The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed how I think about food.
Until reading the now classic 2006 tome by Michael Pollan, I never noticed the extreme lack of diversity in the modern North American diet due to its evolution since World War II. Events have since conspired to show me the extent that corn, dairy and wheat join salt and sugar to form a significant part of a Canadian diet too. Often we think we are eating one thing and it turns out that we are actually eating something else.
The industrialization of our food system has separated us from natural systems while hurting our health, our planet and our soil. Despite that understanding, reversing the habit has been an ongoing struggle. As Pollan points out in his conclusion, everything in our culture encourages us to rely on the convenient, unemotional and often unrecognizable food-like products offered in bulk by giant industrial companies.
For countless generations eating was something that took place in the steadying context of a family and a culture, where the full consciousness of what was involved did not need to be rehearsed at every meal because it was stored away, like the good silver, in a set of rituals and habits, manners and recipes. I wonder if it isn’t because so much of that context has been lost that I felt the need, this one time, to start again from scratch.” (p 411)
For Pollan, starting again from scratch meant travelling across America to discover the basic ingredients within four meals: a McDonald’ meal eaten in a fast car, a Whole Foods organic dinner, a Polyface Farm meal, and a foraged meal. Pollan takes readers along with him, detailing every element in each meal from start to finish. He brings us with him into industrial food operations, to small and large farms, and into the forest in search of mushrooms and big game to hunt.
In between the descriptions of places and people, Pollan carefully outlines every element within every meal. Often, many of these elements turn out to have the same source.
In his description of his McDonald’s meal, for instance, he described how three people chose 45 different products almost totally made of corn.
It would not be impossible to calculate exactly how much corn Judith, Isaac, and I consumed in our McDonald’s meal. I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat). The nuggets are a little harder to translate into corn, since there’s no telling how much actual chicken goes into a nugget; but if 6 nuggets contain a quarter pound of meat, that would have taken a chicken half a pound of feed corn to grow. A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another pound. Subtotal: 6 pounds of corn.” (p115)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma also contains a great deal of information about how many societal norms and regulations have radically transformed when it comes to food. Often these changes were due to marketing by various members of the agricultural industry.
Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida,” wrote Pollan, on page 178. “Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true.”
In other places, Pollan speculates about the extent that changes to our food system might be creating problems with our health.
One of the most important yet unnoticed changes to the human diet in modern times has been in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, the other essential fatty acid in our food. Omega-6 is produced in the seeds of plants; omega-3 in the leaves. As the name indicates, both kinds of fat are essential, but problems arise when they fall out of balance. (In fact, there’s research to suggest that the ratio of these fats in our diet may be more important than the amounts.) Too high a radio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory.) As our diet—and the diet of the animals we eat—shifted from one based on green plants to one based on grain (from grass to corn), the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has gone from roughly one to one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one.” (p268)
Despite multiple examples of dense information, the overall impression a reader has of Omnivore’s Dilemma is an exploration of America through its food and communities. Pollan aptly outlines his deep concern about deep problems in the food system while demonstrating how caring individuals can change how things are done.
Pollan has nicely captured the hurtful and healing attributes of America’s food system. Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a treasure and a great source of hope.
Reading it may force you to change the way you eat, the way you shop and the way you see your local community as it did for me.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan
I’ve abandoned my funny Friday post for today because I just realized that the Food Revolution Summit starts tomorrow and I haven’t even registered yet. Have you? If not, please use my affiliate link to do so right now.
The summit is set up by Ocean Robbins and features his dad John interviewing 25 of experts who will explain why we all have to change how we eat to survive. The sessions are free for the next eight days. After that, the Food Revolution sells mp3 copies of all the interviews as a way to fund raise for their organization. If you use my affiliate link to sign up for the conference and then you purchase something, I get a commission. If you don’t like to use affiliate links, you can sign up for the Food Revolution Summit directly.
The speakers I’m interested in listening to include:
Mimi Guarneri at 1 p.m. local time tomorrow–she’ll be speaking about Integrative Health.
