The Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Highlights

by Michael Pollan

The only way to recruit these carbon atoms for the molecules necessary to support life—the carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins, and lipids—is by means of photosynthesis. Using sunlight as a catalyst the green cells of plants combine carbon atoms taken from the air with water and elements drawn from the soil to form the simple organic compounds that stand at the base of every food chain. It is more than a figure of speech to say that plants create life out of thin air.

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Few plants can manufacture quite as much organic matter (and calories) from the same quantities of sunlight and water and basic elements as corn. (**Ninety-seven percent of what a corn plant is comes from the air, three percent from the ground**.)

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Hybrid corn now offered its breeders what no other plant at that time could: the biological equivalent of a patent. Farmers now had to buy new seeds every spring; instead of depending upon their plants to reproduce themselves, they now depended on a corporation. The corporation, assured for the first time of a return on its investment in breeding, showered corn with attention—R&D, promotion, advertising—and the plant responded, multiplying its fruitfulness year after year. With the advent of the F-l hybrid, a technology with the power to remake nature in the image of capitalism, Zea mays [corn] entered the industrial age and, in time, it brought the whole American food chain with it.

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What that means is that Naylor's grandson, raising nothing but corn and soybeans on a fairly typical Iowa farm, is so astoundingly productive that he is, in effect, feeding some 129 Americans. Measured in terms of output per worker, **American farmers like Naylor are the most productive humans who have ever lived**.

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Ask one of those eaters where their steak or soda comes from and she'll tell you "the supermarket." **Ask George Naylor whom he's growing all that corn for and he'll tell you "the military-industrial complex**."

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"High yield" is a fairly abstract concept, and I wondered what it meant at the level of the plant: more cobs per stalk? more kernels per cob? Neither of the above, Naylor explained. The higher yield of modern hybrids stems mainly from the fact that they can be planted so close together, **thirty thousand to the acre instead of eight thousand in his father's day**.

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This is because every plant in it, being an F-1 hybrid, is **genetically identical** to every other. Since no individual plant has inherited any competitive edge over any other, precious resources like sunlight, water, and soil nutrients are shared equitably.

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The chemical fertilizer industry (along with that of pesticides, which are based on poison gases developed for the war) is the product of the government's effort to convert its war machine to peacetime purposes. As the Indian farmer activist Vandana Shiva says in her speeches, "We're still eating the leftovers of World War II."

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**The discovery of synthetic nitrogen changed everything**—not just for the corn plant and the farm, not just for the food system, but also for the way life on earth is conducted.

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All life depends on nitrogen; it is the building block from which nature assembles amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acids; the genetic information that orders and perpetuates life is written in nitrogen ink. (This is why scientists speak of nitrogen as supplying life's quality, while carbon provides the quantity.)

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Vaclav Smil, a geographer who has written a fascinating book about Fritz Haber called Enriching the Earth, pointed out that "there is no way to grow crops and human bodies without nitrogen." Before Fritz Haber's invention the sheer amount of life earth could support—the size of crops and therefore the number of human bodies—was limited by the amount of nitrogen that bacteria and lightning could fix. By 1900, European scientists recognized that unless a way was found to augment this naturally occurring nitrogen, the growth of the human population would soon grind to a very painful halt...This is why it may not be hyperbole to claim, as Smil does, that the Haber-Bosch process (Carl Bosch gets the credit for commercializing Haber's idea) for fixing nitrogen is **the most important invention of the twentieth century**. He estimates that two of every five humans on earth today would not be alive if not for Fritz Haber's invention. We can easily imagine a world without computers or electricity, Smil points out, but without synthetic fertilizer billions of people would never have been born.

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If, as has sometimes been said, the discovery of agriculture represented the first fall of man from the state of nature, then the discovery of synthetic fertility is surely a second precipitous fall. **Fixing nitrogen allowed the food chain to turn from the logic of biology and embrace the logic of industry**.

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**More than half "of all the synthetic nitrogen made today is applied to corn**, whose hybrid strains can make better use of it than any other plant. Growing corn, which from a biological perspective had always been a process of capturing sunlight to turn it into food, has in no small measure become a process of converting fossil fuels into food.

