(On DVD, December 2009) The past decade has seen an unprecedented boom of interest in the way we eat, and after conquering TV networks and bookshelves, those ideas are dripping onto the big screen as well. In this case, the kinship between books and documentary is obvious: Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) are two main interview subjects and if Pollan is merely credited as a special consultant, Schlosser also co-produced the film. Food, Inc takes on the task of exploring the less attractive aspects of the secretive food production industry, from corn to cattle to burger. Along the way, it explains a number of troubling realities that will be familiar to Pollan and Schlosser’s readers: How family farms are a charming relic of the past; how (de)regulation is having a disproportionate impact on our health; how food production is being controlled by very few entities; how those entities have captured governmental agencies and are given extraordinary rights to silence their critics. Discussing food, it increasingly becomes obvious, quickly comes to touch other crucial social issues such as migrant work, copyright reform, and the role of government in industries. As a documentary, Food, Inc is up to current standards, with a mixture of interviews, infographics, location footage and archival footage. It’s not always pleasant to watch, but it’s informative, and gives added context to the growing amount of information about the food supply. Though heavily US-centric, it describes issues at play in Canada as well -although I’d be curious to see a comparative examination of our regulatory regimes. Well-made, provocative, stirring and (eek) important, it’s well worth watching as another warning light on our modern dashboard.
Penguin, 2008, 244 pages, C$26.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-59420-145-5
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
There. In seven words, that’s a summary of Michael Pollan’s wisdom. Helpfully, the cover of the book even sports those words. If you’re not yet satisfied, you can always read Pollan’s New York Times article “Unhappy Meals” in which he laid out most of his book’s central message.
Otherwise, well, what can I say? It’s tough to review great books. Once I have urged you to go and get the book, everything else is an anticlimax.
Oh, OK, a few more contextual details may be useful: For instance, you really should read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma before tackling In Defense of Food. While both can be read independently, Polaln’s previous book provides a theoretical framework over which his latest book elaborates. In fact, Pollan is up-front about the fact that reader reaction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma led him to write In Defense of Food: After spending four hundred pages explaining all about the unsustainable and unhealthy process through which our food comes from, Pollan found himself deluged with questions about what to do about it. In Defense of Food is an answer: not a rigid system, but a set of ideas and guidelines meant to help us navigate through supermarkets booby-trapped with false nutritional claims and processed variants of mostly-corn.
The first few chapters of In Defense of Food tackle the industry of nutrition. With brief historical overviews of how Americans have been seduced over and over again by dubious claims about what they should be eating, Pollan comes to the conclusion that trying to add explicitly-nutritive ingredients to synthetic food is a losing proposition. Humans, he reasonably reminds us, have co-evolved with their natural food sources for thousands of years: The interaction between human nutritive systems and natural food means that it’s difficult to isolate the building blocks of what food does to the body. A reductionist approach (add this much fat, that many carbohydrates, a little bit of protein…) is actually harming us: it’s better to stick as closely to naturally-grown whole food as possible.
That’s not exactly a new or revolutionary message, although Pollan’s catch-phrases are memorable: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” is one of the best. But as a reminder of what we should strive to do in-between the convenience of food-court lunches, it’s an entertaining and convincing discourse.
Along the way, though, we learn a bit more about government intervention in the mechanics of the food pyramid (both the one that hangs on walls, and the real one that favours certain industries over others in bringing you sustenance) and reflect on the meaning of a healthy food culture. Passing nutrition manias such as the “Atkins Diet” (which seems to have disappeared from the mainstream as quickly as it entered it) are symptoms of a bigger problem, which is to say the appalling lack of knowledge that most (North-)Americans have about how and what to eat.
If nothing else, In Defense of Food will make you feel a lot better about how much you know about food. In the last section of the book, Pollan suggests ways to best shop at the supermarket: Avoid food with unpronounceable ingredients, avoid food that make health claims, go to a farmer’s market whenever possible, cook, eat slowly, plant a garden… the trouble with a lot of those recommendations are that they’re very familiar: It’s what your mom told you, and most of it can be deduced from “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” Culinary wisdom is simple: it’s sticking to it despite inconvenience that’s hard.
There’s also the suspicion that In Defense of Food will mostly be read like people who intend well and already do most of what it recommends: At a time where market forces are what really changes supermarkets (and in turn, what’s easily available to us), the real issue here will be to get people who aren’t concerned about their diet to start paying attention.
So: “Read Pollan. Eat better food. Discuss issues.”
Penguin, 2006 (2007 reprint), 450 pages, C$19.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0
I should preface this review by saying that I worked several summers on my uncle’s farm, and that I’m no stranger to that end of the food production chain. Several of the experiences described in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma aren’t so strange to me: I have moved cattle from one field to another, shoveled excrement, held on to carcasses being gutted and everything in-between the life of a farm hand from dusk to dawn. When I eat steak, I can tell you where it came from, how it was processed and why cows deserve to be eaten.
