The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD: a shrine to what people would like to think the corn-centric agribusiness industry is all about. Also, it might be suggested, the world's largest birdfeeder. Yes, those walls are mosaics of corn.

I just finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which while occasionally frustrating makes a serious effort to delve into the processes and systematics of our food system. Or actually, a few parallel food systems: industrial, sustainable, and their hybrid offspring that he terms "big organic," which is generally what is meant by the organic label on the food in your grocery store. (He also spends the last third of the book on this odd hunter-gatherer ego trip of a philosophical aside, so if you're reading for relevance you can probably stop after part II.)

On which note: my first CSA box of the season arrives June 2! Don't know yet what'll be in it -- you never really do -- but judging by last year salads and rhubarb are likely to be the order of the day. I'm not sure what exactly one does with rhubarb other than make pies, of course.

But back to Pollan. There are a few major themes that recur throughout the book. It compares monocultures to ecosystems as methods of production, and investigates the closely related point of petroleum versus sunlight as the underlying energy sources. Tied up in those two contrasts are many of the issues that give rise to organic food, sustainable agriculture, and the "eat local" movement. One one extreme is Iowa, which grows corn almost to the exclusion of any other activity, producing vast quantities of commodity grain using state of the art chemistry and biotechnology, which is then fed into the modern agribusiness industry. On the other end you have sustainable farms that operate as carefully engineered ecosystems, many of which don't even bother getting organic certification because they sell not to grocery stores but directly to consumers through farmers' markets, CSAs, and other local delivery mechanisms.

While I do frequently buy organic food my concern is more with the sustainability of our food system than the particulars of what pesticides or fertilizers can or cannot be used. (However, antibiotics are another story altogether.) So this year my produce will be coming from a CSA farm in southeast Minnesota. I'll be sure to write about that.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on May 23, 2007 6:09 PM.

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