Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've just finished reading Michael Pollan's latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma and judging from the length of the library's reserve list when I requested it, so have many of you. Michael sets out to dissect and discover the how and what behind the food found in four different meals, a fast food meal, an organic meal, a locally grown meal and a self-produced or "foraged" meal. The omnivore's dilemma is how do we decide what to eat when we can eat anything? Of course this "dilemna"is a luxury to have in our land of seeming abundance. What impresses me most about this book is it's dogged determination to follow every last tendril to its bitter end, or rather circular switchback, in the complex web of our complicated food system. Thought provoking to say the least, we are forced to see the implications for the choices we unconsciously make with every bite we take. Dislodged from the comfortable abode of our ignorance, we must acknowledge the almost absurd predicament our industrial scale food production places us in.

And yet, Michael is thoroughly human, in there with the rest of us, with his need for nourishment and enjoyment of good food. Delving into the moral ambiguities any thinking person might feel, we experience uncertainty, not dogma. No high handed rhetoric, no proclaimations of hell and damnation, no admonishments for our stupidity, he takes an even-keeled, even compassionate yet unflinching look at what goes on in the making of our food and what its costs are to the environment, public health, farmers, us and future generations.

These are issues that have preoccupied me since my college days, when I took a course in World Food Systems as part of my independent major in Environmental Systems Analysis. My interest lead me to apprentice on an organic farm, the quasi-academic pursuit of a rogue Western Michigan University professor who started a "School of Homesteading" in the seventies, (if you google Linda Olson Pehlke you will get a link to my Homesteading post). The hubris of youth had me in pursuit of an understanding of "how we got into this mess". How could there be such disparity between the abundance in one place and famine in the next? How could we be so stupid as to pave over and deplete the fertility of the soil we depend on for subsistence. All this "systems" thinking lead me to a career in urban planning, which is another story.

But back to Michael's book. I am in awe of the journalistic effort. As someone who has dabbled, in a small way, in journalism, let me tell you, the amount of research, field work, interviewing and reading he did is staggering. I can assure you that he has boxes and boxes or at least a computer full of information, so much more than he whittled down to write his marvelously concise yet readable book. If it weren't for the personal story telling, the book could have been a dry, heavy, impossibly depressing thing to read. But we are taken along for the ride and are grateful for it.

Here in Brookline, we are lucky enough to have our wonderful farmer's market, and after reading Michael's book I am more convinced than ever of the environmental and social benefits of buying as much of our food as possible directly from the growers. This is at least one positive response we can take to the challenges posed by the knowledge we've gained from reading this book.