Appetite for Destruction

If you believe eating organic foods will save the earth, think again. Two new books explore how following an ethical diet can help us create a healthier planet.


By Kathleen McGowan


The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press , 450 pages, $26.95

The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
By Peter Singer and Jim Mason
Rodale, 336 pages, $25.95

What, exactly, is a hot dog? Most of us would rather not know. Industrialized agriculture is amazingly productive, but treating living things like parts of a machine can have nightmarish environmental consequences. Our crops are drenched in synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Our farm animals spend their short, stressful lives indoors, producing swamps of waste. Fresh produce is trucked thousands of miles, on average, before it reaches the supermarket. It’s a profligate and heartless system, but without an easy way to opt out, most people just go along with it.

Recently, though, it’s getting a lot easier to find an alternative way to eat, thanks to organic growers, free-range ranchers, and high-end supermarkets. And with new books by the gourmandizing literary journalist Michael Pollan and the controversial ethicist Peter Singer, this burgeoning movement will soon be higher profile as well. This development is a sharp turn from the past, when eating natural foods meant swallowing a lot of bland meals and wilted vegetables—as well as having a puritan attitude toward pleasure. Instead, these writers promote a kind of conscientious hedonism, where the most morally defensible food also tastes the best.

Singer, a professor at Princeton University, is the man we have to thank (or blame) for the animal-rights movement. His groundbreaking 1975 book, Animal Liberation, made the radical claim that other creatures are entitled to human rights. Now, with The Way We Eat, he has a more modest goal: convincing us to shop with principle.

The book, co-written with attorney Jim Mason, begins by cataloguing the well-known cruelty and waste of factory farming—the miserable lives of broiler chickens, which poison waterways and wells with their waste; the methane gas created by millions of closely confined dairy cows. The authors then offer something useful: a rigorous, intelligent field guide to ethical shopping.

Take the “buy local” idea. It’s a nice slogan, but the truth is more complex. A San Francisco shopper might look kindly upon local rice, but that California crop takes more energy to bring to market than does rice shipped all the way from Bangladesh, where growing practices do not require energy-intensive irrigation. Similarly, if you live in Connecticut, should you buy greenhouse tomatoes from a local farmer who warms his early crop with oil heat? It actually takes less energy to truck tomatoes all the way from Florida—but people working under virtual slaverylike conditions likely picked them.

These decisions are complex, but Singer and Mason provide a few basic principles. Eating local, seasonal produce is good, and so is fair trade, which protects farmers around the world from exploitation. Being vegetarian is best, but if you’re going to eat meat, know what you’re eating, they say. “One possible moral rule would be: Only buy animal products if you have visited the farm from which they came. . . . Faced with that rule, many people would find it simpler to avoid eating animals altogether.”

Or, if they were Michael Pollan, they might turn the experience into a book. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan takes his readers behind the scenes of modern agriculture, from a huge feedlot to a small family farm. If you’ve ever wondered where your food comes from, this is an all-access ticket to the truth.

First we spend a day with an Iowa corn farmer, and learn that each bushel requires about a quarter to a third of a gallon of oil in the form of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel for farm equipment. Growing corn actually uses more fossil fuel energy than the crop yields as food, observes Pollan: Its industrial variety has become a kind of plague, “impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn.”

We follow the harvest to a feedlot, where gloomy steers stand around in their own muck, slurping up processed corn seasoned with antibiotics. In its short lifetime just one of these beef cattle will consume the equivalent of 35 gallons of oil. The chemicals in the manure these animals produce are too concentrated to use on crops; instead it’s stored like toxic waste. These details are grim, but Pollan has great sympathy for the farmers and ranchers he meets, many of whom would prefer to farm a different way if only the market supported it. He also has a wonderful appreciation of the ironies and surreal details of modern agriculture. The feedlot, he muses, is “a city afloat on an invisible sea of petroleum.”

Thankfully, there are other ways to get food on the table. We tour a big-scale organic farm, and explore how the success of this once marginal movement has transformed its goals—and our understanding of healthy eating. Pollan also spends a week at Virginia’s Polyface Farm, run on the principles of sustainable agriculture. Here cows graze on grass; chickens forage for bugs; pigs root through the compost, which feeds the soil, and it all begins again. The farm operation is almost completely self-contained—animals and plants create a closed ecological loop. This is the way farming should be, Pollan believes: “Polyface is proof that people can sometimes do more for the health of a place by cultivating it rather than by leaving it alone.”

