Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
A Natural History in Four Meals  (2006)

Michael Pollan (1955)

451 pages

Read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma at your own risk: you might learn more than you want to know about our food supply, and it may make the otherwise simple trip to the grocery store much more complicated for you.

In the title, Pollan refers to the fact that while most animals rely on a single food source or a limited number of foods, humans are omnivores; we can pick and choose from anything edible that we encounter; thus our dilemma, as we select among a range of foods, from the healthiest to the least so. This “anxiety” over what to eat has had far-reaching impacts, beyond one specific person’s diet choices. It has created an agricultural system in which an ever expanding variety of foods are created and provided for us to choose from. And this same agricultural system also dedicates significant resources to creating and disseminating large amounts of information, to assist --- or bias --- us in our daily selection of foods, information that can be driven by scientific, marketing and political motivations, and which often leads to confusing and contradictory conclusions.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Pollan structures his story around four meals. Each section traces the history of a set of foods, to the point at which they become a meal for him. The four meals include a fast food dinner, eaten for good measure in a moving car; an “organic” meal from his local Whole Foods supermarket; a second “organic” meal from a locally focused farm operation in Virginia; and finally a meal from food that he has foraged and hunted for himself.

The first section, which culminates in the fast food meal, deals primarily with corn and its impact on our diet and on our agricultural system. Pollan describes the shocking ubiquity of corn (or more properly, corn-derived-products) in the modern day food system. He covers the history and biology of the corn plant, the codependency between corn and humans that has developed, and the farm policies that we have supported that have driven up corn production while maintaining low corn prices. He describes how this abundance of corn has consequently led to the creation of a myriad of uses for corn, as it is broken down into its constituent parts and then reassembled into all manner of food and non-food products. Finally, he highlights the key role corn has played in the now nearly complete transition to industrial-scale farms dedicated to a single or at most pair of crops, or to raising a single species of animal.

Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s), often referred to as feedlots or animal factory farms, have developed largely as a result of federal policies that have encouraged increased corn production. These policies have led to a dramatic growth in the amount of corn produced by subsidizing farmers to grow corn --- including paying them the difference when the market price is too low, creating a glut of corn on the market, and thus holding corn prices low. This mass of available, low-priced corn has essentially demanded that our agricultural system find more and more uses for it. One such new use has been as animal feed, for cows and chickens, despite the fact that corn is not part of their natural diets. Pollan outlines how cows, for example, need to be fed significant amounts of antibiotics in order to ward off the illnesses that come directly from the fact that they are not adapted to eating corn. By concentrating so may animals in such a small place, corn having replaced open-pasture feeding, the CAFO’s also end up with huge lagoons of animal manure and urine, concentrated into a small area, and laced with the antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals.

And on the other side of the corn equation, most of this corn now being grown comes largely from industrial sized fields of corn, fields that look lush and green, but are unnatural monocultures --- essentially a bio-wasteland from an ecological point of view, inhospitable to most types of wild animals. These monoculture farms, no longer also raising cattle, must turn to artificial fertilizers for their crops; artificial fertilizers whose production is heavily dependent on petroleum.

Pollan’s detailed discussion on the large-scale industrialization that has developed in the areas of food production and processing can be summarized by a quote from another author, Colin Tudge, in his book The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact: “... the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people.” The food industry has become like any other, a source of profit for investing corporations. That the competition inherent in such a set-up may have brought with it significant and important advances does not alter the fact that there is a dark side to treating the generation of food, whether animal or vegetable, as a profit focused activity.

In the next section of the book, Pollan looks at organic food, following its development from the initial, very small-scale farms created by idealistic young people in the 1960’s and early 70’s, to its almost inevitable industrialization, as large companies discovered a new market to exploit. That path is hardly surprising given the big corporation-driven development of food in general that Pollan describes throughout the book, but it is all the more dismaying in the area of organic food, whose initial growth came specifically from the desire for a new, healthier and sustainable alternative to food production.

Pollan shows how organic products have become a commodity, and so, in the drive to lower cost and maximize profit, have inevitably lost at least some of what made them special and desirable in the first place. As in other parts of the book, he does not shy away from the fact that there are not easy answers: is making organic foods more prevalent and available worth the loss of some of the advantages that existed when they were grown in a small scale environment? Pollan doesn’t settle on an easy answer, because there isn’t one. He leaves it to us, his readers, to carry on the investigation he has begun for us in the book.

