Saturday, April 7

We Eat Oil

I felt tempted to pull out the old skills and do a standard book review post about The Omnivore's Dilemma but I really can't. I mean I could talk about the cleverness of his devices and the solidness of the writing and the way he makes facts accessible through personal stories... but that would be faking an objectivity I don't really feel. This book frightened and inspired me. And I only got through the first section.

The Omnivore's dilemma is an extension of the organism's basic problem -- "What can I eat?" At this point in our evolution, humans are omnivores. We've figured out that we can eat pretty much everything. Not only that, we've figured out how to get other humans to bring our favorite foods to us. So, given that, are there things which are better for us to eat? And how do we measure better? This is the dilemma.

Up until the 1950's, hunger was a major problem even in the US. The Great Depression was only partly an economic slowdown after the collapse of Wall Street. It was also a drought that threatened famine. As a nation, we did what starving animals do. We became obsessed with food quantity... perhaps at the expense of quality.

Three technologies were developed for increasing food production: irrigation techniques, pesticides, and fertilizers. Introducing these elements to farming became known as The Green Revolution, increasing food production wherever they went.

Pollan argues that corn is the engine of this food production. He makes the case that corn is more efficient than other grains at turning energy inputs into stored energy. Because of this efficiency, we can produce more calories of corn than we can actually consume. So corn has increasingly elbowed its way into our food system by replacing other calorie sources. For example, corn syrup sweeteners instead of cane or beet sugar. Corn-fed cattle instead of grass-fed cattle. Bit-by-bit corn has become the staple food of the US.

The problem with this model is that corn cannot maintain itself year after year in the same land. The traditional method of growing corn was to rotate or co-plant it with crops like squash and beans. But squash and beans aren't as efficient and aren't consumed at the same levels. The Green Revolution allows us to skip the rotation by feeding the corn through fertilizer.

The problem with this is that corn produces fewer usable calories than the fertilizer contains. Fertilizers are a petroleum product. So in other words, our diet is in direct competition with our cars. And the ethanol-as-renewable-resource meme looks to compound the problem again: use petroleum to make fertilizer, grow corn with the fertilizer, use the corn to power cars or to eat...

Fortunately, Pollan ends the section on corn on a positive note. He tells us of a visit to Polyface farm, an intensive agriculture farm where after the corn is cut down, the chickens are turned loose to finish up the grain and eat bugs. Then grass is allowed to grow, thriving in the chicken litter. Then cows are grazed on the grass, aerating the soil and providing fertilizer. Then the corn is grown again. This high-care, high intensity agriculture seems to produce far more calories per acre than the corn-based industrial agriculture we have now... but it is incredibly labor intensive.

This leads me to suspect that when we get serious about global warming, we will have to return, in some way, to being a nation of farmers and ranchers.

The story of Pollan's visit to Polyface is also included in Best Food Writing 2006, along with an excerpt from Julie and Julia, and a thoughtful article from Bill McKibbin written for Gourmet. Which is to say, I think the book is worth it for just those three pieces, but it's stuffed full (no pun intended) of good reading.


Caroline said...

Interesting... this is a book I've been contemplating getting from the library. I think this will end up on my "must-read" list.

Kris Shanks said...

I can't recommend this book enough. He does a great job of exploring the intersections between farm subsidies and the sea of junk food we find ourselves in.

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.