“When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer,” Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety.”
Nothing has made me think longer and harder about my food choices than this book by Michael Pollan. Focusing on the U.S.’s “national eating disorder” and attempting to explain why Americans are so easily swayed to make drastic changes to their diet based on the latest “scientific findings,” rather than a cultural connection to our food to our consumption. Meaning we live in a state of constant deprivation of one thing or the other, but are still overweight and unhealthy.
Pollan covers a lot of ground in this book, but the most intriguing is the comparison of “industrial organic” vs. local food. As one of those folks who will always buy the organic product if given the choice, I found Pollan’s disection of “industrial organic” fascinating. It would be a logistical nightmare to stock those gigantic Whole Foods stores all over the U.S. with produce from small local farms. Instead, they are stocked by “industrial organic” farms. Meaning that our organic food often comes from farms that are less pastoral, and more similar to the mega-farms, than we might like to think.
Despite my wish to have it so, just because my milk is labeled organic, does not mean that those cows were grazed in green, open pastures — just that they were not given antibiotics and were not forced to eat corn or animal bi-products. It does not mean that my “free range” chickens have actually stepped outside the crowded coop — just that they were given the opportunity to do so. It does not mean that my organic frozen dinner is healthy — just that some of the ingredients do not come from pesticide sprayed crops.
Pollan also goes on to describe the workings of a small, local farm which is almost completely self-sustaining. This farm does not abide by the regulations of organic, but it is a tight symbiosis where every animal and plant on the farm contributes to the health and growth of the others. The farm does not require pesticides or chemical fertilizers or antibiotics because the symbiosis among the diversity of plants and animals keeps the farm healthy. Because of this self-sustaining system, no single animal or plant is allowed to dominate the farm, or else the delicate balance would be upset. This makes it nearly impossible for the farmer to become part of the industrial system, and means that the food stays at the local level. In other words, you will find it at your local green market, but not at Whole Foods.
So, what should I eat? Where should I buy my food? Organic or local? While there is a closer connection here in Germany between culture and food, some of the basic quandaries still exist (e.g., national organic standards vs. the looser EU standards), as does my American disordered relationship with food (e.g., a fear of cheese, sausage, and beer, rather than being raised in the culture where the traditions around eating mediate the excesses of the foods themselves).
To me, healthy food, whether labeled organic or not, should be the top priority. I try to buy local, whenever possible. And I will always choose organic over non-organic. Although I no longer have the illusion that the food is quite as pastoral as I would like it to be, it is important to me that I not have to worry about hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics.
Complex issues, and I have not even finished reading the book yet! What are your thoughts regarding organic? Regarding our “national eating disorder” in the U.S.? Do you agree with Pollan’s arguments?
Read what others have to say about organic over at Sunday Scribblings.