the framework of four very different meals, tracing their origins to illustrate the profound complexities inherent in the simple question: What shall we have for dinner?
The four meals include a McDonald's cheeseburger, which he traced back to a cornfield in Iowa industrially raised corn and its thousands of byproducts are the source of most fast food. The second and third meals are organically based: one made with ingredients from industrial organics sold at Whole Foods, the other sourced from organics purist Joel Salatin's Virginia farm. The fourth is a meal made from ingredients foraged and hunted by the author.
Taken together, these two books offer a beginners' course in the complicated economics, philosophy and practice of growing safe, wholesome foods in an ecologically sound way while meeting the demands of an industrially driven market.
Both authors agree that as uneasy consumers ask the question, "Where does my food come from?" and demand the return of a fundamental pleasure principle to eating, they will embrace alternatives and industry will eventually respond.
America's food anxiety
Part of America's food anxiety comes from health fears and the national epidemic of obesity, fueled by processed foods and industrial agriculture.
Government handouts, says Pollan, subsidize the least healthy calories factory-farmed meats and poultry infused with hormones and antibiotics, and genetically engineered and chemically altered fruits and vegetables.
And a lot of our anxiety comes from confusion over the new array of labels appearing in supermarkets across the land: certified organic, naturally grown, range-fed, grass-fed, grass-finished. It's hard to know what it all really means. Both Pollan's and Fromartz's books devote a good deal of attention to clarifying terms, especially when it comes to organic operations that produce in mass quantities for big markets.
In his chapter on industrial organics, Pollan writes about tracing some of the items in his Whole Foods cart back to the farms where they were grown:
"I learned, for example, that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot,' eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day. The reason much of this milk is ultrapasteurized (a high heat process that damages its nutritional quality) is so that big companies like Horizon and Aurora can sell it over long distances. I discovered organic beef being raised in "organic feedlots' and organic high-fructose corn syrup more words I never expected to see combined. And I learned about the making of [an] organic TV dinner, a microwaveable bowl of "rice, vegetables, and grilled chicken breast with a savory herb sauce.' Country Herb, as the entre is called, turns out to be a highly industrialized organic product, involving a choreography of thirty-one ingredients assembled from far-flung farms, laboratories and processing plants scattered over a half-dozen states and two countries.
... I also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma which turns out to be more animal factory than farm."
Fromartz encountered the same paradox researching big organics for his book and attributes much of the public's food anxiety to the contradiction between our pastoral image of organics and the emerging big-business reality.
"It's interesting," he says, "that on a radio talk show in Washington, D.C. recently, three of the calls that came in involved the issue of "Can I trust organic food?' One woman said, "I'd never buy organic at Safeway or Giant, a big chain, because you can't trust them: they're not like Whole Foods or the smaller stores.'
"I happen to know that some of the companies that make private labels for Safeway also make them for Whole Foods. It's a dicey issue for people like me, who grew up knowing the real values of those early organic farmers. You wonder: Is it still real?"
The issue, both authors agree, stems from a market demand that can't be met with a small farm system that doesn't have sophisticated distribution networks.
The day after The Omnivore's Dilemma was published, Pollan says, the CEO of Whole Foods in Austin wrote an e-mail asking for a meeting when the book tour takes him there.
"Whole Foods is very responsive to criticism," he says. "I really welcome the idea of having constructive debate with a company like that.
"I [hope to] say to him: "[Does Whole Foods] realize how much good they could do if they determined to support an American grass-finished beef industry, instead of bringing their meat in from New Zealand?'"
Pollan doesn't write off the good intentions of companies like Whole Foods, recognizing the "scale issue between their enormous needs and the yields of small farmers." He points to successes like Nyman, a natural beef company that has grouped together networks of small organic pastured beef ranchers, and provided distribution and marketing for their products.
"The scale of the industrial food system and the scale of those doing really sustainable farming are passing in the night," he says, "and we have to figure out a way to connect those two."
Consumers also need to understand the true economic costs of the current industrialized agriculture system, in order for change to occur.
"The government has given $40 billion in subsidies over a decade to conventional farms," says Fromartz. Because this saves consumers money at the checkout stand, they believe they're getting a bargain. "Those subsidies are paid with our taxes. Add the environmental costs and the cost of health effects. These are all costs we pay.
"Conventional farmers are paid to use chemicals and over-produce, whereas organic farmers don't get anything from the government; the consumer buying organics is actually paying the true cost of food."
Pollan says that although organics represent a tiny portion of the nearly trillion-dollar food industry in America, they are the fastest-growing segment and have grown into a $14 billion industry in a very short time.
"If you look at the growth of organics, for all its problems as it has industrialized, it was created by farmers without any help from the government," Pollan says.
"We don't have to wait for the political climate to change in Washington to get better food policy. The fact is that the system is very shaky right now. There's more pressure on farm policy today than [anytime] since the 1970s, because the way we subsidize farming goes against world trade policies, and we have a public health crisis."