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For storable commodities such as corn, the government established a target price based on the cost of production, and whenever the market price dropped below that target, the farmer was given a choice. Instead of dumping corn onto a weak market (thereby weakening it further), the farmer could take out a loan from the government—using his crop as collateral—that allowed him to store his grain until prices recovered. At that point, he sold the corn and paid back the loan; if corn prices stayed low, he could elect to keep the money he'd borrowed and, in repayment, give the government his corn, which would then go into something that came to be called, rather quaintly, the "Ever-Normal Granary."

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Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow—and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn.

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"**The free market has never worked in agriculture and it never will**. The economics of a family farm are very different than a firm's: When prices fall, the firm can lay off people, idle factories, and make fewer widgets. Eventually the market finds a new balance between supply and demand. But the demand for food isn't elastic; people don't eat more just because food is cheap. And laying off farmers doesn't help to reduce supply. You can fire me, but you can't fire my land, because some other farmer who needs more cash flow or thinks he's more efficient than I am will come in and farm it. Even if I go out of business this land will keep producing corn."

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...and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn.

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Though the companies won't say, it has been estimated that **Cargill and ADM together probably buy somewhere near a third of all the corn grown in America**. 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 (Naylor's member-owned cooperative is an exception); 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.

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**Cargill is the biggest privately held corporation in the world**.

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Corn the plant has colonized some 125,000 square miles of the American continent, an area twice the size of New York State; even from outer space you can't miss it.

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These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: CAFO—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.

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It cost a farmer more to grow feed corn than it cost a CAFO to buy it, for the simple reason that **commodity corn now was routinely sold for less than it cost to grow**.

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Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms such as the Naylors' used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop—what in retrospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to **take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems**: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all).

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While the pork and chicken industries have consolidated the life cycle of those animals under a single roof, beef cattle still get born on hundreds of thousands of independently owned ranches scattered mainly across the West.

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"In my grandfather's time, cows were four or five years old at slaughter," Rich explained. "In the fifties, when my father was ranching, it was two or three years old. Now we get there at fourteen to sixteen months."

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This oversized packet of starch is corn's most important contribution to the industrial food chain: an abundance of carbohydrate molecules in long chains that chemists have learned to break down and then rearrange into hundreds of different organic compounds—acids, sugars, starches, and alcohols. The names of many of these compounds will be familiar to anyone who's studied the ingredient label on a package of processed food: citric and lactic acid; glucose, fructose, and mal-todextrin; ethanol (for alcoholic beverages as well as cars), sorbitol, mannitol, and xanthan gum; modified and unmodified starches; as well as dextrins and cyclodextrins and MSG, to name only a few.

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**Like every other food chain, the industrial food chain is rooted at either end in a natural system: the farmer's field at one end, and the human organism at the other**. From the capitalist's point of view, both of these systems are less than ideal. The farm, being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and pests, is prone to crises of over- and underproduction, both of which can hurt business. Rising raw material prices cut into profits, obviously enough. Yet the potential boon of falling raw material prices—which should allow you to sell a lot more of your product at a lower price— can't be realized in the case of food because of the special nature of your consumer, who can eat only so much food, no matter how cheap it gets. (Food industry executives used to call this the problem of the "fixed stomach"; economists speak of "inelastic demand.") Nature has cursed the companies working the middle of the food chain with a recipe for falling rates of profits. **The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against this troublesome biological fact: Try as we might, each of us can eat only about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year.**

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That lesson runs straight through the history of a company like General Mills, which started out in 1926 as a mill selling whole wheat flour: ground wheat. When that product became a cheap commodity, the company kept ahead of the competition by processing the grain a bit more, creating bleached and then "enriched" flour. Now they were adding value, selling not just wheat but an idea of purity and health, too. In time, however, even enriched white flour became a commodity, so General Mills took another step away from nature—from the farm and the plants in question—by inventing cake mixes and sweetened breakfast cereals. Now they were selling convenience, with a side of grain and corn sweetener, and today they're beginning to sell cereals that sound an awful lot like medicines.

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Now, thanks to the ingenuity of modern food science, we had a choice. We could eat things designed by humans for the express purpose of being eaten by people—or eat "substances" designed by natural selection for its own purposes: to, say, snooker a bee or lift a wing or (eek!) make a baby.

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Researchers have found that people (and animals) presented with large portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise. Human appetite, it turns out, is surprisingly elastic, which makes excellent evolutionary sense: It behooved our hunter-gatherer ancestors to feast whenever the opportunity presented itself, allowing them to build up reserves of fat against future famine.

