I’m just about done reading a fascinating book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author traces origins of four meals: McDonald’s drive-thru, industrial organic (think Whole Foods Market), locally grown and supplied (featuring the fascinating Polyface Farm in Virginia), and one he hunted and gathered himself (having never wielded a gun prior to bagging the meat for this meal). He does not attempt to project any particular philosophy upon the reader – he had no qualms about savouring the Big Mac while driving his convertible down a sunny, California freeway. Rather, we follow along as he confronts the questions many of us don’t ask, or are afraid to answer, and works through the moral, ethical, philosophical and practical issues that one is deluged with as soon as one ventures down the path of inquiry.
We live in a culture that has no true gastronomic traditions, and he suspects this is why we are so schizophrenic about our diet in North America, where the culprit for our health woes switches from red meat, to fat, to carbs from one bestselling diet book to the next. We are also probably more removed from the sources of our food than any people in history. I was stunned to discover that corn and its by-products are so ubiquitous in our food industry (finding a product on a grocery store shelf that does not contain corn is the proverbial needle in a haystack venture) that carbon-isotope analysis of our flesh shows that the majority of our carbon molecules come from a plant that most of us would claim to eat only in summer when the sweet cobs are taken off the BBQ and smothered in butter.
Now, I’m a content meat-eater, deriving my own philosophies and borderline spirituality from the biological foundation of human behaviour and the evolutionary context in which we developed. Thus, I have no trouble embracing my omnivorous identity. I do, however, have a problem with the way we treat food animals and the sad, inhumane existence that is their lot in life. Yet even if you have no sympathy for animals raised in conditions that are eminently removed from those they evolved to be in, there are many other factors to consider that make it difficult not to feel repulsed by modern food production be it pollution, consumption of fossil fuels, health (ours as well as the animals’), or food quality.
I stopped buying conventional meats a few years ago after watching a documentary on pig farming – I love pork, but the horrors of squeezing a million pigs into a giant barn and the pollution nightmare that results from acres of manure ponds was too much for me. I wanted to buy organic, but the prices were a bit much for me to swallow. And, as I discovered in this book, the lives of these animals are not much better than those of conventional animals – they are still kept in cramped feedlots, standing in their own feces, and being fed a wholly unnatural diet of corn, proteins, and other things a ruminant is not designed to eat; the only difference being that they came from organic sources.
Fortunately we found salvation in the form of two sisters that my mother befriended who are in their seventies and still run the family farm. Each year they hand raise a couple of beef cattle – my mother has visited the farm many times and bears witness to the peaceful, gentle pastured life these cows enjoy – and we are lucky enough to lay claim to a quarter cow each fall. It is wonderful meat and I know where it came from and what the animals are eating. Until that time we vastly cut down on the frequency of meat-containing meals, using beans, lentils and tofu as substitutes (my cultural heritage includes a heavy dose of Asian cuisine, so tofu was not a culinary leap for me). When I hear people argue that humanely raised meat is elitist I get annoyed – few people in history had the luxury of eating meat every day and there is no reason why meat can’t go back to a festive-dinner-only type foodstuff, rather than a daily staple. One conclusion I made after reading was that I’d rather meat become expensive and ethical; I’d gladly reduce “beef night” to once a week.
Anyways, one of the most fascinating chapters was the tour of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms. While I enjoyed reading about the wonderful lives Joel’s animals live out while waiting to become a protein dish, what I enjoyed even more was the education I received regarding the Ecology of Farming. The relationship between ruminants and the grasslands they evolved to eat was fascinating stuff. Joel has managed to capitalize on what Nature already perfected through millions of years of trial and error, producing a substantial crop of chicken, eggs, pork, and beef from 500 acres of once-barren land (keep in mind that industrial farms are measured in the tens of thousands of acres) AND all the while maintaining a virtually closed ecosystem on his farm. The web of symbiosis there involves cattle grazing on grass, chickens feeding on grubs in the cow droppings, chicken droppings returning nitrogen to the soil, and pigs turning piles of cow manure into priceless compost. It is beautiful in its complexity.
What I liked most about this book is how it took questions and issues that lay at the back of my mind and forced them to the forefront. I know, for example, that our bodies are made up of the foods we eat. As a breastfeeding mother I often marvelled at the chunky, 3 month old baby I held in my arms considering that every molecule of his/her sweet-smelling flesh came from MY body. Similarly, the steak we eat is made up of the foods the animals eat and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that meat from animals fed a diet of corn, animal by-products, petroleum byproducts, and heavy doses of medications will have a different molecular composition than meat from animals fed on the diet that Nature designed them to eat (in the case of cows, grassland). Just as baby formula purports to be a “complete” feed for human infants, the fertilizers used to grow the monocultures of genetically-identical crops on industrial farms contain only what we know to be required by the organism. The bare, acceptable minimum. The countless other ingredients (be it in breastmilk, or properly composted topsoil) that we know nothing about, we dismiss as “unnecessary”. We are what we eat, and that includes what our meat and produce eats.
I urge you all to read this book – not because I want to convince you of any particular style of eating, not because I think it will change your life, but because it is a fascinating read and causes us to take pause and truly consider our relationship with the food we eat. I have been thankful for every chapter that has caused me to confront the questions always lurking in the back of my mind. Has it changed the way I eat? Not entirely. But I do feel that I am now a more informed consumer, and can make choices based on more than just the organic food labels that feature green fields of happy pasture-grazing cattle, and the marketing ploys that make shopping at Whole Foods seem like such an ethically satisfying experience. I’m still pondering everything I’ve learned, but I’m certain that I will ultimately be a better consumer for it.