The Anxiety of Eating

Many of us have given a passing and grateful thought to those distant ancestors who, to their cost but our benefit, first sampled death-cap toadstools, deadly nightshade and other lethal impostors. And all of us give more than a passing thought to those of our contemporaries unfortunate enough to have eaten poultry or beef infected with E.coli 0157:H7, salmonella, or BSE. Their fates oblige the rest of us to weigh considerations of health against the convenience, price and pleasures of the foods we must decide among. Nor, of course, are issues of health confined to the risks of infection. On the World Health Organization’s definition, obesity — with its well-documented contributions to illness — is now the condition of over 60 per cent of Americans, with the British rapidly catching up. Disease, obesity, tooth decay and countless other food related threats to our health, however, are only one aspect of the wider problem announced in the title of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma — just one of the matters at stake when we ask ourselves, “Fats or carbs? Three square meals or continuous grazing? Raw or cooked? Organic or industrial? Veg or vegan? Meat or mock meat?”. The dilemmas of what, when and how we should eat, urges Pollan, constitute a “big existential problem”, for the way we eat represents nothing less than “our most profound engagement with the natural world”.

The phrase “omnivore’s dilemma” was coined, thirty years ago, by the psychologist Paul Rozin. It names the problem faced by creatures — above all, human beings — who, at the opposite extreme from, say, pandas with their monotypic diet of bamboo, are willing and able to ingest, and obtain nutrition from, a very wide range of substances: from fungi to fish, chicory to chickens, and, these days, processed butane gas to what Pollan calls “the Linnaeus-defying Twinkie”, a synthetic, plastic-wrapped variation on a doughnut. Human omnivorousness, to be sure, has its blessings: utilitarian (when one source of food is threatened, people turn to another), aesthetic (the pleasures of the palate are almost unlimited) and social (pandas cannot come together to feast, or even dine). But there is a dark side to this ability of human beings — inveterate questioners as they are — to eat just about anything: it is “the anxiety of eating”, as Pollan puts it.

This anxiety may have lain dormant for many centuries, our distant ancestors having done a good job in sorting the edible and the inedible; but we are now witnessing “the return, with an almost atavistic revenge, of the omnivore’s dilemma”. Health scares, growing sensitivities to the treatment of animals and the natural environment, but above all else the sheer cornucopia of foods now readily available to people in developed countries, confront them, on a daily basis, with decisions to make and therefore to fret over. As such, the omnivore’s dilemma is only one dimension — albeit a peculiarly important one — of what the economic historian Avner Offer refers to in the title of The Challenge of Affluence (reviewed in the TLS on June 2). The sheer “abundance, through cheapness, variety, [and] novelty”, Offer writes, has produced a “shock of easy food availability” with which established “prudential strategies” have been unable to cope — one whose effect has been to make a “mockery of the rational consumer”. (The most salient failure of prudence is, simply, the overeating of all this new “easy food” — something that then generates a further level of angst.) According to Pollan, this renewed anxiety of eating comes at a bad time. It is not just that “prudential strategies” have failed to keep pace with the changing world of food. In addition, we have witnessed the atrophy of those “stable culinary traditions”, “that set of rules . . . we call a cuisine”, which in the past served “to mediate the omnivore’s dilemma”. As Aristotle would have observed, we are losing the shared virtues that are as crucial in the case of food as in that of sex, if people are rationally to govern their appetites. Sociological factors, including changes in lifestyles, working practices and family structures, help to explain this “gastro-anomy”, as one prescient social scientist dubbed it in 1980: but so too do innovations in the food industry itself, with its vested interest in weaning consumers off any conservative attachment to the ways of their elders. The resulting anxiety has familiar symptoms — anorexia, bulimia, faddish diets, serendipitous menus and a parasitic profession of “experts”, gurus and quacks who promise solutions so bewildering in their variety that our anxiety is only deepened. A more edifying symptom is the welcome appearance in recent years of books, with such titles or subtitles as Agri-Culture, Food in Society, and Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature, that are alert, not only to the central role of eating in a culture, but to the cultural, indeed spiritual, implications of the current revolution in the context of eating. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an eloquent addition to this new genre.

