June 26, 2007

read The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've read something like 5 books that really changed something about my life or my thinking. I've read them all since I turned 20, and together they make up a good part of how I think about the world. They were significant not because they radically changed everything about how I thought, but because they consolidated and added to some understandings I already had, and got me started thinking in new directions.

One of them is The Omnivore's Dilemma, which has the disadvantage of being pretty trendy right now. But let me tell you why you should read it anyway. Mostly because it's awesome, and a little because it's about to come out in paperback.

It's subtitled "A Natural History of Four Meals." Michael Pollan - the author of basically all the local food articles for the NYT magazine in the last few years - investigated four ways of getting and making food, then cooked a meal from each. Significantly, he originally planned to make it three: industrial (meal at McDonalds), organic (Whole Foods, etc), and wild (hunting and foraging the ingredients). As he got deeper into the research about organic farming, he realized that enormous, single-crop organic operations like Earthbound Farms (proud producers of that fancy lettuce mix) are wildly different from small local farms that integrate different kinds of plants and animals.

That tiny insight is the seed of what is so important to me about this book: the recognition of farms as ecosystems. They've got plants making sugar from the sun, animals eating plants (insect pests or farm animals), animals eating each other (predators of insect pests), nutrient cycling, all the features of any ecosystem. Once I started to see a farm as an ecosystem - a small one, dependent on the other systems around it, but an ecosystem nevertheless - the whole way I thought about responsible farming changed. I'd been very focused on an idea about how much absolute energy it took to produce a food item, which led me to be a vegetarian for about 10 years. Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma shifted my focus to trying to eat in a way that contributed to the existence of sustainable ecosystems.

Sustainable ecosystems are sustainable by virtue of the fact that they can keep going. Whatever they are doing doesn't hit a dead end or run out of steam. To do that in the temperate zones of the US often focuses around soil: keeping erosion pretty minimal, keeping a fairly closed loop in which nutrients leave the soil, go into plants, and somehow get back to the soil. Without the closed loop, the value of the soil erodes and the land needs external fertilizers to be usable; farmers end up dependent on expensive inputs, so they have to maximize production to make it, so they deplete the soil, so they need more inputs. This isn't a sustainable system. You need to do real nutrient cycling. It turns out that animals are by far the best way to do this, because they eat plants and parts of plants and then poop out easily composted fertilizer. Do this right and you can actually restore a piece of land to health by farming it, as Pollan describes Joel Salatin doing on Polyface Farm. This makes a lot of sense when you remember that this continent was managed for food production by Native Americans even when they weren't using agriculture.

This took me in two directions. On a practical level, I decided I wanted to support healthy farm ecosystems. Since farmers need animals to do nutrient cycling, that means supporting small-scale animal production. It would be nice to say that this is why I originally started eating meat again. Actually, I was sleeping outside 150 nights a year and was just cold all the time. Bacon? It'll keep you warm at night. I kept eating meat after I gave up my wilderness job because I'd rather get my protein in a way that helps small-scale farmers have healthy ecosystem than eat industrial soy, which is planted in monocrops that are ruining the unbelievably fertile prairie ecology of the Midwest. I see my food choices differently: partly because of The Omnivore's Dilemma, also partly because of the Gardener and my parents. Wendell Berry said "eating is an agricultural act." Eating is also an ecological act, because farming is an ecological act.1

The other, maybe more interesting, direction my mind went wandering while I read The Omnivore's Dilemma was to thinking about the sort of complexity that is at (maybe beyond) the limit of human understanding. In one of his articles, Pollan lists the known antioxidant compounds in a sprig of thyme: it goes on for a full paragraph. In the book, he describes the NPK revolution, in which agronomists believed they had discovered the only nutrients plants needed: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Feeding plants only these three things is roughly equivalent to feeding a human a blend of pure fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Even if you eat the right proportions, you're missing tons of minerals and vitamins and compounds we know almost nothing about right now. Also interesting is that the meat of a grass-fed cow is nutritionally very different from the meat of a corn-fed cow, and has meaningfully different effects on your body; there are also differences among vegetables grown in different circumstances (unsurprisingly, organic vegetables have more and more complex nutrients).

It reminded me of a conventional banana plantation I visited during a study abroad program in Costa Rica. The banana plants were tied to each other: bananas aren't actually trees, but a type of large herbaceous plant; the fruits of commercial banana plants are so large that they will actually knock the plant over if it isn't tied to something. The dirt was gray and clay-ey and looked dead. Nothing grew on the dirt in between the trees. The plantation was constantly sprayed with pesticides. I remember it as a place where the banishment of other life forms made it feel like a wasteland. An organic banana plantation just felt like a farm. Birds, insects, ground cover - stuff lived there.

Humans now know that we need biological complexity much more strongly than we can describe how it benefits us or even how it works at all. We're using very blunt tools to deal with a biological world that is totally awesomely complicated. In this context, some of our best resources are intuition and tradition. I find it paradoxically wonderful is that we often can't pinpoint why something works using science, because there are too many variables; but traditional methods of farming and eating often turn out, when analyzed, to work for scientific, provable, identifiable reasons. Sometimes not, like slash-and-burn, but even for slash-and-burn agriculture we can understand why it doesn't work: it's based on the assumption that more land will always be available. Partly because of The Omnivore's Dilemma, I'm really interested in understanding these valuable mental shortcuts we all seem to have.

Did I mention that you should read that book?

1. There's some privilege involved in being able to eat like this, but maybe less than you'd think.

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