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Like most other warmblooded creatures, humans have inherited a preference for energy-dense foods, a preference reflected in the sweet tooth shared by most mammals. Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (its texture as well as taste) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (which is what a calorie is) per bite.

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A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared the "energy cost" of different foods in the supermarket. The 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. On the beverage aisle, you can buy 875 calories of soda for a dollar, or 170 calories of fruit juice from concentrate. It makes good economic sense that people with limited money to spend on food would spend it on the cheapest calories they can find, especially when the cheapest calories—fats and sugars—are precisely the ones offering the biggest neurobiological rewards.

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**Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots.** While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.

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That perhaps is what the industrial food chain does best: obscure the histories of the foods it produces by processing them to such an extent that they appear as pure products of culture rather than nature—things made from plants and animals. Despite the blizzard of information contained in the helpful McDonald's flyer—the thousands of words and numbers specifying ingredients and portion sizes, calories and nutrients—all this food remains perfectly opaque. Where does it come from? It comes from McDonald's.

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In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent). What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater.

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For a book that devotes so many of its pages to the proper making of compost, An Agricultural Testament turns out to be an important work of philosophy as well as of agricultural science.

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To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters.

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Howard was thus bidding farmers to regard their farms less like machines than living organisms. The notion of imitating whole natural systems stands in stark opposition to reductionist science, which works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them—one variable at a time.

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As it happens, in the years since Howard wrote, science has provided support for a great many of his unscientific claims: Plants grown in synthetically fertilized soils are less nourishing than ones grown in composted soils;1 such plants are more vulnerable to diseases and insect pests;2 polycultures are more productive and less prone to disease than monocultures;3 and that in fact the health of the soil, plant, animal, human, and even nation are, as Howard claimed, connected along lines we can now begin to draw with empirical confidence. We may not be prepared to act on this knowledge, but we know that civilizations that abuse their soil eventually collapse.4

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Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic dairy cow entitled to graze on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in processed organic food? If the answers to these questions seem like no-brainers, then you too are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments. The final standards do a good job of setting the bar for a more environmentally responsible kind of farming but, as perhaps was inevitable as soon as bureaucratic and industrial thinking was brought to bear, many of the philosophical values embodied in the word "organic"—the sorts of values expressed by Albert Howard—did not survive the federal rulemaking process.

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It's simply more cost-efficient to buy from one thousand-acre farm than ten hundred-acre farms. That's not because those big farms are necessarily any more productive, however. **In fact, study after study has demonstrated that, measured in terms of the amount of food produced per acre, small farms are actually more productive than big farms**; it is the higher transaction costs involved that makes dealing with them impractical for a company like Kahn's—that and the fact that they don't grow tremendous quantities of any one thing.

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Earthbound's tabletop fields exemplify one of the most powerful industrial ideas: the tremendous gains in efficiency to be had when you can conform the irregularity of nature to the precision and control of a machine.

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**In many ways the mysteries of nutrition at the eating end of the food chain closely mirror the mysteries of fertility at the growing end: The two realms are like wildernesses that we keep convincing ourselves our chemistry has mapped, at least until the next level of complexity comes into view.**

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Qualities we can't yet identify in soil may contribute qualities we've only just begun to identify in our foods and our bodies. Reading the Davis study I couldn't help thinking about the early proponents of organic agriculture, people like Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale, who would have been cheered, if unsurprised, by the findings. Both men were ridiculed for their unscientific conviction that a reductive approach to soil fertility—the NPK mentality—would diminish the nutritional quality of the food grown in it and, in turn, the health of the people who lived on that food. All carrots are not created equal, they believed; how we grow it, the soil we grow it in, what we feed that soil all contribute qualities to a carrot, qualities that may yet escape the explanatory net of our chemistry. Sooner or later the soil scientists and nutritionists will catch up to Sir Howard, heed his admonition that we begin "treating the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject."

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The better for what? question about my organic meal can of course be answered in a much less selfish way: Is it [organic food] better for the environment? Better for the farmers who grew it? Better for the public health? For the taxpayer? **The answer to all three questions is an (almost) unqualified yes.**

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To grow the plants and animals that made up my meal, no pesticides found their way into any farmworker's bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, no subsidy checks were written. If the high price of my all-organic meal is weighed against the comparatively low price it exacted from the larger world, as it should be, it begins to look, at least in karmic terms, like a real bargain. And yet, and yet ... an industrial organic meal such as mine does leave deep footprints on our world.

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The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do). **Today it takes between seven and ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.**

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All told, growing food organically uses about a third less fossil fuel than growing it conventionally, according to David Pimentel,

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The inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an ecosystem that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun. To feed ourselves otherwise was "unsustainable," a word that's been so abused we're apt to forget what it very specifically means: Sooner or later it must collapse.

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As in so many other realms, **nature's logic has proven no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given**. And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable, and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.

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Legibility, too, is in the eye of the beholder. Joel doesn't eat grass either—it's one of the few nutritious things in nature the human omnivore, lacking a rumen to break down its cellulose, can't digest—yet he can see the salad bar almost as vividly as his cows.

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"To be even more accurate," Joel has said, "we should call ourselves sun farmers. The grass is just the way we capture the solar energy."

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But getting it just right—grazing the optimal number of cattle at the optimal moment to exploit the blaze of growth— yields tremendous amounts of grass, all the while improving the quality of the land. Joel calls this optimal grazing rhythm "pulsing the pastures" and says that at Polyface it has boosted the number of cow days to as much as four hundred per acre; the county average is seventy. "In effect we've bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management."

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The grasses in the new paddock were thigh-high and lush, and the cattle plainly couldn't wait to get at them. The moment arrived. Looking more like a maitre d' than a rancher, Joel opened the gate between the two paddocks, removed his straw hat and swept it grandly in the direction of the fresh salad bar, and called his cows to their dinner. After a moment of bovine hesitation, the cows began to move, first singly, then two by two, and then all eighty of them sauntered into the new pasture, brushing past us as they looked about intently for their favorite grasses. The animals fanned out in the new paddock and lowered their great heads, and the evening air filled with the muffled sounds of smacking lips, tearing grass, and the low snuffling of contented cows. The last time I had stood watching a herd of cattle eat their supper I was standing up to my ankles in cow manure in Poky Feeders pen number 43 in Garden City, Kansas.

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In fact, there was easily as much complexity present in a single square foot of this pasture as there is in the whole industrial complex into which 534 was plugged; what makes this pasture's complexity so much harder for us to comprehend is that it is not a complexity of our making.

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I had thought that the victory of corn over grass might owe to the fact that a field of corn simply produces more total food energy than an acre of grass; it certainly looks that way. But researchers at the Land Institute have studied this question and calculated that in fact more nutrients are produced— protein and carbohydrate—in an acre of well-managed pasture than in an acre of field corn.

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**The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn't take account of that meal's true cost**—to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves.

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Polyface's system difficult to describe to myself in an orderly way. Industrial processes follow a clear, linear, hierarchical logic that is fairly easy to put into words, probably because words follow a similar logic: First this, then that; put this in here, and then out comes that. But the relationship between cows and chickens on this farm (leaving aside for the moment the other creatures and relationships present here) takes the form of a loop rather than a line, and that makes it hard to know where to start, or how to distinguish between causes and effects, subjects and objects. Is what I'm looking at in this pasture a system for producing exceptionally tasty eggs? If so, then the cattle and their manure are a means to an end. Or is it a system for producing grass-fed beef without the use of any chemicals, in which case the chickens, by fertilizing and sanitizing the cow pastures, comprise the means to that end? So does that make their eggs a product or a by-product? And is manure—theirs or the cattle's—a waste product or a raw material? (And what should we call the fly larvae?) **Depending on the point of view you take—that of the chicken, the cow, or even the grass—the relationship between subject and object, cause and effect, flips.**

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"Efficiency" is the term usually invoked to defend large-scale industrial farms, and it usually refers to the economies of scale that can be achieved by the application of technology and standardization. Yet Joel Salatin's farm makes the case for a very different sort of efficiency—the one found in natural systems, with their coevolutionary relationships and reciprocal loops. For example, in nature there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature's waste becomes another creature's lunch. What could be more efficient than turning cow pies into eggs?

