The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

According to the surgeon general, obesity today is officially an epidemic; it is arguably the most pressing public health problem we face, costing the health care system an estimated $90 billion a year. Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese. The disease formerly known as adult-onset diabetes has had to be renamed Type II diabetes since it now occurs so frequently in children. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicts that a child born in 2000 has a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes. (An African American child's chances are two in five.) Because of diabetes and all the other health problems that accompany obesity, today's children may turn out to be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The problem is not limited to America: The United Nations reported that in 2000 the number of people suffering from overnutrition--a billion--had officially surpassed the number suffering from malnutrition--800 million.

But carbon 13 [the carbon from corn] doesn't lie, and researchers who have compared the isotopes in the flesh or hair of Americans to those in the same tissues of Mexicans report that it is now we in the North who are the true people of corn.... Compared to us, Mexicans today consume a far more varied carbon diet: the animals they eat still eat grass (until recently, Mexicans regarded feeding corn to livestock as a sacrilege); much of their protein comes from legumes; and they still sweeten their beverages with cane sugar.
So that's us: processed corn, walking.

But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.

But that's the challenge -- to change the system more than it changes you.

Curiously, the one bodily fluid of other people that doesn't disgust us is the one produced by the human alone: tears. Consider the sole type of used tissue you'd be willing to share.

Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.

Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.

Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world - and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem erfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them.

Eating's not a bad way to get to know a place.

I asked the feedlot manager why they didn't just spray the liquefied manure on neighboring farms. The farmers don't want it, he explained. The nitrogen and phosphorus levels are so high that spraying the crops would kill them. He didn't say that feedlot wastes also contain heavy metals and hormone residues, persistent chemicals that end up in waterways downstream, where scientists have found fish and amphibians exhibiting abnormal sex characteristics.

Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal. We would not need to go hunting for our connection to our food and the web of life that produces it. We would no longer need any reminding that we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and that what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again—something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace.

Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum.

You are what you eat is a truism hard to argue with, and yet it is, as a visit to a feedlot suggests, incomplete, for you are what what you eat eats, too. And what we are, or have become, is not just meat but number 2 corn and oil.

Me and the folks who buy my food are like the Indians -- we just want to opt out. That's all the Indians ever wanted -- to keep their tepees, to give their kids herbs instead of patent medicines and leeches. They didn't care if there was a Washington, D.C., or a Custer or a USDA; just leave us alone. But the Western mind can't bear an opt-out option. We're going to have to refight the Battle of the Little Big Horn to preserve the right to opt out, or your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, barcoded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate.

More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands..... Relations are what matter most.

Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it's a short way from not knowing who's at the other end of your food chain to not caring–to the carelessness of both producers and consumers that characterizes our economy today. Of course, the global economy couldn't very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the American food industry and its international counterparts fight to keep their products from telling even the simplest stories–"dolphin safe," "humanely slaughtered," etc.–about how they were produced. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values–and not just "value"–will inform their purchasing decisions.

So that's us: processed corn, walking.

Suffering... is not just lots of pain but pain amplified by distinctly human emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread.

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.

The repetitive phases of cooking leave plenty of mental space for reflection, and as I chopped and minced and sliced I thought about the rhythms of cooking, one of which involves destroying the order of the things we bring from nature into our kitchens, only to then create from them a new order. We butcher, grind, chop, grate, mince, and liquefy raw ingredients, breaking down formerly living things so that we might recombine them in new, more cultivated forms. When you think about it, this is the same rhythm, once removed, that governs all eating in nature, which invariably entails the destruction of certain living things, by chewing and then digestion, in order to sustain other living things. In The Hungry Soul Leon Kass calls this the great paradox of eating: 'that to preserve their life and form living things necessarily destroy life and form.' If there is any shame in that destruction, only we humans seem to feel it, and then only on occasion. But cooking doesn't only distance us from our destructiveness, turning the pile of blood and guts into a savory salami, it also symbolically redeems it, making good our karmic debts: Look what good, what beauty, can come of this! Putting a great dish on the table is our way of celebrating the wonders of form we humans can create from this matter--this quantity of sacrificed life--just before the body takes its first destructive bite.

The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

... the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.

This for many people is what is most offensive about hunting—to some, disgusting: that it encourages, or allows, us not only to kill but to take a certain pleasure in killing. It's not as though the rest of us don't countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practiced, out of view and without emotion by industrial agriculture.

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.

We are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too.

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. (quoting Joel Salatin)

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.

What is most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal's pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for 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.

When chickens get to live like chickens, they'll taste like chickens, too.

Without such a thing as fast food, there would be no need for slow food,