After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, particularly the second chapter Pastoral, the big question comes to my mind: what should I have for dinner tonight? If I think about this question, I visualize my favorite food. I might imagine my favorite restaurant. If I were in the mood, I’d even consider dietary restrictions and healthy choices.
If I became more specific and was asked you to cook my favorite meal, I would head over to my favorite supermarket and pick up what I needed. If the meal involved some exotic ingredient, I’d simply head over to a more specialized store to purchase it. What’s most remarkable is that I would be able to cook exactly the same meal in winter, spring, summer or fall – and in virtually every country on this planet. That is rather amazing on the one hand, and possibly un-nerving as well.
According to Michael Pollan, people (in America) are struggling with what he refers to as the “omnivore’s dilemma.” This issue is this: If one is able to eat anything and there is an incredible abundance of available food, then what should one eat? Mr. Pollan invited us to more deeply explore two questions: What am I eating, and where does it come from? In his book he explored food chains, and for context I’ll explain the differences between three: Industrial, Big Organic, and Small Organic.
- Industrial agriculture/factory farming: The industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and crops to produce the highest output at the least cost. This relies on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and monocultures, and mistreats animals – mutilating them and keeping them in horrendous conditions. It benefits from economies of scale and from government subsidies. Simply it is the worst for the environment, but it is the cheapest.
- Big Organic farming: A form of agriculture that relies on crop rotation, compost, and biological pest control. It is similar to industrial agriculture, but minimizes synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. It too, benefits from economies of scale, and also from monocultures to a certain extent. It utilizes migrant labor and transports its food across large distances. This is better for the environment than industrial farming, but more expensive than it as well.
- Little Organic farming: An alternative to the industrial food system, these are small, local farms that broadcast their philosophy and are part of an effort to help consumers know the source of their food. They reduce the shipping distance between producer and consumer and support regional economies by buying directly from local growers and producers, thereby minimizing environmental impact. This is the best option for the environment, but usually the most expensive.
In “Grass”, the second section of the book, Pollan describes the differences between two organic meals – one bought from a Whole Foods grocery store, and the other from local farmers. He makes a distinction between a local and sustainable farm (Joel Salatin’s Polyface, a Little Organic) and a Big Organic farm. He brings forward the idea that organic farms, while a lesser evil than completely industrial farming are still more industrial than organic. He cites the use of fossil fuel and the misuse of migrant labor as significant contributing factors to his assessment. I am grateful that I am now able to look beyond the word “organic” and consider it to be only one half of the equation now, with “sustainable” being the other.
It’s fairly obvious that industrial agriculture is a pattern of farming that needs to change. I’m going to work on the assumption that it needs to be abolished. As a future chef however, this is difficult. However, for people who are of low-income status there are other considerations than ethically produced food. Unfortunately, the biggest factor is often cost. See, my favorite meal may be caviar and champagne to start and Kobe Beef and a complex wine to follow. Realistically, that meal may turn into a grilled steak on the barbecue, and that’s only because I am fairly well off. The problem of cost is one that both the consumer and the chef or restaurant face.
People always want more for less. As a restaurant, this is important because if you can offer precisely that, you have a competitive advantage. For me, learning how animals are treated and farmed has discouraged me from purchasing most fast food. The other issue is subsidization. Much of the economy’s food production revolves around corn and there are few subsidies for anything else. Pollan discusses corn being at the root of everything we eat.
Since corn and other commodity crops are so highly subsidized, the lowest cost options are highly processed foods made up of refined grains, added sugars and fats. These have little nutritional value. This explosion of cheap but generally unhealthy food has had the greatest impact on lower-income families working on limited budgets. Due to the fact that unhealthy food is cheaper, there is an increase in obesity and diabetes. Children are sicker than their grandparents are, and that is horrible. Yet governments have not found the impetus to fund organics in the same way as corn. Even if they did, the subsidization would need to be coupled with considerable amounts of re-education to compensate for the huge marketing budgets of corporations such as McDonalds and CocaCola.
The only people who can really afford to purchase Organic (even Big Organic) food are those who are affluent. Still, if cost is no barrier, then there are others yet. The first is consumer knowledge. Many consumers equate “organic” as being somehow safer, but aren’t really sure what “organic” means. Still, the “organic vs. conventional” categories are meaningful because they are similar to moral contrasts such as “good or bad” and “healthy or unhealthy.” Most consumers at a farmers market usually view ‘organic’ as a thing, not a process or idea. A food is seen as organic or conventional but why the food is organic is not precisely understood. This is when certification becomes necessary. In Canada this is often a lengthy process. This process costs farmers, and often the local farms are too small scale to afford it, even though their process may in fact be better than what the organic certification recognizes. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, the food at a restaurant made with these “better, local, sustainable” products cannot be advertised as organic and as such, the price premium organic commands cannot be charged to the customer. This puts progressive restaurants in a difficult position.
“Cheap and easy”. Those two words again. Pollan believes that “our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines that prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability and economies of scale.” Corn works within this system; grass does not. In the end, it seems to be like anything else in the world. If you don’t have to work hard for it, it holds less value and often comes at the expense of someone else. This is the case for beef or any other meat, as a grass fed animal is leaner and doesn’t have the same taste that customers expect. The type of grass they are fed also affects the meat, so certain cows in certain districts may have meat that tastes different. As a restaurant, it is more difficult to control flavors and maintain consistency of product when the flavor of the meat itself changes.
The biggest issue is still logistics. Sure, living in moderate climates such as California makes easy for some restaurants and chefs to obtain organic produce locally. This is practically impossible in Canada. Produce that travels long distances not only use a lot of fuel to get which is bad for the environment, but they are also harvested early and ripen along the way. The core problem is the customer’s expectation. Restaurants have ignored what is really happening in nature. As a result, customers want melons in the winter and bison in the summer, when in nature; it would be the other way around. It’s impossible to achieve all of these things without some sort of compromise. The focus, therefore, should be on local rather than global markets.
In conclusion, cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. How can one care about something one knows nothing about? My grandmother talks to me about how great it was when food (especially her favorite fruits) were in season. This brings us back to the original question. What should I eat for dinner? The best solution, of course, is for me to buy local and organic whenever possible. In doing so, I can get the best of both worlds: tasty food with low environmental impact and a small carbon footprint. I’d even be helping the local economy. We need to provide customers with information and wherewithal to make the best choices possible, and subsidize the produce and process that is healthiest. The problem of cost remains an issue however, and even though we may have a process that does the least damage to the environment, it is still an “omnivore’s dilemma”.