The “organic” section also covers the inevitable backlash among farmers who try to develop sustainable farms outside the standard, corporate market place. By their very nature a loosely connected group, these farmers form a kind of guerrilla action, fighting the industrialized organic companies on a vast number of individual fronts. At the same time they must struggle against government policies that are prejudice against them, often intentionally due to the lobbying efforts of the large producers. Pollan demonstrates too, using as an example a particular farm that he visits and works on for a week, that the farmers in this movement are often not simply calling for a simple “back to nature” drive; instead they investigate and develop new approaches to optimize the use of their land and make their farms more successful, methods that compliment and extend ancient techniques.

Tying together what he learns about the industrial-sized farms of crops or animals, and the smaller scale mixed use farm which, like most farms up until a half a century ago or so, raise both crops and animals, Pollan comes to sudden realization: the move to industrial-sized, monoculture farming has broken in a fundamental way the natural synergies which exist on small-scale, mixed product farms. Just as one example, he reminds us that a mixed product farm is naturally self-sufficient: the animals provide fertilizer for the crops; the crops provide food for the animals. On an industrial-scale monoculture farm on the other hand, there are no animals to provide fertilizer, and so artificial fertilizer must be purchased. Similarly, on a CAFO the animal wastes have no where to be used, and so must be stored in huge lagoons near the animals; in reality the waste in these lagoons is not usable for fertilizer anyway, because it is a toxic brew containing the antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals. And these are only two of the natural connections now broken by an unnatural agricultural system.

While the sections on fast food and organic food are each impactful in their own way, the last section of Pollan’s book is perhaps the most dramatic. In this section he goes back to the original human lifestyle: hunter-gatherer. He talks about the challenges of forging for mushrooms without poisoning himself, but also of learning to shoot a gun and hunt, having come from a background in which he had no connection to guns or hunting. His experience of hunting and killing a wild hog --- the thrill of the chase and the kill, and the reflection later on about what he has done --- leads him to consider the ethics of eating animals at all. His does not argue this discussion from a preset point of view, content rather to describe how his thinking evolved on the issue, and the complexity of its various aspects. The psychological drama of having the most basic and fundamental possible relationship with his food source when he finally sits down to eat this last of the four meals makes for compelling reading, especially for anyone who shares his background as a non-hunter.

Pollan has written an engaging and fascinating review of our food and agricultural systems, and their impact on both our diet and our environment. While recognizing that these changes have brought us cheaper food and a greater variety of available foods, he also shows the less visible but equally dramatic effects the changes have had: significant petroleum resources going to the production of artificial fertilizers, disturbingly harsh lives for animals raised on industrial feedlots in terms of animal diet and living conditions, pollution of the environment from the toxic waste coming off such animal feedlots, and the dietary impact of the new foods being developed, for example the use of corn syrup as a sweetening agent in so many foods. He acknowledges that easy answers do not exist for many of these questions, but he encourages us to at least become more aware of where our food comes from, to understand the full impact of modern day agriculture and to begin to look at alternative methods of growing food and raising animals that may provide solutions to some of the worst of the impacts of our modern day food systems.

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On a related topic: I've read Eric Schlosser's <u>Fast Food Nation</u> (2001), which is another wonderful, if also scary, look at the food industry, focused on the dietary aspect and its affect on our health.

In a lighter vein: I've read Michael Pollan's <u>Second Nature</u> (1991), which is about his attempts to begin gardening.  His tone throughout the book is an engaging mix of seriousness and humor, and most any gardener will find themselves nodding and laughing to themselves as they relive through Pollan their own trials and tribulations in the garden.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review: "Jakob der Lügner" ("Jakob the Liar") by Jurek Becker

Jakob der Lügner (1969)
(Jakob the Liar)

Jurek Becker (1937)

283 pages

In a community caught in a monstrous situation, hope can be a final barricade against despair. Someone seen as a source of hope in the midst of such desperation takes on a status and importance that can feel overwhelming. How does one carry such a burden, live up to such a responsibility?

Jakob, a Polish-Jew living inside a walled off ghetto in a town in German-occupied Poland during World War II, faces this dilemma in Jurek Becker’s novel Jakob the Liar. Jakob works at a railroad yard loading and unloading cargo, and also owns a small restaurant. As the story opens, he is walking home close to curfew time, when a German street-guard accuses him of being out after curfew and orders him to report to the nearby German police station. Though he is eventually allowed to go home, he happens to overhear a radio report while in the police station that indicates that Russian troops have advanced to within 400-500 kilometers of his town. At the railroad yard the following morning, in a moment of crisis as he tries to stop a friend from taking a life-threatening risk, he tells the friend the news about the Russian advance, information that carries tremendous importance for the suffering Jews of the ghetto --- that hope is on the horizon. His friend doesn’t believe him, however, unable to imagine how Jakob could know such a thing. Desperate to convince his friend by substantiating his information, Jakob blurts out that he has a hidden radio, though he actually has no such thing and even the hint of owning one could cost him his life if the Germans hear of it.