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With the industrialization of agriculture, the simplifying process reached its logical extreme—in monoculture. This radical specialization permitted standardization and mechanization, leading to the leaps in efficiency claimed by industrial agriculture. Of course, how you choose to measure efficiency makes all the difference, and industrial agriculture measures it, simply, by the yield of one chosen species per acre of land or farmer. By contrast, **the efficiencies of natural systems flow from complexity and interdependence—by definition the very opposite of simplification.**

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So instead of treating the chicken as a simple egg or protein machine, Polyface honors—and exploits—"the innate distinctive desires of a chicken," which include pecking in the grass and cleaning up after herbivores. **The chickens get to do, and eat, what they evolved to do and eat, and in the process the farmer and his cattle both profit.** What is the opposite of zero-sum? I'm not sure, but this is it.

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**What distinguishes Salatin's system is that it is designed around the natural predilections of the pig rather than around the requirements of a production system to which the pigs are then conformed.** Pig happiness is simply the by-product of treating a pig as a pig rather than as "a protein machine with flaws"—flaws such as pigtails and a tendency, when emiserated, to get stressed.

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"Part of the problem is, you've got a lot of D students left on the farm today," Joel said, as we drove around Staunton running errands. "The guidance counselors encouraged all the A students to leave home and go to college. **There's been a tremendous brain drain in rural America.** Of course that suits Wall Street just fine; Wall Street is always trying to extract brainpower and capital from the countryside. First they take the brightest bulbs off the farm and put them to work in Dilbert's cubicle, and then they go after the capital of the dimmer ones who stayed behind, by selling them a bunch of gee-whiz solutions to their problems." This isn't just the farmer's problem, either. "It's a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons."

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Joel abjuring agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals is not so much a goal of his farming, as it so often is in organic agriculture, as it is an indication that his farm is functioning well. "In nature health is the default," he pointed out. "Most of the time pests and disease are just nature's way of telling the farmer he's doing something wrong."

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Joel is convinced "clean food" could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm.

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I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive it is inherently elitist. "I don't accept the premise. First off, those weren't any elitists you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it's actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that with our food all of the costs are figured into the price. **Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap.** No thinking person will tell you they don't care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food."

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"We have to battle the idea that you can have anything you want any time you want it. Like 'spring lamb.' What the hell does that mean? That's not its natural cycle. You want lambs to hit the ground when the grass is lush, in April. They won't be ready for eight to ten months after that—not till early winter. **But the market's become totally out of sync with nature.** We should eat red meat when it's cold, but people want chicken in the winter, when we don't have it."

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But for local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons. This is especially true in the case of pastured animals, which can be harvested only after they've had several months on rapidly growing grass. Feeding animals corn in CAFOs has accustomed us to a year-round supply of fresh meats, many of which we forget were once eaten as seasonally as tomatoes or sweet corn: People would eat most of their beef and pork in late fall or winter, when the animals were fat, and eat chicken in the summer.

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All of which is to say that a **successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well**, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore.

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"We don't have to beat them," Joel patiently explained. "I'm not even sure we should try. We don't need a law against McDonald's or a law against slaughterhouse abuse—we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.

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"At the beginning of the meal," Brillat-Savarin writes in his chapter "On the Pleasures of the Table" in The Physiology of Taste, "each guest eats steadily, without speaking or paying attention to anything which may be said."

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To these anthropologists the various tools humans have developed to overcome the defenses of other species—not only food-processing techniques but a whole gamut of hunting and gathering tools and talents—represent biocultural adaptations, so-called because they constitute evolutionary developments rather than cultural inventions that somehow stand apart from natural selection. In this sense learning to cook cassava roots or disseminate the hard-won knowledge of safe mushrooms is not all that different from recruiting rumenal bacteria to nourish oneself.

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Harvey Levenstein, a Canadian historian who has written two fascinating social histories of American foodways, neatly sums up the beliefs that have guided the American way of eating since the heyday of John Harvey Kellogg: "that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity."

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Animal Liberation, comprised of equal parts philosophical argument and journalistic description, is one of those rare books that demands you either defend the way you live or change.

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To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he's not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he's not white. In the same way we'd call that exclusion "racist" the animal rightist contends it is "speciesist" to discriminate against the chimpanzee solely because he's not human.

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Either we do not owe any justice to the severely retarded, he concludes, or we do owe it to animals with higher capabilities. This is where I put down my fork. If I believe in equality, and equality is based on interests rather than characteristics, then either I have to take the steer's interest into account or accept that I'm a speciesist.

