Smarter Ways to Produce Food


After attempting to read some pretty simplistic and unsophisticated books like What Would Google Do and The World is Flat, I finally got around to reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Yes. Thank you, Michael Pollan for being nuanced and thorough and writing like a real investigative journalist. You’ve established trust as an author.

So well written, and detailed. Pollan’s book made me sad, indignant, hopeful. I seriously came almost to tears at some points.

If you want to know where your dinner comes from, please pick up this book. If you don’t care enough about yourself to even try to understand the stuff you’re putting into your own stomach, then you’re only doing yourself a disservice.

Food was always very important in my family. Coming from a Chinese background - back in China, most people put a very high premium on freshness and quality of food. The food industry in China is no where as developed as the one in the US, so there are still many local open-air markets that sell fresh produce and live chickens and fish that local farmers bring to town. Compare this to the ridiculous extent to which Americans have industrialized their food. Microwaveable TV dinners, Easy Mac that cooks in 1 minute, the countless combinations of processed foods all made essentially from corn and soy.

Pollan explains how the US’ way of growing, processing, and distributing food is unsustainable, contributes to obesity, and uproots humans from nature.

Externalities makes capitalism faulty The Problems of Externalities in Capitalism

OD 243 Joel Salatin: “Whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water - of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

It would be a great rule, that in order to eat meat, people should remind themselves of what it means to the animal. To eat a chicken, you must first experience the act of killing a chicken. We’ve gotten too disconnected from the domestic animals we depend on. We’ve lost touch with other life forms. We need to get reacquainted with Mother Nature.

Make slaughterhouses glass for transparency.

Why look at animals? by John Berger

OD 318: “A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism - the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty.”

Killing Animals

In the second section of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan writes about his experience on Polyface Farms, an organic, local farm. He includes this quote by farm-owner Joel Salatin:

Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians - we just want to opt out. That’s all the Indians every wanted - to keep their teepees, to give their kids herbs instead of patent medicines and leeches. They didn’t care if there was a Washington, D.C., or a Custer or a USDA; just leave us alone. But the Western mind can’t bear an opt-out option. We’re going to have to refight the Battle of the Little Big Horn to preserve the right to opt out, or your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, bar-coded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate.

Them is fightin’ words.

A better way to farm would be to emulate Mother Nature’s closed-loop biological systems. On Salatin’s farm, the cows are allowed to graze on pastures but rotated to prevent overgrazing. Grazing stimulates grass’ root growth. The cows provide natural manure. Then a mobile henhouse is brought in. The hens pick the cowpats for insects and thus spread out the manure to fertilize the grass and eliminate parasites. Chickens also provide nitrogen for the greass. Their eggs taste better and they’re raised more humanely.

But Whole Foods does not buy from this type of farm. To have a business this large, you are forced to buy from big suppliers because of the high transaction costs of dealing with hundreds of small ones. page 161 OD: “As soon as your business involves stocking the frozen food case or produce section at a national chain, whether it be Wal-Mart or Whole Foods, the sheer quantities of organic produce you need makes it imperative to buy from farms operating on the same industrial scale you are. Everything’s connected. The industrial values of specialization, economies of scale, and mechanization wind up crowding out ecological values such as diversity, complexity, and symbiosis.”

One of my friends doubted wether small-scale farms would be able to save us energy or feed everyone. But we’re not feeding everyone. We’re feeding the majority of Americans well. Some too well as witnessed by rising obesity rates and obesity-related illnesses. But many people in the world suffer from starvation and malnutrition. And according to Pollan (page 161, Omnivore’s Dilemma) small farms are more productive on a per acre basis than large farms.

OD 200: “So feeding ruminants corn came to make a certain economic sense - I say “certain” because that statement depends on the particular method of accounting our economy applies to such questions, one that tends to hide the high cost of cheap food produced from corn. The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn’t take account of that meal’s true cost - to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs of which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves. If not for this sort of blind-man’s accounting, grass would make a lot more sense than it now does.”

OD 214: “‘Efficiency’ is the term usually invoked to defend large-scale industrial farms, and it usually refers to the economies of scale that can be achieved by the application of technology and standardization. Yet Joel Salatin’s farm makes the case for a very different sort of efficiency - the one found in natural systems, with the coevolutionary relationships and reciprocal loops. For example, in nature there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch.”

mimic relationships found in nature instead of working against her. Both animals and humans gain by letting them do what they naturally are disposed to do. It’s not natural to cram hens in cages, snipping their beaks, tail docking pigs, etc.