The CR4 Book Club Blog

The CR4 Book Club

The CR4 Book Club is a forum to discuss fiction and non-fiction books that have science, engineering or technology thematic elements. The club will read and discuss several books a year. All CR4 users are invited to participate. Look out for book announcements and the ensuing discussions that follow, but beware of potential spoilers!

Previous in Blog: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1)   Next in Blog: In Honor of Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 2)

Posted March 12, 2008 3:28 PM by Chris Leonard

Welcome to the second part of my review of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. You can check out part 1 here. We continue today with meals #2 and #3.

Meal #2: Chicken & Vegetables from Polyface Farms: Sustainable Farming

Unlike agribusiness farming where as many cattle (or chickens, hogs, etc.) as possible are squeezed onto/into fields and pens, sustainable farming is all about metrics and numbers. How much pasture land is available? How often can the pasture be opened to grazing? How long must a parcel of land lay fallow so that it can avoid nutrient depletion? What methods are available to revive and restore grazed lands?

In the sustainable farming model put forward by Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms, its all about balance. It's possible to mathematically determine when a field is at its best as pastureland. If too little time is allowed between grazing, the roots of the plants will be damaged, if too much time is allowed, weed material that is not of interest to the cattle will take over lessening the field's nutrient value. When the field is at its best (for a few days within a 21 day cycle), the cattle are allowed to graze for a few days. Then, all the cattle are moved to another field to begin the cycle there.

In the meantime, chickens are allowed onto the first pasture to eat the worms that have been turned up by the cattle and to eat the parasites and grubs from the cattle manure. In doing so, the chickens scatter the nutrients throughout the field, while adding their own waste to the mix, helping the grasses to recover. However, the chickens can only be allowed to stay on a given field for a measured amount of time, else their nitrogen-rich waste will burn the grass.

All of these variables are complicated by the size and number of fields into which the cows and chickens can be moved, the number of animals needed for sustainability, the amount of sun, water and air temperature. If any of these variables changes, the whole system can get out of balance and collapse. Needless to say this is a laborious, before sunrise to after sunset job. There are no days off and there are always cows to move, fences to mend, manure to spread, etc.

Overall, the flavor, health and lack of hormones make for better quality meat. But it does take longer in this scenario for a head of cattle to mature (two years as opposed to one year in the agribusiness model). Additionally, the labor intensiveness of this system would make it difficult to sustain if the entire U.S. population wanted to shift this way, unless the amounts of meat we are willing to eat were dramatically lessened. Salatin himself, attempts to maintain this balance by selling products to folks who are only within 100 miles of his farm. In his worldview, it isn't about getting rich, but doing things right.

This section also profiles the growth of the organic food movement from its nascent revolution against agribusiness to its current methodology which in many ways is indistinguishable from that which it rebelled against. The main difference between factory farms and "organic" farms are quite blurry. In many cases the same agribusinesses that they rebelled against now offer "organic" products. Although organics hold true to a no pesticide model, they still bag and ship their produce around the country. And in truth, many of the products they produce grow in such a short time frame (like baby lettuce) that they wouldn't have received pesticide treatment in a non-organic system. This isn't to say that organic is a sham – as the no pesticide methodology is held strongly – but the mythology of the small family farm, and ideas like "free-range" chicken aren't exactly the case.

Meal 3: Pork and Mushrooms: Hunting & Gathering

On a whole, Hunting & Gathering is probably the weakest section of the book. Much of the time is spent ruminating on the morality of killing animals. This rumination goes on far too long and is somewhat off base. Once one makes the decision to eat meat (as opposed to not eating meat), the question of morality is largely moot – as in is it more or less moral to kill your own food or allow someone else to do it for you. It simply Doesn't matter. And before you get on me about being some kind of anti-meat vegan, please read a previous comment by me about the subject. Beyond that, the hunter / gatherer section just isn't that enlightening. Even if you don't hunt, you can envision the process; you stalk your prey and shoot it, or forage for plants and mushrooms. While I'm not a hunter, I am an avid amateur botanist who has taught classes on wild edibles and truly enjoys the act of foraging. Perhaps that where my disinterest lies – I know this and I've read many books where the act of foraging is better explicated. Heck I'm even working on one myself (and have been for about 8 years, so don't look for it anytime soon).

Omnivore's Dilemma is at its best enlightening, and occasionally a frightening read. At times, however, it does drag. Agribusiness is by far the most astonishing read and later sections simply can't compete with the pace it set, so they feel lightweight by comparison. That said, OD is a very good read and anyone interested in where their food really comes from should check it out. If, however, you're satisfied buying sterile packages from your local grocer, then this book may not be for you.

Author Michael Pollan has also written In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, which follows many of the themes put forth in OD. I haven't gotten to it yet, but it is on my very long "to read" list.

Until March 25th when we review Elephants on LSD and Other Bizarre Experiments by Alex Boese, remember, you are what you eat.


Interested in this topic? By joining CR4 you can "subscribe" to
this discussion and receive notification when new comments are added.

Previous in Blog: Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Part 1)   Next in Blog: In Honor of Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)