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Animals on factory farms have never known any other life. The rightist rightly points out that "animals feel a need to exercise, stretch their limbs or wings, groom themselves and turn around, whether or not they have ever lived in conditions that permit this." **The proper measure of their suffering, in other words, is not their prior experiences but the unremitting daily frustration of their instincts.**

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Even if we reject the hard utilitarianism of a Peter Singer, there remains the question of whether we owe animals that can feel pain any moral consideration, and this seems impossible to deny.

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It's one thing to choose between the chimp and the retarded child, or to accept the sacrifice of all those pigs surgeons practiced on to develop heart bypass surgery. But what happens when the choice is, as Singer writes, between "a lifetime of suffering for a non-human animal and the gastronomic preferences of a human being?" You look away—or you stop eating animals.

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To visit a modern Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: **Animals are treated as machines—"production units"—incapable of feeling pain.** Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one's eyes on the part of everyone else.

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That fate is reserved for the American laying hen, who spends her brief span of days piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage the floor of which four pages of this book could carpet wall to wall. Every natural instinct of this hen is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral "vices" that can include cannibalizing her cage mates and rubbing her breast against the wire mesh until it is completely bald and bleeding. (This is the chief reason broilers get a pass on caged life; to scar so much high-value breast meat would be bad business.) Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on the acceptance of more neutral descriptors, such as "vices" and "stereotypes" and "stress." **But whatever you want to call what goes on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can't endure it and simply die is built into the cost of production.** And when the output of the survivors begins to ebb, the hens will be "force-molted"—starved of food and water and light for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg laying before their life's work is done.

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**A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.** This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism—the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty.

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This, it seems to me, is where the animal rightists betray a deep ignorance about the workings of nature. **To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship—to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species.** Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans somehow imposed on animals some ten thousand years ago. Rather, domestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk, eggs, and—yes—their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the new relationship: The animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves in the wild (natural selection tends to dispense with unneeded traits) and the humans traded their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled lives of agriculturists.

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To say of one of Joel Salatin's caged broilers that "the life of freedom is to be preferred" betrays an ignorance about chicken preferences that, around his place at least, revolve around not getting one's head bitten off by a weasel. It is probably safe to say, however, that chicken preferences do not include living one's entire life six to a battery cage indoors. **The crucial moral difference between a CAFO and a good farm is that the CAFO systematically deprives the animals in it of their "characteristic form of life."**

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Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve—all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on those plants. In a sense, the "good life" for deer, and even their creaturely character, which has been forged in the crucible of predation, depends on the existence of the wolf. In a similar way chickens depend for their well-being on the existence of their human predators. Not the individual chicken, perhaps, but Chicken— the species.

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Predation is deeply woven into the fabric of nature, and that fabric would quickly unravel if it somehow ended, if humans somehow managed "to do something about it." From the point of view of the individual prey animal predation is a horror, but from the point of view of the group—and of its gene pool—it is indispensable.

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"In our normal life," Singer writes, "there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals." Such a statement assumes a decidedly citified version of "normal life," certainly one no farmer—indeed, no gardener—would recognize. The farmer would point out to the vegan that even she has a "serious clash of interests" with other animals. The grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer's tractor wheel crushes woodchucks in their burrows and his pesticides drop songbirds from the sky; after harvest whatever animals that would eat our crops we exterminate. Killing animals is probably unavoidable no matter what we choose to eat.

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**What's wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle. What this suggests to me is that people who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones they eat don't suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless—for animal welfare, in others words, rather than rights.**

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"He slit the bird's throat and watched it die," Joel recalled. "He saw that the animal did not look at him accusingly, did not do a Disney double take. He saw that the animal had been treated with respect while it was alive and that it could have a respectful death—that it wasn't being treated like a pile of protoplasm." I realized I'd seen this, too, which perhaps explains why I was able to kill a chicken one day and eat it the next. Though the story did make me wish I had killed and eaten mine with as much consciousness and attention as that man;

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The industrialization—and brutalization—of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: **No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do.** No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat.

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**Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.** Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end—for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.