David Perimutter at 11 a.m. Montreal time Sunday. He’ll speak about the gut-brain connection.
Ron Finley at noon local time next Wednesday. He’ll speak about growing healthy food and communities.
Jane Goodall, an hour later.
David Katz, at 11 a.m. Thursday, who will speak about the Optimal Diet for Human Beings
Susan Pierce Thompson at 11 a.m. next Saturday to hear about achieving permanent weight loss.
Which ones are you interested in?
It’s time to begin thinking about harvesting dandelions. They haven’t appeared yet, but with today’s warm weather, they’ll be popping up any minute now. For some ideas about eating them, consult Euell Gibbons’ 1962 book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” The classic would make an ideal mothers’ day gift for a gardening mom.
Normally, by the time I begin harvesting dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) the flower buds are already on the plants. Not this year. The leaves don’t taste quite so bitter when I pick the plants before the flowers bud, so I’m making a special effort to get them early this year. I’m going on the prowl for these little babies beginning today.
Thinking about the task as a harvest—and actually eating the leaves I pick—makes the task slighter more rewarding than it would be if the idea were simply to make my lawn look nicer. Most years, I begin the task on a rainy day. Again, not this year! Yippee!
The key to enjoying this activity during this time of the year is to have a great recipe.
Gibbons recommends six different ways to eat the plant. This year, I’m hoping to finally try Gibbons’ dandelion crown salad and boiled unopened flower heads recipes. I’ve never been able to try them before because they both require a much earlier harvest than I usually manage. Roasted ground roots made into a coffee-like beverage has never appealed to me, because I don’t like coffee much, but I might try it anyway just for the heck of it. I’ve also never bothered either to harvest the roots and peel them to serve boiled or fried as a vegetable and that’s not likely to change, since the plants I harvest are usually too small. I’ve never bothered to gather the bright flowers and make wine either, although that’s something that might be possible from the church weeds. We’ll see.
My definite favourite recipe is wilted greens fried with garlic and bacon with a mustard sauce. This was recommended by my PWAC colleague and buddy, Steve Pitt, who posted the recipe on a list serve a few years ago. I’ve revised it slightly, and it still tastes great. Hope you like it as much as I do.
Fry the bacon until crisp. Put it into a steel salad bowl.
Pour off extra bacon fat, leaving just enough to cook the greens in.
Pour in the vinegar and heat to scrape the pan.
Add Dijon, honey and olive oil to make a sauce.
Add the greens and cook until they wilt. Toss everything together and serve.
After reading about the damaged heating tank and the decontamination at Crestview last summer, someone with a child at the school contacted the Suburban to ask whether the school is safe. This particular child suffers headaches and nausea at school but feels good at home.
Maxeen Jolin, the coordinator of communications services at the Sir-Wilfrid-Laurier school board, assured the Suburban that all necessary decontamination work was completed as of September 19, 2013.*
This work is not registered as complete on the Quebec Environment’s list of contaminated lands.
Hélène Proteau, a spokesperson from the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement, de la Faune et des Parcs (MDDEFP), said that the provincial database can’t be updated until the ministry receives and verifies technical reports so that it can confirm that the work has been done properly. That hasn’t happened.
Sometimes it takes some time for the consultant to receive laboratory reports or other details that might be needed,” she said. “As soon as the school board gets a satisfactory report from their consultant, they’ll send it to us so that we can verify that the results conform to our requirements. If all that works out properly, then we’ll report that the land has been rehabilitated on our records.”
Proteau also provided more details about the work that was done.
We learned of this file in 2006,” she said. “They removed much of the contaminated soil in 2006, but the work was so close to the building that to remove any more soil would require structural supports for because the foundation would not support the building on its own if they continued. That was in autumn. So the school board put other soil in the excavation until the final project could be completed. It took several years to do that work, but it was done in 2013.”
When the Suburban told the Madame Proteau about the parent who complained, she suggested that any concerned parent should speak to the CLSC near the school to get support and ensure that proper tests are completed.
Note: This article appeared on page 6 of the Laval edition of The Suburban yesterday.
*This date appeared incorrectly in an earlier version.
Parents at Crestview Elementary in Laval were told little about the big decontamination project in their schoolyard until a construction strike delayed the work.
After winning the tender that went out on May 27, 2013, Les Paysagistes Damiano Inc. was supposed to finish the million dollar job before school restarted at the end of August.
That didn’t happen. Parents were told that the school wouldn’t be able to open on time by phone and via letter from governing board chair Paul Leal in early August.
“As you know, the school yard at Crestview has been going through the decontamination process over the summer months and we have been getting regular updates on the work being done,” he wrote. “Most of the updates have been positive and on schedule. However, the last update wasn’t so positive as the decontamination process has hit a few snags, particularly with the depth in which the oil has spread. Another factor that has added additional delays to the work being done was the heavy rains we recently had, complicating the decontamination process even further.”
Leal’s letter doesn’t mention the construction strike that school board commissioners were told was the reason for the delay at their August meeting.
Instead of beginning at Crestview in August, 247 children were transported daily to Phoenix Alternative Elementary School. Crestview reopened on September 23.
This isn’t the first time that environmental dangers have forced Crestview Elementary School to be cleaned up.
An oil tank was due to be replaced in the summer of 2006, and that project got delayed a full year after an unusually-large oil leak was discovered. The same project also found contaminated soil on the grounds of Our Lady of Peace Elementary School, but it was minimal enough to be removed as soon as it was found.
The Crestview oil tank couldn’t be repaired until after Wilfrid Laurier School board officials approved the engagement of Gestenv on October 25, 2006. That $72,982.72 contract covered replacing the leaking oil tank, disposing of the contaminated soil beneath, backfilling and excavating.
In 1999, the school board hired Isolation Algon to remove friable asbestos from the building for $71,586.41.
Last summer’s decontamination and repaving cost more than ten times as much as either of those contracts—a total of $1,057,068.19 with tax.
That’s one third of the entire worth of the property according to Laval’s tax rolls. The circa-1963 two-storey building at 750 Avenue du Devonshire is worth $1.7 million. The lot it sits on—number 1189782—measures 1,098,130 square metres and is evaluated at $1.4 million for a total property worth of $3.1 million.
Approval of this latest clean-up also went through an altogether different process than what occurred in either 2006 or 1999. This time the decision was included within a three-year capital expenditure resolution (#CC-130626-MR-0192), which was approved last May. According to those minutes, Quebec’s ministry of education (Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport) and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board approved the amount under Quebec’s “passif environnemental” law, which normally is used to rehabilitate old mining sites.
Crestview does appear on a list of contaminated lands maintained by Quebec’s environment ministry. It is one of two schools in Laval on which cleanups are identified as “not completed.”
According to that site, the Crestview property is contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in addition to petroleum hydrocarbons C10 to C50. Hydrocarbons usually contain benzene, which is known to cause cancer in humans. Aromatic hydrocarbons are considered risky too because they can be absorbed through the skin or by breathing in addition to taking them in through the digestive system. Buildings located on or near hydrocarbon deposits are at risk for something known as “vapour intrusion,” in which airborne toxins infiltrate the premises causing breathing difficulties, fainting and headaches.
The other “not completed” rehabilitation is located at College Laurier. That site is contaminated with heavy metals.
Leblanc Secondary School, St-Gérard, Collège Laval, the Garderie Brins d’Éveil, Le Virage and the Le Virage Annexe, Notre-Dame-de-Pontmain, Ste-Cécile, Ste-Marguerite, both St-Gilles pavilions, St-Norbert and four Commission scolaire de Laval buildings (956 montée Gravel, 3730 boul. Lévesque Ouest, 475 66e Avenue and 800, place Sauvé Laval) are all on the list too, but they were cleaned up in 2001 and 2002.
Our Lady of Peace Elementary School is not listed on the ministry site, which can be found at http://www.mddep.gouv.qc.ca/sol/terrains/terrains-contamines.
Note: This article appeared on page one of the Laval edition of the Suburban yesterday.
The borough of LaSalle reacted quickly to reassure citizens that “there is no toxic waste in LaSalle.”
In a letter sent two days after our article appeared, Pierre Dupuis, the LaSalle borough’s communications director and clerk wrote:
Toxic waste is what you find in the numerous containers full of PCBs in Pointe-Claire, and that will eventually be incinerated in Alberta. What is safely contained since 1990 in the cells at Cintec in LaSalle is the contaminated earth from the land rehabilitation of two sites in LaSalle at the end of the 1980’s. This information is pretty easy to find and to verify.”
The borough also translated a letter to Mayor Manon Barbe from Hélène Proteau who works at the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement, de la Faune et des Parcs (MDDEFP). It says in part:
The entire CEI cell is subject to the Regulation respecting the burial of contaminated soils, which came into effect in 2001. The operator of a contaminated soil burial site must comply with the applicable requirements and, more specifically, with the Regulation’s Division III, entitled “OPERATION”. Inspections are carried out at this site by the Centre de Contrôle environnemental du Québec. According to our register, no failures to comply with the Regulation were sent to Cintec Environnement inc. in the past five years.”
But there may be a problem of semantics here. A public database at Quebec’s environment ministry show several sites in LaSalle on which there is hazardous waste that can harm human health. The Commission for Environment Cooperation’s “Taking Stock” database also shows several LaSalle companies emitting or transferring carcinogenic toxins. The Solutia site is listed on both databases. Montreal is negotiating with the owners to buy the site, but it still has yet to determine whether the owner or taxpayers will pay for the cleanup.
None of the documents Mr. Dupuis sent includes an inventory of contaminants on any of the three properties cited in our article last week.
Neither Mr. Dupuis, nor Mme. Proteau mention in their letters what the soil in the landfill at Cintec contains. Serge Gariépy, the executive director says his inventory isn’t yet public, but he does turn it in to the ministry annually. He said he believes it will be made public in a year or so after the facility closes. He did, however, spend some time explaining how he operates. He also assured us that no emissions are released from his property. We’ll be describing his operations in detail in an article next week.
Mme. Proteau’s letter also doesn’t describe a database of current and former contaminated property the ministry maintains, perhaps because it doesn’t include landfills. To see it, click on the ministry website.
The database at http://mddefp.gouv.qc.ca under the title “terrains contaminé” lists 1,636 contaminated sites in Montreal that were or are being cleaned up. Of the 63 sites listed in LaSalle, 37 have been cleaned up so far.
The Solutia site appears on this list as the most severely contaminated. According to the database, the groundwater at the Solutia site contains benzene, ethylbenzene, fluoranthene, formaldehyde, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and petroleum hydrocarbons C10 to C50. The soil is contaminated with arsenic (As), benzene, Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Vinyl chloride (vinyl chloride), Phenolic compounds, copper (Cu), Dichloromethane, tin (Sn), ethylbenzene, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, petroleum hydrocarbons C10 to C50, Phthalates (all of them), lead (Pb), styrene, toluene, Trichloro-1,1,1 ethane, xylenes (o,m,p) and zinc (Zn).
The land will be difficult to clean up. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation tracked the many pollutants transferred and released from this site until it closed in 2007 via their “Taking Stock” database at www.cec.org. In 2007, there were 8,852 kg of known or suspected carcinogens among the 409,294 kg released or transferred.
“Once contamination reaches sources of drinking water, it can be extremely difficult to treat or remove,” said Marco Antonio Heredia Fragoso the CEC Program Manager for Environmental Law.
Yet Montreal has set aside this site for purchase on June 18, 2010 in decision 1104422001.
The city has not yet determined whether it will pay for decontamination prior to purchase, or if the owners will be responsible for decontaminating the site prior to a purchase taking place.
In an email, city spokesperson Renee Pageau wrote that there hasn’t yet been a decision in this regard.
We are still in negotiation with the owners. The land remains set aside for another year.”
Note: This article appeared on page 2 of the City edition of the Suburban on Wednesday, October 2.