Like Singer, Pollan believes we have a duty to know where our food comes from. In his view, the core failing of modern agriculture is that it makes it difficult to see the true cost—ethical, environmental, monetary—of food. A dozen eggs is cheap at 79 cents, but that low price does not accurately reflect the terrible lives of hens, the water poisoned by their manure, or the fossil fuel required to raise those chickens and bring the food to market. Food grown through sustainable, humane agriculture may cost more, but it’s a better alternative than continuing to spend money on groceries that were produced under callous and ecologically destructive conditions. Now that we consumers have a choice, argue Pollan and Singer, we can no longer afford to look the other way.

Kathleen McGowan is a science writer and senior editor at Psychology Today.


Editors’ Choice

American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn
By Ted Steinberg
W.W. Norton & Company, 295 pages, $24.95

The bright-green, weed-free, kid-friendly yard is quintessentially American. Suburban planner and Long Island lawn pioneer Abe Levitt (of Levittown fame) once said that all good home-owners should strive for the perfect “outdoor living room.” In American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, environmental historian Ted Steinberg dissects this national phenomenon and concludes that the societal pressure to have a well-manicured yard has been, not surprisingly, mostly harmful to our health, environment, and bank accounts. For Steinberg, the Scotts Company, the top seller of grass seed and fertilizer, is the ultimate villain, with its lawn propaganda that has convinced Americans to undertake time-consuming yard work that is nothing short of a “perpetual cycle of creative destruction.” Weed killers, fertilizers, and overwatering have been forced on Americans, who are judged today by the length of the Kentucky bluegrass in their front yards and the absence of crabgrass, dandelions, and clover. Steinberg makes a convincing case that “turf hysteria” and the “giant chemical orgy” of modern lawn care have led to water pollution and the shunning of native plants. He also engages in a bit of, um, lawn-chair psychoanalysis: “To spend hundreds of hours mowing your way to a designer lawn is to flirt, most would agree, with a bizarre form of fanaticism.”  Steinberg’s cure: “Natural landscaping is the perfect lawn’s alter ego.”

—Kate Pickert 



Losing It All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape
By Bill Belleville
University Press of Florida, 199 pages, $24.95

Perhaps no state suffers more from development than Florida. A real-estate agent once observed to longtime science writer and documentary filmmaker Bill Belleville that “all of Florida is for sale.” Belleville witnessed this firsthand as condos and restaurants crept toward his rustic “Cracker” house about 20 miles north of Orlando, eventually engulfing it. His home was built using heart cypress in the 1920s, “back in the days when it took resourcefulness and common sense to live in Florida and not air-conditioning and bug spray.” His account, Losing It All to Sprawl, is a heartfelt tribute to the natural beauty Florida bulldozers are erasing relentlessly, acre by acre. Belleville combines the story of rampant development with tales of his travels to the hidden wonders of Florida, including the pure freshwater springs beneath the Wekiva River, not far from Disney World. With prose drifting eloquently from anger to hope to sorrow, he grieves for the state he has called home for three decades. “Florida is for sale, has been for a while now, and it makes me sad as hell,” he writes. “I’ll stay as long as I can, but one day soon it will all go: the marsh wrens and the butterflies, the cactus and blackberry vines, the old Cracker house, the feeling.”

—Todd Neale




Back to Earth: A Backpacker’s Journey Into Self and Soul
By By Kerry Temple
Rowman & Littlefield, 201 pages, $16.95

Back to Earth is the answer to Kerry Temple’s question, “Where should I go now that I’ve lost everything?” Temple, whose essays have appeared in Audubon and Backpacker, chronicles his quest, undertaken following the breakup of his marriage, to rediscover his sense of self and purpose by reconnecting to the natural world. “It is crucial to lose oneself . . . in the landscape in order, ultimately, to find oneself there,” he writes. And so, facing a life-altering crisis, he decides to follow the example of Henry David Thoreau and retreat to a secluded cabin overlooking a pond (albeit in northern Indiana). Here, in his “hermit’s paradise,” he explores the 265 acres of mainly old-growth forest, savoring the smells and sights of the landscape and the creatures he finds there, including a bobcat, nicknamed “Wood Ghost” because it’s so rarely seen. He also recounts a series of backpacking trips through such western wonderlands as Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming—experiences he relates “not as a philosopher, naturalist, or scientist but as a regular guy still trying to figure it [life] out.” As he revisits these past adventures while tucked away in his own private Walden, Temple comes to appreciate the universality and therapeutic value of wilderness. “My story,” he concludes, “is shared by many others—and not only by a people caught up in the currents of twenty-first century living but also by a species, a race of people who have let too much accumulate between them and what they knew long ago, people heading madly in all the wrong directions, a culture gone awry.”  The solution? Read Temple’s testament to the healing power of nature, then go out and experience it for yourself.

—Daniel Butcher



© 2006 National Audubon Society

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