Before he can take it back, the news of the secret ratio spreads through the ghetto like wildfire, and Jakob suddenly finds himself the center of attention, the focus of everyone’s hopes. A steady stream of people begin approaching him for the latest news, and, without an actual radio, he is forced to invent Russian progress each night, to tell lies. Jakob at first tries to find ways to extricate himself from the situation he’s inadvertently created, but his friends and neighbors in the ghetto, so desperate for any hopeful news, and unaware of the reality, end up blocking his every attempt. Finally even Jakob himself realizes, as he notices the positive effect his daily updates have on his fellow Jews, that he won’t be able to bring himself to stop the charade.

In telling the story, Becker convincingly recreates the environment of life in the ghetto. Not surprisingly, the tense and always dangerous interactions between the Jews of the ghetto and the German overseers play an important role. When, for example, two German SS officers come into the ghetto looking for a particular Jew, Becker’s description highlights the fear and, on both sides, the hatred that accompanies them; the many different ways that the Jews in the ghetto react are as varied as the people involved. More central to Becker’s telling are the complex relationships between the Jews themselves, as they try to survive the daily dangers of their situation. Even the presence of the radio becomes a point of strenuous division in the population of the ghetto.

The basic story of the novel is simple, and as Becker sets it up in the first couple of dozen pages it is hard to imagine how it will fill out the rest of the pages of the book. But the key to the novel is not the story of the non-existent radio, or the lies that Jakob must invent because of it; what shines through in Becker’s writing is the psychological complexity of life in the ghetto, and the variety of personalities and attitudes that make up the population. He skillfully mixes moments of humor and mundane events in the lives of the residents, with periods of fear and despair they feel at the apparent hopelessness of their situation.

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Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review: "The Catcher in the Rye" by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)  

J. D. Salinger (1919-2010)

214 pages

Having seen the trailer for the new documentary about J. D. Salinger’s life several times in the last couple of weeks, I decided it was time to fill-in a hole in my reading list: I’d never read The Catcher in the Rye. I hadn’t been avoiding it all these years exactly, but it has remained one of those well-known novels that “everyone” seems have read except me. One concrete reason that may have contributed to this is that many years ago I read his book Nine Stories --- it was on my parent’s bookshelf and I had recognized the author’s famous name, and I remember being under-whelmed at the time. I no longer recall why, but I simply didn’t find the stories particularly engaging. So, I suppose I’ve just never been all that motivated to seek out The Catcher in the Rye.

I’ve rectified that now, having just finished an old edition of the book my wife has. And, at the risk of typing out a kind of blasphemy, I didn’t find it very engaging either, at least not to the extent I expected from what I’ve heard about it, especially recently again, from the famous authors and actors who comment positively on it in the trailer for the documentary.

For those who have not read it and are not familiar with the story, Salinger wrote the novel in the voice of Holden Caulfield, a boy in his late teens from a well-to-do family in New York City. Written as a kind of testimonial, Holden recollects as he says in the opening paragraph, “the madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas.” On the verge of being kicked out of his third prep school because of poor academic performance, and with Christmas break just days away, Holden abruptly leaves the school and takes the train to New York City. He has no firm plans, except that he does not want to arrive at home before his parents receive the letter informing them of his dismissal. He describes his many experiences and encounters over the few days he tries to avoid going home, as he bounces haphazardly around the city. It becomes clear from his telling of these days (and nights) that his failures in school are not due to a lack of intellectual ability so much as to the same alienation and aimlessness that drives his chaotic wandering through the city.

Salinger’s writing captures Holden’s voice brilliantly, and through Holden’s telling of his adventures in the city, and his recollections of earlier events, his confusion with the world and uncertainty over his place in it become clear. I suppose the struggle I had as I read the story may reveal more about me than the novel itself: I have trouble reading (or watching movies for that matter) about someone who is self-destructing at every turn due to fundamental misunderstandings of themselves and others. In his recent novel, The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes: “Experience, or what we call experience, is not the inventory of our pains, but rather sympathy we learn to feel for the pain of others.” Holden sometimes recognizes “the pain of others”, but he seems incapable of learning sympathy for it, of finding empathy for those he meets. For him, everyone is classified in some simple categories, mostly negative, and even most of those who he first states that he likes quickly come in for complaint.

Maybe this was the point for Salinger in writing this novel; if it was, he succeeded brilliantly, but for me it made for an extremely frustrating read.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION