Friday, March 02, 2007

"You are what you eat, and what you eat eats" - Michael Pollan

If you've ever wanted to crystallize in your mind why it is important to eat grass fed meat, or wild game instead of standard grocery store fare - you need look no further than Pollan's book - The Omnivore's Dilemma.

He uses beef as a focus to detail two fundamentally different food chains: industrial, and grass. Here is a basic breakdown:

Grass: this involves the basic process of ruminant animals' consumption of green matter. The sun strikes the leaves of grass in the ground, providing the required energy to synthesize inorganic nutrients taken from the soil into organic matter... that is, grass grows by way of the sun, water and soil. Grazing animals - cows especially, but also buffalo and deer, etc. - can then eat the grass, and turn it into meat, bone, etc. We the people can then slay an animal and eat the meat. This is a basic food-chain process... a foundation of life on Earth, to put it simply.

Industrial: this food chain aims to get you a product similar in appearance to that provided by the grass-based chain (animal flesh as a meat meal), but it is overrun with shortcuts, and ultimately ruin. It starts with a black desert; there is no need for it to be green all the time, as a new energy source is the base here: synthetic fertilizer. That fertilizer is a petroleum-derived product. So this food chain starts in the Persian Gulf, from a well of fossil fuel (true, this is also the sun's energy, but in an ultra-concentrated form that allows us to cheat and shortcut on a short-term basis). It then moves to synthetic fertilizer, and then to a grain of corn. This corn - being more full of energy than an equal acreage of grass - is basically forced on beef livestock, to speed along the fattening process. Despite the fact that cows are ruminant animals - grassophiles - their diets are abruptly shifted to corn-based feed so they can reach slaughter weight in 150 days instead of a couple years. The trouble is - the biology of the cow can't handle the grain - they naturally reject it... so force-feeding them the stuff basically makes them chronically ill. Thus, they are regularly given antibiotics to keep them walking and gaining weight. So you have your corn base, mixed with Rumesin and Tylosin (antibiotics), liquid vitamin and protein supplements, and synthetic estrogen making up the feed that hurries these industrial beef cattle to the slaughter. All in the name of speed and maximization of profits... get the cheapest product out there to as many people as possible - as long as it LOOKS good, folks will think it IS good. And the consumers reinforce the whole deal, for as Pollan notes: "farmers who get the message that consumers care only about price will themselves care only about yield. This is how a cheap food economy reinforces itself."

So that's it - my interpretation of Pollan's information. Which sounds better to you? Would you be willing to pay $4 for a pound of unadulterated food chain instead of $2.50 to eat petroleum?

I'll type some Pollan here verbatim to sum this up:
We’ve come to think of “corn-fed” as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you’re referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. Its chief advantage is that cows fed corn… get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn. p.75

"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. p.84


If you want to eat meat (I do) - the best things you can do, in my opinion: shoot a deer, catch a fish, and buy a side of beef from your buddy who raised it in an unhurried, un-industrial fashion.

15 Comments:

Blogger spilseth said...

Very interesting.

Well, I want to eat grass fed meat from now on. Too bad the structure of the supply chain makes that basically impossible. If I go to a restaurant, they don't have grass fed meat on the menu. At Ralph's there is no meat labeled "grass fed". Whole Foods may have something like that, I'll have to check, but I doubt it.

This reminds me of that Turkey article I sent out a few years back.

1:52 AM  
Blogger MN Justin said...

Whole Foods will have it... it's pretty easy to come by if you look around. I'd say that especially in CA you're in good shape.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Justin, that's some great info. Quite illuminating as well...

Our family is in the process of changing how we buy our food, and more importantly how we eat.

Thanks for this. I'll have to check out that book.

Randy

8:07 PM  
Blogger MN Justin said...

Good comments...

I do agree that, as Ted notes, "the structure of the food chain" makes this difficult (surely not impossible though - if you poke around Ted, you can find any kind of food you want). I fully acknowledge that it's more troublesome at this time and in this place to eat well. It seems though, that when more people decide it's worth it, it will become less troublesome... if enough people demand grass fed beef, it will probably become more available. It takes folks who are willing to look a little harder and pay a little more to gradually chip away and change something as big as the meat production system in our country.

I read that Argentina does not feed any grain to cattle. It can be done.

12:55 AM  
Anonymous Any-Moose said...

A couple more pieces of the puzzle, if you're at all interested in the Pollan - Whole Foods debate:

http://www.culinate.com/content/5988

http://www.chewswise.com/chews/2007/02/mackeypollan_sm.html

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Any-Moose said...

And this one on the cover of Time Magazine
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1595245-1,00.html

12:30 PM  
Blogger Deb said...

My husband sometimes thinks I'm a bit obsessed with food ingredient labels, but this is exactly the reason why. We have managed to eliminate a lot of processed foods from our diet over the last couple of years, and we were fortunate to find a local source of grass fed beef at $2.50/lb. Of course you have to buy almost 200 pounds at a time, but it's cheaper in the long run.

I've been meaning to read that book; thanks for the reminder.

9:59 AM  
Blogger MN Justin said...

Thanks for the links and good comments. I've been so damn busy I've still not finished the book... but I've gotten through three of the four meals. I will reiterate - it is an amazing text - please read it.

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