The Curse of Conscientious Shopping

Posted on 18 January 2010

I recently read the book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan.  To say that this book changed my perspective on food would be a gross understatement.  It transformed the way I see the whole American lifestyle; or, to put it more pointedly (and using food industry lingo), it pumped my former suspicions about our food system full of growth hormones and let them loose on the world.  Yikes.

So now what?  Visits to the grocery store have become something bordering on dodgeball: a not-very-fun game where  my beleaguered conscience desperately trys to avoid getting smacked at each step by the reality behind every colorful label or carefully arranged bunch of fresh produce.  A previous devotee of the local farmers market, I have more recently become a full convert, making a concerted effort to buy everything I can from there, rather than the chain grocery store down the street.  But of course, this means spending more money (is there no way to WIN?).  Meanwhile, as winter set in and my cutest of little urban gardens gradually shriveled, I felt a certain gloom descend as the weekly groceries quota helplessly increased.

A part of me itches to just drop everything and make a run for the hills, where a huge garden, chickens and some goats could probably go a long way toward separating me from this nasty, soul-less thing that feeds America (and much of the world): industrial food.  But naturally, this plan may have to be put on hold…at least for now.  🙂

In the meantime, however, and in the interest of sharing some of the perspective I have gained, here are a few excerpts from the book (read on at your own risk, of course; and thank you Mr. Pollan!!):

– First, a case study of ORGANIC POULTRY (or at least what is labeled as such in your average grocery store, including Whole Foods): “Compared to conventional chickens, I was told, these organic birds have it pretty good: They get a few more square inches of living space per bird (though it was hard to see how they could be packed together much more tightly), and because there are no hormones or antibiotics in their feed to accelerate growth, they get to live a few days longer.  Though under the circumstances it’s not clear that a longer life is necessarily a boon.  Running along the length of each shed was a grassy yard maybe fifteen feet wide, not nearly big enough to accomodate all twenty thousand birds inside should the group ever decide to take the air en masse.  Which, truth be told, is the last thing the farm managers want to see happen, since these defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection.  This is one of the larger ironies of growing organic food in an industrial system: It is even more precarious than a conventional industrial system.  But the federal rules say an organic chicken should have “access to the outdoors,” and Supermarket Pastoral imagines it, so Petaluma Poultry provides the doors and the yard and everyone keeps their fingers crossed.” (Page 172)

– One of the great champions behind the real philosophy that formed the bedrock of the ORGANIC MOVEMENT was Sir Albert Howard.  He called for the remodeling of farms and food production on nature’s own design—a method engineered over millions of years, rather than the century and a half that agriculture has spent manipulating nature to produce higher yields (a process heavily influenced in the last fifty years by the mass production of synthetic fertilizer, which originally came onto the market en masse thanks to an excess of ammonium nitrate—also used in explosives—following WWII).  In this way, as paraphrased by Mr. Pollan: “Each of the biological processes at work in a forest or prairie could have its analog on a farm: Animals could feed on plant wastes as they do in the wild; in turn their wastes could feed the soil; mulches could protect bare soil in the same way leaf litter in the forest does; the compost pile, acting like the lively layer of decomposition beneath the leaf litter, could create humus.  Even the diseases and insects would perform the salutary function they do in nature: to eliminate the weakest plants and animals, which [Howard] predicted would be far fewer in number once the system was operating properly.  Food made from nature’s own handbook is not only healthier for the earth, but it’s healthier for us.” (Page 149)

– One of Pollan’s main themes throughout the book is the bain and the boon of CORN.  He argues—quite convincingly—that over American history corn has staged an all-out attack on our food system, and by now has achieved near total success (trillions of stalks of corn now wave happily over most of middle America).  Unfortunately for us, the reward for this success is a myriad of problems with the food we eat today.  A frighteningly large percentage of what we buy from the grocery store is either mostly or partly comprised of corn.  Perhaps still more frightning, only two companies manipulate the entire corn production system for somewhere around a third of American-grown corn, from start to finish; and they continue to gain ground.  As Pollan explains: “These two companies now guide corn’s path at every step of the way: They provide the pesticide and fertilizer to the farmers; operate most of America’s grain elevators…; broker and ship most of the exports; perform the wet and dry milling; feed the livestock and then slaughter the corn-fattened animals; distill the ethanol; and manufacture the high-fructose corn syrup and the numberless other fractions derived from number 2 field corn.  Oh yes—and help write many of the rules that govern this whole game, for Cargill and ADM exert considerable influence over U.S. agricultural policies.  More even than the farmers who receive checks (and the political blame for cashing them), these companies are the true beneficiaries of the ‘farm’ subsidies that keep the river of cheap corn flowing.  Cargill is the biggest privately held corporation in the world.” (Page 63)  With corn already monopolizing our agricultural system, the emergence of monopolies on the side of agricultural enterprise does not bode well for either farmers or American consumers.

– The primary CASE STUDY Pollan uses to demonstrate what corn has done to America is Iowa.  Once a state of sweeping prairies and diverse plant and animal life, Iowa has over the past century become just another compartment of the breadbasket that feeds America (and, to some extent, the world) with corn.  Only 2 percent of the state’s total land now remains the tall-grass prairie that it once was (Page 38), while despite its natural fertility, Iowa now imports 80 percent of its food.  Meanwhile, its human population has dropped dramatically over the past 75 years (Page 34).

– Perhaps one of the most distressing realizations of the book is that corn is MAKING AMERICA SICK.  Rising levels of both obesity and diabetes in America can be attributed, at least in part, to high fructose corn syrup, which was invented in 1980 to meet a burgeoning corn surplus.  High fructose corn syrup is now the leading source of sweetness in our diet.  In part thanks to this arrangement, the price of a single calorie of sugar (or fat, for that matter) has dropped dramatically since the 1970s.  In a recent study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “researchers found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies; spent on a whole food like carrots, the same dollar buys only 250 calories.” (Page 107)  Thanks to capitalism at its best (or worst?), the disconnect between food production and health has become rather shocking.  Although we can feed ourselves for less these days, is it really worth the sacrifice of our bodies?

– A few other fun facts, courtesy of Mr. Pollan:

“Since 1977 an American’s average daily intake of calories has jumped by more than 10 percent.” (Page 102)

“These days 19 percent of American meals are eaten in the car.” (Page 110)

“Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese.  The disease formerly known as adult-onset diabetes has had to be renamed Type II diabetes since it now occurs so frequently in children.  A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicts that a child born in 2000 has a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes.  (An African American child’s chances are two in five.)” (Page 102)

Despite what you may think, my intention in sharing all this (let’s face it, depressing) information with you is not to make you feel guilty, or to spread the highly infectious, slyly insidious shopper conscience that I myself have developed since reading Pollan’s book.  Rather, I wanted to share a little piece of reality whose clandestine existence I found disturbing, and give you the chance to explore further—if you so choose.  Check out Pollan’s book, or see the film, Food Inc. for a cinematic, summary rendition of it!  It’s worth the curse of conscience.

Michael Pollan’s website:

Food,  Inc. website:



Cows at Codman Community Farms in Lincoln, Massachusetts

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