Michael Pollan is not a writer easy to categorize. A Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at Berkeley, he is the prizewinning author of three earlier books, including Second Nature, a wise and witty work on the significance of gardening, and The Botany of Desire, an essay on the symbiotic relationship between people and plants. He writes clearly and engagingly, shifting styles as topic or rhetorical purpose demands — now genial and “folksy”, now hard-hitting and ironic, now poetic. Like its predecessors, his new book combines science (natural and social), personal anecdote, interviews with colourful informants, and philosophical reflection. In these respects, British readers might be reminded of Richard Mabey, whose concerns — especially in his Fencing Paradise — over mono-cultural farming, for example, or disingenuous “organic” hype, are shared by Pollan.

A good succinct characterization of the author is the one given on the dust cover by the owner of a San Francisco restaurant — “a journalist/philosopher”. The “/” in preference to an “and” is appropriate, for the journalist and the philosopher are hard to separate. Pollan is nothing if not an empiricist, committed to examining “the dinner question” through the “lens of personal experience” as much as through that of an ecologist or anthropologist, and unwilling to pass judgement on any food-related practice, such as the slaughter of animals, that he has not observed at first hand or even joined in. To this end, with his investigative journalist’s hat on, he traces, and sometimes participates in, the histories, from field, factory, or forest to the table, of the “four meals” referred to in his sub-title. The four meals are a McDonald’s take-away, two organic-chicken dinners (“organic industrial” and local, “grass-fed”, respectively), and a banquet of wild pig, mushrooms and other ingredients hunted or gathered by the author himself. Researching the histories of these meals takes Pollan from the cornbelt of Iowa to the Shenandoah Valley to the Californian Sierra, and acquaints him with a cast of characters who might variously have sprung from the pages of John Steinbeck, Thomas Jefferson, or Ken Kesey.

Gastronomically, and by any other measure that Pollan allows, there is a rank order among the four meals. If the wild-pig feast is his “perfect meal”, a Thanksgiving, then the cheeseburger gobbled down in his car is “a sort of Thanksgiving in reverse”, a perverse homage to “industrial” food. Preferable to this is mass-produced organic food — “organic industrial” — even though, its degree of freedom from chemicals and fertilizers apart, such food betrays both the agricultural ideals of the pioneers of the organic movement, and the received public image of organic produce. The best, and more practicable, alternative to hunted-and-gathered food is produce bought from small-scale, local farmers who endeavour to keep alive those ideals and “the old pastoral idea”.

Pollan’s rank order of meals corresponds to several others — to that, for a start, of the lives (and deaths) of the animals which have provided the meals. Here we ascend from the nightmare world of “industrial” CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and broiler factories — places that surely warrant J. M. Coetzee’s reference to “a crime of stupendous proportions” against animals — to the forest in which the pigs led full and free lives until being dispatched by shooters. (Although Pollan is himself “embarrassed” by his occasional lapses into the machismo “hunter porn” of Hemingway and other rhapsodists, his admittedly ambivalent enthusiasm for this practice could have been more constrained. One would never guess from his account, for example, that the pig he shoots might be a mother of suckling piglets.) As for the chickens Pollan eats, the life of “Rosie”, the “organic industrial” one, is judged to have been little better in quality than that of its anonymous “industrial” cousins destined to become “McNuggets”, and distinctly less healthy and happy than that of the grass-fed ones he takes away from the small Virginian farm on which he worked for several weeks.

As Pollan’s four menus demonstrate, he is not a vegetarian. In his usual empiricist spirit, and in response to the challenge of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Pollan did abstain from meat for a period in order to judge whether “in good conscience” he could continue to eat it. He found that he could, indeed that he should. In the terminology of the moral philosopher R. M. Hare, Pollan is a “demi-vegetarian” — a moderate and selective meat-eater who, by insisting on free-range, organic, local, etc, products, has more of an impact on animal welfare, it is argued, than out-and-out vegetarians, whom producers and suppliers have already discounted for. The argument is a serious one, even if it cuts little ice with people whose objections to eating meat go beyond utilitarian ones — those, for example, whose sense of community with animals precludes so blatant a use of them as turning them into lunch. Pollan, whose genuine regard for animals is not in question, protests too much, I feel, when he unfairly labels such abstainers “parochial” and “sentimental”.

