"What should we have for dinner?" This is the opening line of The Omnivore's Dilemma, the book we'll be discussing together over the next few weeks. I'm looking forward to reading the book along with you and to being part of an online conversation about the far-reaching implications of our food choices.
This week I read the Introduction and Chapters 1 through 3. The following are some thoughts and questions that are intended to be discussion starters. Please feel free to share your thoughts on any of the issues I raise or on anything else related to the book.
As you read the introduction to the book — titled "Our National Eating Disorder" — think about how quickly the focus of attention changes as we collectively think about food. This book was published in 2006, and most of it was written the year or two before that. Hot topics for discussion today — e.g., food versus fuel, carbon footprints, and food miles — don't even appear in the index. Yet many of the fundamental questions Pollan poses are timeless. What questions are most important for you as we begin this exploration of food choices?
I am fascinated by Pollan's description of the history of corn in Chapter 1. Back in the 1970's, I spent an afternoon on Roswell Garst's farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa. Garst, along with Henry Wallace (who later became Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt) were early commercializers of hybrid corn and founded Pioneer Hi-Bred. The fact that farmers can't save hybrid corn seeds for planting the next crop made their business possible. At the end of Chapter 1 Pollan notes that "Hybrid corn now offered its breeders what no other plant at that time could: the biological equivalent of a patent." Why does society grant patents? What benefits do we get from the protection of intellectual property? What costs do we incur?
In Chapter 2, the description of George Naylor's farm is full of irony and conflict. The central conflict is between productivity and cost. For example, Pollan says, "Measured in terms of output per worker, American farmers like Naylor are the most productive humans who have ever lived. Yet George Naylor is all but going broke....(p. 34) " What factors contribute to this seeming contradiction? What surprised you about the description of challenges farmers face? Do you think George Naylor is a "typical" farmer?
In a very short time, we have gone from the "plague of cheap corn" that Pollan describes in Chapter 2 to record high prices for corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice. George Naylor started farming in the early 1970's, at the time of our last great price run-up. How is the current situation like — or different from — that which Pollan describes in the section of Chapter 2 titled "The Sage of Purdue"?
The evolution of the logistical system that Pollan describes in Chapter 3 has been driven by a desire to minimize the cost of moving corn from thousands of farms to a myriad of users. What benefits do we derive from this system? What costs does it impose on us?
I'll close by returning to the basic question of what's for dinner. Last night we had braised grass-fed beef that we bought online from Whole Farm Coop in Long Prairie (www.wholefarmcoop.com), rice that was probably grown in California by farmers who participate in U.S. commodity programs, asparagus that came to our supermarket from Washington state (local asparagus is just showing up in farmers markets), and a salad made from lettuce raised in our garden. Along with this we enjoyed a bottle of wine from the Cahors region in France — a place my wife and I will visit this fall. Our meal had ingredients from each of the three food chains Pollan following in this book: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. For us, that's probably the norm. What did you have for dinner last night?