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December 04, 2006

The Omnivorous Life

About two weeks ago, I promised a future post on the ethics of eating meat, based on my reading of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. I had just started the book when I made that promise, but over the past two weeks, David and I just gobbled it up (sorry, I couldn't help the obvious pun) -- we even fought over who got to read it when, as we only had one library copy between the two of us. We both finished it yesterday, David around 3am and I around 3pm. I predict it will provide a lot of grist for the blog mill.

The Omnivore's Dilemma explained in great detail what it means to be an omnivore, and how our bodies evolved to require the immense variety of animals, plants, fungi, and minerals we feed it. Over the course of the book, Pollan argues from biology to debunk just about every food fad that has ever come along. Further, he explains why we as Americans are so susceptible to food fads, which goes back to the eponymous dilemma: as omnivores, we can eat just about anything, and thus must learn to distinguish between items that nourish us (edible mushrooms, for example) and those that kill us (poisonous mushrooms). Human cultures have, over long periods of time, evolved complex rules to help us negotiate this dilemma, such as the laws of kashrut and national cuisines. As Americans, however, we lack this carefully evolved cuisine, the age-old traditions of what to eat and how to eat it that keep people in other parts of the world thinner and healthier than we are.

Lacking a time-tested alimentary path, our food habits have gone in two dangerous directions. First, toward capitalist cuisine. Pollan does not actually use this phrase, but he does describe how our diets have come to focus on corn (used in myriad ways, from a starch and vegetable, to feed for our animals, to sweeteners, binders, and fillers, to an ingredient in food packaging), which he argues is the perfect capitalist crop because it cannot reproduce on its own and because the varieties that have been engineered to have the highest yield don't produce their own seeds (which means the farmers need to buy expensive patented seeds each year). Capitalist cuisine privileges foods that are cheap for consumers, profitable for food manufacturers (but not farmers), and disastrous for our health and the health of our planet. The other direction is food fads. Capitalist cuisine clearly makes us fat and sick and, in an effort to combat our expanding waistlines and diminishing lifespans, people are quick to jump on the bandwagon of whatever quack has proposed a supposedly-better way of eating, which usually involves giving up one or more of the three macronutrients: fat, carbohydrates, and animal protein.

I have certainly been susceptible to such fads, going through periods of vegetarianism and even veganism in search of better health and a more humane way of eating (I'm not an animal rightist by any measure, but I was convinced by Frances Moore Lappe's argument in Diet for a Small Planet that meat production uses valuable resources that could more efficiently be used to feed the Earth's human population). Pollan, too, experimented with vegetarianism while researching his book, but ultimately went back to eating meat when he realized that, as omnivores, meat is part of the diet we evolved to eat. Furthermore, animals evolved to be eaten by us. While animal rights activists argue from the position that every individual animal has the right to life, Pollan argues from the evolutionary perspective that animal species fare better when we eat them. For example, an individual chicken would certainly live longer if people didn't eat chickens, but the species chicken would quickly go extinct if we weren't breeding them for food. In other words, it is in animals' best interest (evolutionarily speaking) to serve us with their eggs, milk, and flesh. Human beings also need animal products, though not in the quantities Americans are accustomed to eating them. We have incisor teeth and stomach enzymes that serve no other purpose than to process meat. Eating meat also allows us to obtain energy from plants that we can't eat ourselves: cows are ruminids, which means they have a stomach specially designed to digest grass, which is indigestible to humans. By eating beef, we get the protein and energy the grass soaks up from the sun. Furthermore, when beef is produced in environmentally-sustainable ways, its production actually makes the soil healthier. While humans can survive on an all-plant diet, such a diet would actually be more detrimental to the soil because it would use up soil nutrients without replacing them in the form of manure. There are also parts of this world that can't produce anything other than grass, which would be useless to us without animals to turn that grass into digestible protein. Granted, most of the meat we eat today is produced according to methods that are harmful and unsustainable (I'll describe this at greater length in another post), and this is a serious problem, but that doesn't mean we should throw out the cow along with the factory farm.

Finally, Pollan points out that the development of human brains occurred along with the expansion of our diet: the more different foods a species eats, the larger of a brain it needs. His tongue-in-cheek implication for food faddists is that, the more we restrict our diet, the smaller our brains will become.

Posted by eklanche at December 4, 2006 09:04 AM

Comments

Given your seeming agreement with Pollan that humans were made to consume healthy meat (non-corn-fed) AND your dogged pursuit of the best hamburger in the universe, perhaps you'll find this Splendid Table story on grass-fed beef of interest:
http://splendidtable.publicradio.org/souptonuts/meat_grassbeef.shtml
Note the links to a few retailers of grb products. If you were to give D. a pound of ground gfb, and turn him loose on the grill, perhaps he could create the best burger, right there in your own backyard.

Posted by: eammoss at December 4, 2006 10:43 AM

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