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ROOKS & THE CULTURE The Purist’s Dilemma BY JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals By Michael Pollan Penguin 464 pages, $26.95 Here are just a few of the things that bestselling author Michael Pollan is worrying about these days: the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oils in his meat, the “ethical. implications” of organic asparagus from Argentina, the access that chickens have to fresh cow pats, how pigs feel about getting their spiraled tails docked Whole Foods has sold its soul to the surface, such concerns seem so overwrought, so preciousso irrelevant in the grand scheme of the havoc being wreaked in the real worldthat it’s hard to take them seriously. Yet The Omnivore’s Dilemma is urgently relevant. Through first rate, gonzoinspired journalism, Pollan frames what seem to be little more than boutique culinary concerns within a larger, politically relevant context. His investigative/conversational approacha style first glimpsed in his previous book, The Botany of Desire will motivate even the most indifferent consumer, mouth stuffed with processed cheese, to reconsider the consequences of that bite. His conceit takes us deep into the production of four kinds of mealsa McDonald’s fast-food meal, an “organic industrial meal,” a meal made with ingredients from a self-contained Virginia farm, and a rough-hewn spread that he hunted and foraged himself. His findings easily make this the most important book on American food since Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Pollan traces the natural history of these meals to show that eating is about more than mere satiation. It’s also about decision making. Humans are omnivores, and when it comes to food, we face dilemmas every time we eat. \(In fact, the reason why the human brain may be so comparatively large is that we’ve had to make so many dietary deciThe problem, as Pollan sees it, is that most of us have our eyes shielded by an industry that wants us to see no evil. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is in many ways a complex treatiselots of science, lots of ethics, lots of elaborate ecologizingbut the ultimate aim that Pollan repeatedly comes back to is basic: He wants us to think intelligently about what we eat. The fact that his book has been on The New York Times best-seller list indicates that when it comes to making responsible food choices, he might be tipping the balance from fringe to mainstream, or at least from radical fringe to fringe. When it comes to American eating habits, that’s saying a lot. Thinking intelligently about food means, first and foremost, unlocking the darker mysteries of corn. Because corn can be converted into syrup, oil, and gum, its by-products appear in virtually every processed food. It’s also the basis of the antibiotic-infused feed that most American cattle are fed as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, up to their knees in their own shit, while awaiting the abattoir in a CAFO \(Confined dized, grown monoculturally, a guzzler of pesticides, and fueled by nitrogenbased fertilizer, corn is a sad crop. Sure, it might have freed the farmer from “old biological restraints,” but it did so by trading in a free source of energythe sunfor one that is anything but free fossil fuel. Indeed, growing an acre of corn on an industrial farm requires no less than 50 gallons of oil. This stat gives Pollan pause, as it should anyone concerned with energy dependency and global warming. Accordingly, Pollan is at his nit-picking best when he breaks down the equation of corn, showing how everything from the production of fertilizer, to the processing of syrup, to the vast distances the myriad by-products must travel has turned a healthy grain into the petroleum-dependent bane of an environmentally responsiblenot to mention healthydiet. He explores corn production through the lens of an Iowa farmer named George Naylor. Slavishly planting nothing but corn and soybeans to feed the maw of an agricultural machine, Naylor becomes exhibit A of what agribusiness, boosted by government subsidies that reward overproduction, has wrought. The “plague” of cheap corn has driven farmers like Naylor to maximize production despite falling prices because, as a farmer whose crop is not intended to be human food, he’s \(in his own industrial food chain.” Should he ever want to break free from this system, he would immediately confront the economic reality that “the [grain] elevator is the only buyer in town” as well as the agricultural reality that his soil was depleted to the point where it could only do one thing: absorb fertilizer and sprout more corn. \(Not all that different from the system of sharecropping that prevailed in the Deep South after Why does the free market allow this situation to occur? It doesn’t. The federal government structures this dependency, accounting for half of net farm income while ensuring that the lowest rung is supported just barely enough for the Naylors of the world to keep growing corn and soybeans without going bankrupt. The beneficiaries in this rigged system are, of course, the usual suspects: Cargill, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, and Pioneerthat is, big businesses for which cheap corn by-products are the necessary input into the processed Twinkies and HoHos they peddle. In the meantime, the land is rendered useless, water supplies are polluted, fossil fuels 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 2, 2006