(Read 14/07/2016 – 26/08/2016)
I found out about this book a while ago whilst reading a number of articles on the food industry. I was always interested to read the book as I enjoy cooking food and like everyone love eating it! However as I saw and read more about the terrors of the industrialisation of food I knew I had to stop turning a blind eye and like I had been doing for years and face the facts. Also I have always wanted to know whilst walking around the supermarket if paying the extra money for organic was worth it? Or what the impact of imported food and non-seasonal food had on the environment and taste. The premise of the book was to find a “perfect meal” in a society, which now places greater importance on price and time.
The book is split into 3 broad sections. The industrial, pastoral and personal forms of food production.
The first, the industrial section basically plots everything that goes into enjoying a McDonald’s or any fast food meal in your car on the go. But it does it by examining the role corn has played in shaping the industrial food processing industry. It shows that in an average American supermarket (and thus probably most others) that almost a quarter of the products contain corn in some chemical form. This is because corn produces more organic matter using the same air and water as most other plants, and in our modern industrial societies getting the most out of resources has taken precedent. Added to this the vast levels of nitrogen added to fertilise the corn (more than half of all synthetic nitrogen is applied to corn) and the transport costs of transporting the corn to feed lots etc, it actually uses more of a calorie of fossil fuel to produce one! But we have become so obsessed with quick food that the old way of using the free sun and taking our time has become redundant.
Whilst a lot of the corn is broken down and used chemically as flavourings and sweeteners etc in things such as soft drinks, 60% of it goes to feedlots. This is where the industrial section gets rather grim and vile. Similar to our obsession of producing corn quickly, we have taken this approach to our ‘production’ of animals. Instead of raising them on a rich grass-fed diet until they reach slaughter weight, we have followed our approach from crop farming. We squeeze more animals into the allotted area, we feed them the mass produced corn, which was never their evolutionary diet but it has become so cheap that we have tailored them to eat it. Finally we inject them with a whole barrage of drugs. This new method means a steer is ready to slaughter in a mere fourteen months. What seems most bizarre about this whole situation is that not only do corn farmers suffer from decreasing revenue and loss of fertile land, the animals suffer in terrible surroundings and conditions, but we, the consumers suffer from meat that contains a lot more saturated fat and less Omega 3 acids compared to food reared on a grass diet.
The second section of the book deals with grass. The first part examines organic farming, which in recent years has formed in to a hugely profitable industry. In most people’s eyes the word organic conjures up images of a greener and larger farm, where at least the animals have more room to roam and live. However in the biggest growing sector of the food economy, this idyllic picture has been replaced by a very similar industrial model. In fact the organic farms can be just as bad as the industrial ones, with animals being kept in lots with “access to pasture” meaning there is a entrance to the field, but the animals never actually go out because they aren’t used to being outdoors. Pollan explains that small organic farms are actually far better for the animal and environment but in the ever expanding organic trade, farms are becoming larger and becoming just as bad as their industrial cousins.
The final section, the personal describes food that Pollan collected himself. he describes how he foraged for mushrooms in the early morning with friends. He also tells of his hunting trip for a wild boar with three others. This section of the book shows that even though many of us live in cities, if we take a day out of it when we have the time, it is still possible to live off the land in some respects. The author is quick to note that the meal he prepares at the end of this chapter isn’t something that can be done regularly, but he notes how this meal made him truly think about what he was eating and the implications of it.
I preferred the first half of the book a lot more than the second. In my opinion the last section especially seemed to drag on and didn’t live up to the excellent first section. This book was honestly scary and disturbing throughout the first half and at various parts of the book I would have to put it down to think about the implications of what I had just read. I won’t go into the finer details here, but I urge people to read the book to make them consider what backstory is there when they throw the meat in the supermarket into their trolley. I think the most worrying part for me was the fact that the so-called premium priced, “organic” meat that I would usually choose in the supermarket is in some cases just as bad as the cheap industrial product. It also does a great job of showing the reader how supermarkets and companies hide the brutal reality of their products behind their careful packaging.
I think one of the biggest compliments to the book is that it leaves the reader with plenty of questions. For instance in our current consumer lifestyle, why have we chosen to spend only a tenth of our income on food whereas in the past we spent more than a fifth? In the supermarkets we constantly choose food on the basis of price searching for the cheaper meats and products, whilst the implications of these choices aren’t just detrimental to us, they also affect the animal and the planet. It also made me think of ways in which I could find food that was produced on smaller and greener farms to buy.
I urge readers to give this book a shot. It is carefully researched and full of information that I had never even considered or heard about. We all eat and this book makes you consider what you’re eating and where it came from and how you might be able to eat more consciously. It is a difficult read in terms of the disgust it may cause but I think if you can pull through it, it is a very rewarding book and will change some of the decisions you make.