PERHAPS YOU ATE an orange for breakfast this morning, some cereal, toast, eggs, bacon, coffee. Maybe it all came from the same supermarket, or maybe you went further afield for what you believe to be more thoughtful, healthy and ethical choices âe" an organic orange, free-range eggs, happy, hormone-free pigs, fair-trade coffee.
But what exactly does âeoeorganicâe mean these days anyway? Does the image of contented hens clucking away in the open air over antibiotic-free feed match with the reality of government-approved âeoefree range?âe Perhaps the pigs that supplied the bacon experienced some barnyard bliss as they grew fat on a small family farm, but what were the actual conditions of their last moments, when many jurisdictions require the farmer to send his livestock elsewhere for slaughter? And just how âeoefairâe are the trading conditions for fair-trade farmers in developing countries?
Welcome to the omnivoreâe(TM)s dilemma, as exhaustively explored by American journalist Michael Pollan. It faces us, whether we care to think about it or not, pretty much every time we take a morsel of food into our mouths. As omnivores, weâe(TM)ve evolved bodies designed to bite, chew and digest both meat and plant matter; as citizens of the developed world, with food choices ranging from Twinkies to Tofurkey, itâe(TM)s perhaps no wonder weâe(TM)re very, very confused about whatâe(TM)s for dinner.
Reading Pollanâe(TM)s The Omnivoreâe(TM)s Dilemma back to back with The Way We Eat, written by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, two vegetarian/vegan veterans of the animal-welfare movement, did have me wondering if I dared to eat a peach, or any other food item, unless I have grown it myself or personally toured the farm from whence it came. Grocery shopping, even at the local health-food store, suddenly seemed a daunting prospect, every choice inevitably a compromise or lesser evil.
Most of us do not grow our own food; most of us donâe(TM)t have incomes that allow us to buy exclusively âeoe organicâe (which are not always better than regular options anyway), or the time to engage in lengthy philosophical debates with ourselves every time we fill our food basket. Weâe(TM)re doomed, I concluded, and so is the planet, and thatâe(TM)s that.
Eventually, though, I got hungry and decided I could eat again without hating myself and all of humanity. All these authors are really asking is that we try to be more thoughtful about our food choices. Equipped with the intelligent reflections and carefully gathered information in these books, anyone can do that. California-based Pollan seeks to re-connect with the sources of the typical, and not so typical, North American diet, by probing into the origins of four very different meals. In meal one, Pollan, his wife and 11-year-old son chow down on McDonaldâe(TM)s fare while travelling in their car. Almost every item, it turns out, owes its existence to cheap corn. The big agricultural-industrial systems that make such meals possible are riddled with troubling contradictions and exploitative practices that continue only because so many people have no idea, and probably donâe(TM)t want to know, the real dynamics of producing a McNugget âe" corn farmers go broke producing their cheap crops; chickens live in deplorably cruel conditions; a distressing mix of chemicals is the cherry on top.
What Pollan calls âeoebig organicâe is, in many cases, not much better. True, organic growing eschews pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But as Pollan traces the far-flung origins of his Whole Foods meal, much of it trucked in from somewhere else, he is gloomy about what he finds: âeoeâe¦today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable and yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.âe That organic spring asparagus in winter had to be flown to North America from Argentina, courtesy of much fossil fuel.
Meal three might be called small organic, and here things seem less problematic from an ethical, environmental and health standpoint. But the thriving farm run on overall sustainable practices can only feed so many people (thatâe(TM)s the point) and the food does come at a premium many could not afford. But the livestock has eaten real grass in the open air; the chickens had some breathing room as they laid their eggs. (Singer and Mason, on the other hand, cite the same farm in their book, critiquing some of their animal-handling practices.)
Finally, Pollan decides to create a meal entirely of food he hunts and gathers himself. He doesnâe(TM)t suggest this is practical or sustainable âe" it involves shooting a wild boar, foraging for mushrooms, picking random fruit on Berkeley boulevards and even scraping sea salt off rocks in San Francisco Bay.
Singer and Mason, though much more critical of meat-eating than Pollan is, follow a similar format, constructing three radically different diets eaten by three American families: one shops exclusively at supermarkets to put together âeoethe standard American diet;âe another family tries to be âeoeconscientious omnivores;âe still another has gone completely vegan in the heartland.
While making clear their own biases, Singer and Mason are surprisingly non-judgmental of other peopleâe(TM)s food choices. They acknowledge that âeoechoiceâe is often limited by income, availability and, frankly, ignorance. They offer their book as a means of countering that ignorance, laying out the facts and philosophical arguments, and leaving it up to the reader to make his or her own food choices.
With these two excellent books at your disposal, your choices, whatever they might be, will definitely be better informed.âe"Moira Farr
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