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Customer Review

on 20 November 2008
The Omnivore's Dilemma

By Michael Pollan

A Review by the Cote d'azur

Men's Book Group

In a world where hunger is a black mark on the ruddy face of the well fed it is almost indecent to note that while millions are starving further millions are fighting obesity to the extent that dieting has become an obsession .

Do we feel ashamed as we watch TV films of flesh and bone victims of tribal warfare in Africa, people fighting for every grain of maize while their oppressors threaten to end their misery by killing them? We in the West fill our supermarket trolleys and eat well while our fellow human beings scratch the scorched earth with their fingers

Is there not a paradox in that while we feel genuine sorrow for these victims our eyes are fixated on our desire for a full belly courtesy of the vast food industry?

It is the mass production food chain system of the United States of America that Michael Pollan, author of this superb book, puts under the microscope and reveals the good and the bad points of an industry that is as streamlined as any car industry with its cow to calf philosophy.

This farming industry aims for the maximum gain from processing the herds; Life begins in the birthing sheds and usually ends some l8 months later with a market weight steer entering the kill \zone where it is stunned and prepared for market. The steer has spent all its life on a "foodlot" a giant farm production area where everything it needs to grow big and strong is provided.

The author takes us on a guided tour of a "foodlot " and he stands in a paddock with the steer he bought as an investment, Steer 534, the animal stands in the natural waste and corn residues, it has mud and excrement sticking to its skin. Unsurprisingly he says his investment did not look like a happy steer. No 534 and the thousands like him are on a modern version of an animal farm, destined for death and, already, the steer's mother has been inseminated to produce the next calf.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is beautifully written and a book of great interest that could encourage more people to become vegetarians. We all eat to live and some of us live to eat. Mr Pallon gives an analytical look at the real cost to society of our meat eating habits.

What we eat creates the dilemma: some food is good for us, some is bad. For an insect which feeds on milkweed the only problem is to find the weed. For humans the range is much wider and potentially lethal. The author has a long section on mushroom hunting which dramatically points up the dilemma. We may fear to eat the fungi at the bottom of the garden in case it is poisonous. There is also a splendid chapter on hunting that evokes the challenge and the spirit of killing and eating wild boar.

Despite the big choice we consume vast amounts of corn/maize not only because it is widely used as cattle food, but also because this ubiquitous product appears in hundreds of products, particularly in processed food. Fed on corn, fattened with hormones, irradiated, it is not difficult to see how and why mad cow disease can threaten the herds. Fruit and vegetables are dosed with pesticide and herbicide, their growth stimulated with artificial fertiliser, a product of the petrochemical industry. The fertiliser is then washed off the land and pollutes ground water, rivers and even the sea.

The Cote d'Azur Men's Book Group asked if it is safe to eat this food. Worries can be assuaged by using organic farming products but then, what does organic mean? Can it exist side by side with industrial farms? Price is an issue too but the real price of meat is hidden by subsidies. The food industry encourages the even greater consumption of processed food in order to achieve growth and higher profits. Result? Obesity.

Here in Europe we have European Community farming rules. Should the feeding of hormones to fatten cattle be forbidden? Should there be stricter rules on genetic modification? Would be then find ourselves in a trade war with the USA?

Where does one find morality in all of this? Sad to say, one cannot see a shred of morality except to understand that the farmers will say they take great care of the animals, feed them, clean them, cure their ills. In the old days many small farmers knew their animals by name. Today the Bertha or Louise of long ago is merely a number.

Modern methods cannot be said to be cruel, or can they? If battery hen breeding is not cruel, then what is inhuman? Anything, it seems, goes in the pursuit of money.

This has always been so and morality in the States appears to go hand in hand with the Big Buck culture. One wonders if, when the author was told that his investment, Steer 534 had been executed and would soon provide nice marbled steaks on a plate,he felt remorse or pain.? Ah, now there is a real personal dilemma!

Mr Pallon, the man from Berkeley - known to local residents in California as berserkly- also reveals that the"foodlot" can cause suffering because cows are designed to eat grass yet they are fed corn. This often results in acidosis, swelling of the rumen, the beast's two stomachs. It is painful and can be lethal Treatment is a water hose down the throat! No gain without some pain!.

George Orwell would not have recognised today's animal farms but he might have again concluded that two legs are bad and four legs are good.

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