So, America's food neurosis stems from many sources. We are bombarded with too many choices. We are confused by labels. We fear that what we eat isn't good for us or for the environment.
For many of us, the pleasure has been taken out of eating, and Pollan, Fromartz and others see a longing in consumers to get back to the essential joy that food can provide.
In her new book (to be released in May), What to Eat, nutritionist Marion Nestle writes that eating, according to her friends, "feels nothing less than hazardous."
"Bombarded with too many choices and conflicting messages as everyone is, many people long for reassurance that they can ignore the "noise' and go back to just enjoying the food they eat."
Additionally, says Pollan, Americans have been sold a bill of goods touting processed foods for the sake of convenience by guess who? the food industry.
"Somebody had to convince women back in the 1950s that cooking was drudgery," he says. "The food industry did that to promote processed foods. When that Betty Crocker movement came about, there was strong resistance on the part of women. People may well rediscover that these processes [of shopping and cooking] are pleasures, not chores."
Fromartz is hopeful that an appreciation for the aesthetics of foods is on the rise. And that, combined with environmental awareness, hopefully is creating a greater consciousness around food issues among generations of consumers.
"With the wave of books coming out, with the Slow Food movement, the rise in organics, there's definitely a cultural movement, a groundswell happening around food," he says.
Pollan looks to innovative organic farmers like Salatin, whose practices illuminate the intersection of food aesthetics and sound environmental practices.
"The lesson of his work is one of the most powerful environmental lessons we have," says Pollan. "He disproves the notion that we, as humans, live in a zero-sum relationship with nature, that in order to get what we need or want, nature is diminished by that.
"[Salatin] says if you handle your land properly, rotate animals, graze them carefully but intensively, you can get a lot of food off the land at the same time you improve the soil, creating more biodiversity."
Fromartz says we can't forget that food is pleasurable, and that "within that pleasure, if we can bring our values to bear, that's a pretty powerful recipe for a meal."
We can be conscious about our food choices, he says, but we don't have to be perfect. When he's at home, he shops at a nearby farmers' market for local foods, and also fills a shopping cart at Whole Foods.
"I don't think that's atypical," says Fromartz. "But people have to remember that Whole Foods isn't the only answer. To post-industrialize the food chain, we have to change the way we shop and eat. If you get out of the supermarket, go to the farmers' market, go directly to that farmer to buy his product, that's when changes happen." capsule
Michael Pollan will discuss and sign The Omnivore's Dilemma
Tattered Cover Cherry Creek, 1st Avenue at Milwaukee Street, Denver
Tuesday, May 23, 7:30-9 p.m.
Call 303/322-7727 or visit tatteredcover.com for details.
Resources Lasater Grasslands Beef, grown on a 30,000-acre ranch near Matheson, Colo., is free of growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics, and is completely grass-finished. Visit the Web site at lasatergrasslandsbeef.com for more.
Ranch Foods Direct offers beef, pork and poultry raised naturally and minimally processed. Their diets include no hormones, antibiotics or animal byproducts. Visit ranchfoodsdirect.com for store locations.
Beneficial Farm and Ranch Collaborative is a co-op of five Colorado farmers and three New Mexico growers who offer chemical-free vegetables, produce, meats and value-added products (like salsa and jams) through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and at the Colorado Farm and Art Market during the summer. (Members of CSAs buy shares in the upcoming crop for one lump sum, then are delivered a box of fresh produce as it is harvested throughout the growing season, from June 17 through Oct. 28.)
Pick-up of Beneficial's boxes will be at Garden of the Gods Market at 26th and Cucharras streets in Old Colorado City. For more on the CSA, call 719/250-9835 (Pueblo) or visit beneficialfoods.org. Local restaurants and stores that use Beneficial Foods products are Adam's Mountain Caf, Blue Vervain, Briarhurst Manor, Garden of the Gods Market, Rocky Mountain Natural Store, Sencha, The Warehouse and Herb 'n Farm Caf at Colorado College. Beneficial will also be providing fruits and vegetables to Intel this summer. Visit beneficialfoods.org.
Colorado Farm and Art Market will open from 4 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays from June 7 into October, at America the Beautiful Park downtown, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays in Briargate at the Pine Creek Village Center, at the intersection of Briargate Parkway and Chapel Hills Drive. The market specializes in local and organic foods and fine art. For more, visit farmandartmarket.com.
Country Roots Farm, located on the St. Charles Mesa near Pueblo, still has memberships available in its CSA. Distribution will begin in mid-June and end in October. In Colorado Springs, distribution will be at a location near the downtown area between 3 and 6 p.m. on Wednesdays. Country Roots specializes in heirloom-variety fruits and vegetables and natural growing practices, and their hens produce genuine free-range eggs. Spring Field Day at the farm is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 30. Anyone is welcome to come see the farm. Bring a picnic lunch if you like. For a map to the farm or to learn more about Country Roots' CSA program, visit countryrootsfarm.com.