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"the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them." Please. And yet here I find myself sliding into the hunter's ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega y Gasset. It may be that we have no better language in which to describe the experience of hunting, so that all of us who would try sooner or later slide into this overheated prose ignorant of irony. Or it could be that hunting is one of those experiences that appear utterly different from the inside than from the outside.

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**The belief, or hope, that human death is somehow different from animal death is precious to us—but unprovable.** Whether it is or is not is one of the questions I suspect we're trying to answer whenever we look into the eyes of an animal.

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Playing at self-reliance takes different forms in different people, and you can probably tell a lot about a person by his choice of atavism: whether he's drawn to the patient and solitary attendveness of fishing, the strict mathematical syntax of building, the emotional drama of the hunt, or the mostly comic dialogue with other species that unfolds in the garden.

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...that the mycelia of fungi are literally neurons, together comprising an organ of terrestrial intelligence and communication (Paul Stamets); that the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms by the higher primates spurred the rapid evolution of the human brain (Terence McKenna); that the hallucinogenic mushrooms ingested by early man inspired the shamanic visions that led to the birth of religion (Gordon Wasson); that the ritual ingestion of a hallucinogenic fungus—called ergot—by Greek thinkers (including Plato) at Eleusis is responsible for some of the greatest achievements of Greek culture, including Platonic philosophy (Wasson again); that wild mushrooms in the diet, by nourishing the human unconscious with lunar energy, "stimulate imagination and intuition" (Andrew Weil).

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This meal was my way of thanking these people, my patient and generous Virgils, for all they'd contributed to my foraging education, and the precise amount of thought and effort I put into the meal reflected the precise depth of my gratitude. A bowl of fresh Bing cherries is nice, but to turn them into a pastry is surely a more thoughtful gesture, at least provided I managed not to blow the crust. It's the difference between a Hallmark card and a handwritten letter. A cynical person might say that cooking like this—with ambition—is really just another way of showing off, a form of what might be called conspicuous production. It says, I have the resources, sophistication, and leisure time to dazzle you with this meal. No doubt there's often an element of truth to this, but cooking is many other things too, and one of them is **a way to honor the group of people you have elected to call your guests.**

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While we waited for the pasta water to come to a boil, I asked him to taste the morels. "It's good, but maybe it needs a little more butter." **I handed him a stick and he dropped the whole thing in the pan.** (So that's how the professionals do it!)

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There comes a moment in the course of a dinner party when, with any luck, you realize everything's going to be okay. The food and the company having sailed past the shoals of awkwardness or disaster, and the host can allow himself at last to slip into the warm currents of the evening and actually begin to enjoy himself.

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The reason I didn't open a can of stock was because stock doesn't come from a can; it comes from the bones of animals. And the yeast that leavens our bread comes not from a packet but from the air we breathe.

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To compare my tran-scendendy slow meal to the fast-food meal I "served" my family at that McDonald's in Marin, the one that set me back fourteen bucks for the three of us and was consumed in ten minutes at sixty-five miles per hour, is to marvel at the multiplicity of a world that could produce two such different methods of accomplishing the same thing: feeding ourselves, I mean. **The two meals stand at the far extreme ends of the spectrum of human eating**—of the different ways we have to engage the world that sustains us. The pleasures of the one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of the one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry, especially its ability to tease a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn. The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for; by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.

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**But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating.** Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

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George Naylor in Iowa, Joel Salatin in Virginia, and Angelo Garro in California were my food-chain Virgils, helping me to follow the food from earth to plate and to navigate the omnivore's dilemma.

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But the prize for gameness in the pursuit of a book chapter must go to Judith, who shared the two meals that bookend the book—the McDonald's cheeseburger at one end and the wild boar at the other— and so much more. A book becomes a sometimes disagreeable member of the family for a period of years, but Judith treated this one with patience, understanding, and good humor. Far more crucial to the book, though, has been her editing. Since I first began publishing, Judith has been my indispensable first reader, and there's no one whose instincts about writing I trust more. Last but no longer least is Isaac. This is the first book Isaac has been old enough and sufficiently interested in to actually help me with. His own approach to food—Isaac is the pickiest eater I know—has taught me a great deal about the omnivore's dilemma. Though he declined to taste the boar, Isaac's contribution to this book—coming in the form of smart suggestions, stimulating conversations at the dinner table, and, on the bad days, the best comfort a father could wish for—has been more precious than he can know. Thank you.

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