Friday, July 31, 2009

Thoughts on Food, Inc. and The Omnivore's Dilemma

So, I've been awash in the world of food activism lately. About four years behind the curve, I finally sat down and powered through The Omnivore's Dilemma, essentially finishing it just in time for the opening of Food Inc. downtown at The Ragtag this past week. Since some of my likes and dislikes paralleled between the two, I thought I'd reflect on both.

The Movie:
I thought the film was well-done. I would say I enjoyed it, but only insomuch as one can enjoy a movie highlighting all of the wrongs of an industrial food system. Most of the hot-button food-advocate issues were presented and commentated on through narration, images, and interviews. Even as someone well-acquainted with the problems at hand, seeing this movie was beneficial. It brought powerful imagery and stories of both farmers and low-income workers tied up in the system -- things that middle to upper class white food crusaders theoretically care about but don't actually encounter on any regular basis. It drove home a point for me, at least, that even if I can get my own food and live my own life relatively out from under Monsanto's shadow, there is still a world of work that could be done to better the situations of others.

I also appreciated the fact that it called attention to the growing organic industry, and thought that it portrayed that side of things in an accurate and informative light.

I found some of the CGI sequences to be a little corny at times (computer-cows being conveyed toward a factory amid ominous music, thunder clouds, and mysterious men in suits walking through fields) which might be off-putting to someone who came into this film with views differing from the general target audience's. Also, there was nary a vegetable to be seen or heard of throughout the film (corn is a grain, after all). This was a somewhat disappointing, as I feel it pigeon holes what people consider to be food into the categories of animals and corn, two things which are already pretty absent from my own conception of food. A sustainable meat farmer (Joel Salatin) and dairy were featured, but no alternative veggie operations made it to the screen.

Perhaps the corniest and most unnecessary part of the movie was the very end, after the screen blacks out and a series of white and green text tells you how to live your life. It just seemed a little insulting to the intelligence of the audience. Buy local foods? Really? I thought the very last words and image would have been a more elegant closing, where Indiana Corn Farmer Troy Rush emphasizes that to make a change, “People have got to start demanding good, wholesome food of us and we’ll deliver, I promise you.”

The Book:
Having just read Pollan's book lead me to draw some interesting parallels. Joel Salatin is featured prominently in The Omnivore's Dilemma, painted by Pollan as some sort of all-knowing, nature nurturing, wise farming fellow who had it down to a perfectly executed art. It read a little like a fairy-tale heaven man-crush of sustainable meat and land stewardship. While I'm sure a good portion of Pollan's admiration for Salatin's operation is well earned, getting to see Salatin on film was an interesting contrast. He definitely has some crazy-eyes going on, and to see that his farm looked like any other well-managed one with healthy animals helped remove him from the impossible pedestal Pollan seemed to put him on.

Obviously, the book discusses many of the same concerns regarding industrial food as the film does, to its credit. I enjoyed the history of corn that Pollan takes his time spelling out in the beginning of the book. It starts strong, and continues this way, providing a good chunk of facts regarding meat, corn, and subsidies for them (and consequences thereof).

That is, until I got to the section regarding vegetarianism. He does bring up a significant portion of the issues surrounding people's choice not to eat animals or their products, but ultimately manages to retain a nice, aloof and condescending attitude about it. His brief stint as a vegetarian was entered into most reluctantly, and his description of it in the end as an effective, but naive escape route from dealing with the moral dilemma of animal death kind of rubbed me the wrong way. But this is a battle I constantly find myself entrenched in -- the meat eaters think I'm nutso for not wanting to eat animals, but the other vegans think I'm nutso for not thinking that other people eating animals (within parameters) is wrong. He seemed to imply that veg*ism is caused by thinking about your food, but ultimately not thinking hard enough, or you'd come back around to sustainable meat.

I didn't really know what to think of the hunting/gathering portion of his book for "his meal" in the end, either. Again, he barely mentions vegetables, only noting that they are from his kitchen garden, while spending chapter upon chapter describing the painstaking efforts he put into hunting wild pig and mushrooms. It was an interesting read, and very informative about the labors one goes through to find their own food. I would have happily enjoyed it as a separate piece of writing, but it seems kind of self-indulgent and not terribly related to the tone and purpose of the first half of the book. It's great that you pulled your own pig's guts out, Pollan, but remind me where the social commentary and discussion of the food system disappeared to?

I'll never know, because it never came back. Unlike the movie, the book could have benefited from a clearer take-home message. It ends with him describing the meal he foraged and cooked for his friends sitting around his living room, drinking expensive wine and reflecting on the fact that though it was fun, he wouldn't do it every day and still appreciates the fact that he can buy soup-stock in a can. All I can say is, WTF? Perhaps I need to read his follow up, In Defense of Food, but the ending just seemed so (albeit unintentionally) culinary elitist/social classist, city-boy-has-his-country-fun-but-returns-home.

Which is not to say I didn't like the book. I liked the book a lot. I could see myself perhaps having a less critical view of it if it had come along earlier in my quest for food information, as Schlosser's Fast Food Nation had. I would definitely recommend it as a read for anyone interested in food (or not, might learn something), regardless of your current situation. I learned things and have taken away some good though-provoking points from it, but I wouldn't exactly call it my bible.


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Hey Margaret, thanks for visiting! I really appreciate comments and like to know that people are reading and enjoying our blog.