Required Reading

Filed under: General Health

I know Mondays are normally about a particular food that is awesome and I tell you all about why you should incorporate it more into your diet. Today though, I wanted to talk about a book about food that everyone on planet Earth should read. You might have heard of it, it is kind of a big deal, and it was a best-seller. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. This may be not just the best book about food/nutrition I have ever read, but maybe, just maybe, the single greatest book I have ever read. Period. It is that good, and that important. If you do not have a copy get yourself one immediately and enjoy the utter brilliance of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Michael Pollan gives a complete and utterly fascinating review of our dependance on corn, and the negative consequences we suffer from it. Here is one of my favorite excerpts from the book:

Grain is the closest thing in nature to an industrial commodity: storable, portable, fungible, ever the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Since it can be accumulated and traded, grain is a form of wealth. It is a weapon, too, as Earl Butz once had the bad taste to mention in public; the nations with the biggest surpluses of grain have always exerted power over the ones in short supply. Throughout history governments have encouraged their farmers to grow more than enough grain, to protect against famine, to free up labor for other purposes, to improve the trade balance, and generally to augment their own power. George Naylor is not far off when he says the real beneficiary of his crop is not America’s eaters but its military-industrial complex. In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, Detroit, pharmaceuticals (without which they couldn’t keep the animals healthy in CAFOs), agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Growing corn helps drive the very industrial complex that drives it. No wonder the government subsidizes it so lavishly.

You cannot say any of these things about grass. The government writes no subsidy checks to grass farmers. Grass farmers, who buy little in the way of pesticides and fertilizers (none, in the case of Joel Salatin), do little to support agribusiness or the pharmaceutical industry or big oil. A surplus of grass does nothing for a nation’s power or its balance of payments. Grass is not a commodity. What grass farmers grow can’t be easily accumulated, traded, transported, or stored, at least for very long. Its quality is highly variable, different from region to region, season to season, even farm to farm; there is no number 2 hay. Unlike grain, grass can’t be broken down into its constituent molecules and reassembled as value-added processed foods; meat, milk, and fiber is about all you can make out of grass, and the only way to do that is with a living organism, not a machine. Grass farming with skill involves so many variables, and so much local knowledge, that it is difficult to systematize. As faithful to the logic of biology as a carefully grazed pasture is, it meshes poorly with the logic of industry, which has no use for anything it cannot bend to its wheels and bottom line. And, at least for the time being, it is the logic of industry that rules.

I will admit this is a dense read, not for the faint of heart, but not dense in that when will this book end sort of way. Dense in that holy shit, this is amazing, and I have learned more about my food supply in one book than in 4 years of undergrad kind of way. It will mesmerize you and make you really think about what are seemingly simple food choices, and realize that they aren’t so simple after all. Utter brilliance. Honestly, reading this book will make you ten times more informed as a consumer than you ever dreamed possible, and will completely change the way you look at food.

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Posted on March 16th, 2009 by Brian St. Pierre


  1. Dave Says:

    I share your love for this one Brian. Everything Pollans written should go alongside Gary Taubes Diet Delusion (Good Calories, Bad Calories in the states) as required reading for anyone who claims to hold an interest in nutrition.
    On that note, if you think this is a dense read it has nothing on the work of Gary Taubes.

  2. Way out front or just way out there? « No Magic Pill Says:

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  3. Jordan Says:

    Too bad Taubes is a nut-job who cherry picks research to support his predetermined ideas. Him and the other low-carb zealots have set the diet and nutrition fields back more than anyone since Dean Ornish. The sooner we relegate GCBC to the trash where it belongs, the sooner we can get back to some semblance of reality.

    That being said, the omnivores dilemma sounds like a good read.

  4. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Taubes may have taken his argument too far, and been a little hypocritical even, but he does dismiss the lipid hypothesis as thoroughly as anyone ever has. We do not get heart disease from consuming some saturated fat, we get heart disease from eating too many food products, not enough actual food, not enough fruits and veggies, way too much food from industrial production and more calories than we expend. There are myriad causes but some simple solutions, start eating real food, from sustainable small farms that take care to create high quality food without the use of pesticides, herbicides and the like.

  5. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    I can tell that this is not the first time you write about the topic. Why have you chosen it again?

  6. Glubbendini Says:

    nice, really nice!

  7. Quinoa 2.0 : The Home of Brian St. Pierre Training Says:

    [...] on why that is a terrible trade-off, check out The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I blogged about here). Also like quinoa, buckwheat is high in fiber, has a very low impact on blood sugar, and is a [...]

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