Animal welfare is not the only reason advanced for demi-vegetarianism. “It is doubtful”, Pollan writes, “that you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production”. Hence, “if our concern is for the health of nature”, eating animals that would otherwise disappear from the fields “may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do”. The health of the environment is a main theme in Pollan’s book, and his rank order of meals corresponds to an order of environmental impact, from the devastating to the benign. Worst, naturally, is the impact of “industrial” food production, whose gas-guzzling, in such processes as nitrogen-fertilizer “fixing”, accounts for 20 per cent of American petroleum consumption, and which, to boot, has been responsible for transforming biologically diverse landscapes into barely sustainable “monoscapes”. In these respects, “organic industrial” is only marginally better, with both its raw materials and finished products often being transported thousands of costly miles. By contrast, local, pastoral organic production of the kind witnessed by Pollan uses little fossil fuel and encourages a “synergistic ballet” of animals, soils, plants and forest.

Repair to environmental damage, like that to our damaged health, is among the many “hidden costs” of the prevailing American, and indeed British, way of eating which confound the boast that industrial processes have at least delivered cheap food. Pollan is anyway, and rightly, puzzled that something as “important to . . . our well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price”. Here, I suspect, we have an example of Offer’s “prudential strategies” that have failed to respond to “the challenge of affluence”. In less affluent times, when by necessity a high percentage of people’s expenditure went on food, pennies had to be counted at the local store or in the marketplace: these are still being counted in a manner that those spent on DVDs or holidays abroad are not — despite the fact that, in the United States at least, only 10 per cent of disposable income is now spent on food.

“Hidden costs”, in turn, are only one aspect of the lack of transparency or visibility that is Pollan’s most general complaint against our contemporary culture of food. Reflecting on why the wild-pig dinner was “the perfect meal”, he realizes that what he prized most was “the almost perfect transparency of this meal”, due mainly to “the brevity and simplicity of the food chain that linked it to the wider world”. The McNugget eater, by contrast, cannot trace the aetiology of that substance, since “industrial eating . . . obscures all . . . relationships and connections” to land, animals and raw materials. The inside of the McNugget cannot, for example, be linked to a particular chicken: for it is stuff that exemplifies what food scientists call “appropriationism” or “substitutionism” — “the reduction”, as the authors of Food in Society, Peter Atkins and Ian Bowler, put it, “of agricultural products to simple industrial inputs” such as fats and carbohydrates, which are reconstituted, with the help of chemicals, into “fabricated” items sold in the supermarket or fast-food outlet. Things are not much more transparent for the consumers of “organic industrial”, victims of the disingenuous literature (“Supermarket Pastoral”), fake evocation of a Jeffersonian idyll, which typically adorns the packets or boxes they put in their trolleys.

It is Pollan’s faith that greater visibility — whether literal (glass-walled abattoirs) or figurative (coming clean on “hidden costs”) — would lead to significant reform of the American way of eating. In particular, exposés of CAFOs and other industrial processes, would induce “disgust, and disgust’s boon companion, shame”. Pollan is perhaps over-optimistic: as he himself is aware, much of the consumer’s ignorance is surely a willed ignorance, resistant to education. Only look! — at what you’re eating, and how it was produced — is Pollan’s repeated refrain. But making visible is no guarantee that people will look at, rather than look away.

At certain points, moreover, the author recognizes that just looking is insufficient. In addition, we “require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world”. Crucially, this “different” ethics is not the kind called for by pioneers of Environmental Ethics, such as Aldo Leopold, for theirs was a concern, essentially, with nature as wilderness, as “The Other” to human culture. What Pollan envisages, by contrast, is an ethics to guide our relationships with a humanized natural world, with the environments and creatures that our cultural practices — eating included — regularly engage with. As he provocatively asked in Second Nature, “What if now, instead of to the wilderness, we were to look to the garden for the making of a new ethic?”. Human beings, wrote E. O. Wilson in Biophilia, are “suspended between the two antipodal ideas of nature and machine, forest and city, the natural and the artifactual”. Whether or not this is “the result of natural selection”, the suspension is surely real — and dangerous. For, absorbed in how to treat our fellows in the city, and how to protect distant rainforests and their creatures, little space remains, between the antipodes, for moral attention to our relationships to farmland, domesticated animals, and much else that straddles the natural/artefactual divide. It is Michael Pollan’s achievement, in his several writings, that — like Wilson and Mabey — he widens this space. And I doubt that there is a book which succeeds more than The Omnivore’s Dilemma — with its richness of information, eloquence of address, and integrity of moral purpose — in rendering visible, and presenting for a “different” style of ethical reflection, that “profound engagement” with our world which eating represents.