But few North-Americans can say the same about what they eat, and the nature of the modern food-processing industry is such that no one can vouch for the provenance of the stuff they eat. It’s that realization that led Pollan to embark on a major documentary project: Trace the origins of what we eat, and do so using the excuse of four different meals.
The first meal in an all-American McDonald’s lunch, and it’s the most hard-hitting part of the book. While many people (myself included) still harbor quaint notions of family farms, feeding North America requires an industry that is more about chemicals and overproduction than free-range cattle. In a few eye-opening chapters, Pollan describes entire agricultural landscapes taken over by the monoculture of corn, floating on virtual oceans of oil given how non-renewable substances are essential in pushing corn growing well beyond self-sustainability. In a few cogent passages, Pollan directly links government policies and subsidies to the corn-saturated diet of all Americans, a diet whose deleterious impacts are still being discovered. Corn has come to invade nearly every single aspect of food production, even in food that seemingly has nothing to do with corn: the modern chemical industry has found hundreds of derivative corn-based products, and a similarly robust effort to re-create artificial smells and flavors can seem to transform corn into just about anything. That’s the first of the many revelations in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the shocks keep piling up as Pollan tries to learn more about how beef is grown and raised on the gigantic meat factories of the Midwest. (There’s a limit to what he can find out when the biggest meat-producers forbid him from getting inside their factories.) Pollan’s first meal tastes of chemicals and oil in more than metaphorical ways as we’re left to contemplate a system engineered for cheap food, not necessarily for good or healthy or sustainable living.
But is there an alternative? Pollan’s second meal is assembled from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods supermarkets, but his research into “Big Green” suggests that the Organic movement is little more than a feel-good label on environmentally unsound practices. Better than McDonald’s, sure, but still nowhere near self-sustainability: on the way from the hippies to Whole Foods, the process was co-opted and corrupted by the very same corporations that Organic food was supposed to run against.
Pollan’s third meal is a little more encouraging. Wearing overalls for a week, Pollan finds himself on Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm, working for his food in a highly optimized ecosystem where few things are ever wasted. As luck had it, I ended up reading this section on the family farm, and my descriptions of the various ways in which Polyface recycles and reuses its ecosystematic components caused a number of favorable comments from family members better equipped to evaluate the process. Pollan finds some peace and contentment in putting together his third meal from the environmentally-sustainable Polyface products, but he’s more than ready to admit that the process doesn’t scale up: Trying to feed North America using a Polyface model would require a lot more land and farmers than we’ve got.
But the experience of cutting chicken necks on Polyface soon leads Pollan to his fourth meal, for which he intends to gather all the material himself from local sources, from killing a wild board to gathering salt from the ocean. His experiment doesn’t always go as planned (the salt from the San Francisco Bay seems too toxic to consume), but the digressions along the way include meditations on being a hunter, and the strange sub-culture of mushroom-gatherers.
But a bland recitation of Pollan’s four meals misses the point that this is a fantastic non-fiction exploration of food and how it’s tightly integrated with the environment, with economics, with society and with our own biology. This is investigative journalism at its finest, as Pollan not only finds the facts, but manages to present them vividly. The Omnivore’s Dilemma has a nearly perfect narrative drive (the only exception being Pollan’s chapter-long exploration of vegetarianism, which isn’t something in which I’m terribly interested) and plenty of jumping points for personal inquiry.
I found myself wondering, for instance, whether there was an appreciable difference between Canadian and American diets: given the role that US sugar subsidies have played in promoting the use of high-fructose corn syrup in just about every facet of American food; can there be other differences between Canadian and US food? Despite its climate, is Canada closer to food self-sustainability than the US?
But chances are that everyone will find themselves looking at food differently after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Going to the supermarket becomes a different experience once you can picture the oceans of corn that are distilled into making up a significant fraction of what’s on the shelves. Ingredient labels become fascinating. Processed food become less appealing. Heck, even a locally-grown stalk of broccoli is somehow ennobled by Pollan’s book.
It helps that Pollan isn’t quite as strident as other food writers (such as Susan Powter, for instance) in convincing us to change our rotten ways. Most of his argumentative power comes from implication. Environmentalism may be an unarguable conceptual virtue, but it’s more sobering to consider that the end of cheap oil will have a profound impact on our food supply. Self-sustainability means planning for the long term, and our food supply chain in its current form definitely isn’t built to last.
Good non-fiction is always a pleasure to read, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma goes beyond that to become a mesmerizing experience, filled with revelations and questions. It will spur you to learn more (Pollan’s own follow-up In Defense of Food was written partly to answer some of the most nagging questions left by this book) and maybe even nudge you gently toward more responsible lifestyle choices. Even, especially, if you’ve never worked on a farm.