We Are What We (Blindly) Eat

The Good A far-reaching and disturbing exploration of America’s food production and consumption.

The Bad Some repetition and over-long meanders.

The Bottom Line A penetrating account by an engaging guide.

The deep, rich soil of the American breadbasket grows a staggering amount of corn. The grain then funnels into an agricultural and industrial juggernaut that produces everything from beef and eggs to Twinkies and ethanol. A triumph of efficiency and modern technology? No, argues Michael Pollan in his far-reaching and disturbing The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This “industrial revolution of the food chain,” as he calls it, is putting our health, and the health of the land, in unprecedented danger. “If we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”

Pollan, author of the best-selling Botany of Desire (2001), tirelessly scales those walls and searches for alternatives amid four different strands of U.S. cuisine. In the process, he guides a spidery eight-row planter through an Iowa cornfield, buys a steer and follows its journey through the mind-numbing conditions of the modern feedlot, and rises before dawn to herd chickens on a Virginia farm. He shoots wild pigs and forages in California wine country. He describes how companies transform corn into fructose, citric acid, MSG, and “natural” raspberry flavor. He deconstructs a McDonald’s (MCD ) meal, showing that it contains scary ingredients such as a toxic chemical similar to butane and sits atop a food chain largely based on corn.

These explorations leave Pollan deeply worried. “America’s corn-fed food chain looks like an unalloyed disaster,” he says. The trouble starts with government subsidies, which keep corn prices below the true cost of growing it, yet often don’t make up the difference. Farmers thus must grow more and more to turn a profit, reducing the price even further. Plus, they need to use lots of fertilizer and fuel. “The plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers…degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury,” Pollan writes.

Consider the industrial feedlot, where “animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us…to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around.” Most feedlot cattle are sickened by their diet and require antibiotics and other treatments. And meat, milk, and eggs from corn-fed animals have more bad saturated fat and less healthy omega-3 fat than those from grass-fed animals, plus more fat overall. “Changes in the composition of fats in our diet may account for many of the diseases of civilization,” including diabetes and obesity, Pollan argues.

Nor is organic agriculture necessarily the answer: Pollan visits big industrial organic operations that hardly differ from their nonorganic counterparts. Many chickens advertised as “free-range” never touch a patch of grass in their short lives.

There is a better way, Pollan says. His guru is Joel Salatin, a farmer near Staunton, Va. From 100 acres of pasture set amid 450 acres of forest, he grows “an astounding cornucopia”: 70,000 pounds of beef and pork, 10,000 broiler chickens, 1,200 turkeys, and 35,000 dozen eggs a year. “Yet…this pasture will be…the better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier underfoot,” Pollan writes. Plus, the meat and eggs are tastier and healthier.

The secret is intensive management of the grassland. Salatin moves his cattle every day so that the pasture will quickly grow back. He brings in a portable henhouse so chickens can eat the grubs and fly larvae out of the cowpats. That spreads the manure, eliminates parasites, adds nitrogen-rich droppings to the soil, and makes for better eggs. Salatin also spreads a few bucketfuls of corn on the growing pile of wood chips and manure in the barn. After it ferments, he lets in pigs that “systematically…turn and aerate the compost in their quest for kernels of alcoholic corn.” Compare those happy hogs with the tens of thousands on a typical industrial farm, who “spend their entire lives ignorant of earth or straw or sunshine.” Salatin needs no added fertilizers or chemicals and produces no pollution, a far cry from the ecological havoc Pollan describes as being wrought by vast cornfields and crowded feedlots.

Pollan blames America’s bad food habits and susceptibility to fad diets on the lack of a strong food culture, something other nations enjoy. The French, for instance, “eat all sorts of supposedly unhealthy foods, but they do it according to a strict and stable set of rules: They eat small portions and don’t go back for seconds; they don’t snack; [and] they seldom eat alone.” Americans, of course, have no self-restraining rules.

The book isn’t as grim as all this sounds. Pollan is an engaging companion, whether he’s diving for abalone, collecting wild yeast, or musing about American gullibility. And his message is compelling. After reading the book, you will want to change how you eat.