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.
To order the book from Indigo in Canada, go to:
or from Amazon, go to:
In that process, I found this blog post that I wrote in 2014. All the links still work, and I still love the business stories featured, so I thought I’d post it again so you could enjoy some great nonfiction business writing. Some of the information in these stories might be dated, but they are still well-worth reading. Enjoy!
What do the former Canadian Wheat Board, twist ties and the International Monetary Fund have in common?
They’re all topics in three of my favourite business stories by excellent writers. Jake MacDonald’s “Why so many farmers miss the Wheat Board,” Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s “International Monetary Fund Overview,” and Paul Lukas’ “Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle” find entertaining ways to present company facts while asking important questions about a particular company, industry and economy.
Despite using completely different structures, the following three business stories are similar in that all of them make readers understand complicated insider business issues that normally seem opaque.
Jake MacDonald’s narrative feature outlining the demise of Canada’s wheat board begins in 1996 and continues until the summer of 2014. The freelancer’s opus appeared on November 27, 2014 in the Globe and Mail.
Slow-moving, yet compelling, the story’s narrative style makes it difficult to find a crucial section, but here are two paragraphs, just to give you a sense of how it reads.
The old multigenerational family farm is gradually being replaced by the vast acreage managed by the partnership, the corporation or the absentee owner. Harvesting machinery keeps getting bigger, more efficient and more expensive. Basic equipment for a small farm—trucks, tractor, swather, combine and so on—might cost well over $1 million. A couple of generations ago, a good-sized farm was a square mile (640 acres). Now, 2,000 acres is considered small. Rising costs keep pushing in from one end of the bench and farmers keep dropping off at the other. Is that such a bad thing? Farming, after all, has been in a state of constant revolution since the first nomadic hunter poked holes in the ground with a stick and scattered seeds of einkorn grass. What’s wrong with corporations taking over?”
Well, for one thing, they’re not as good at it,” says Byskal. “The small family farmer is often the best farmer. He’s been on the same land all his life, and he’s got a feel for the soil. He lets the land tell him what crops to grow, and the crops change from year to year. The corporate guy doesn’t have that same rapport with nature. He’s got a very businesslike approach. And that’s not always the best for the land, in the long run.”
Read the entire story for yourself.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s summary of a paper published by the International Monetary Fund in The Telegraph on January 2, 2014 is a great example of a journalist’s capacity to make difficult economic thought clear for anyone.
Written with a traditional news style structure, the initial paragraph says everything detailed in the rest of the piece:
Much of the Western world will require defaults, a savings tax and higher inflation to clear the way for recovery as debt levels reach a 200-year high, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund.
Read the rest of this non-fiction story for yourself.
Read more stories from the same author.
It’s well-worth reading Paul Lukas’ “Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle,” which was published in Bloomberg Business Week on March 13, 2013.
This story highlights the battle for market share between Kwik Lok and Burford for the type of fastener used on bread, bagels and other consumer goods. Its genius is an easy-reading style that communicates industry information without making it seem boring.
The author uses the feature structure. His nutgraph is:
This was the latest move in a business war that’s been under way for more than half a century now. It’s a battle fought by the makers of inconspicuous little products that cost a fraction of a penny to produce—the ones that everyone knows and nobody thinks about, but which represent more than an estimated $10 million in annual sales. Insiders describe the turf as the bakery bag closure and reclosure market; this is the battle of the plastic clip vs. the twist-tie.
Read this non-fiction brilliance for yourself.
Read more about the author on his website, which is itself one of my favourite-ever profiles.
“Despite the grim business of the war being waged, there was also a lighter side to life at Gransden Lodge, with many sporting events, parties, concerts and film shows being organised, along with the inevitable pranks carried out by the boisterous Canadians.”1
I don’t know what pranks they were talking about, but its likely my uncle Charlie fell among the pranksters. He served at Gransden Lodge for six months in 1944.
Uncle Charlie, officially known as Sgt. John Charles Mathieu, worked three different jobs from the time he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on January 8, 1940 until he went missing just before Christmas 1944.
Each job got closer to the action, with the first assisting officers, the second serving as a Spitfire flight mechanic and the third as a tail gunner in a Lancaster.
In many ways, his personal development matched the development of Canada’s Air Force.
Canada founded its own Air Force in 1920, just after World War I ended. King George V gave it the Royal Canadian Air Force title four years after that. For a while, it controlled civil aviation in the country, but that ended in 1927. It then re-established recruitment and training in 1939, as part of the build-up to the British effort in World War II.
The Royal Canadian Air Force created Squadron 405 in Driffield, Yorkshire, on April 23, 1941. It became operational as part of Britain’s Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command a month and a half later.2
Canadian and British crews tried to hit German and French targets individually as best they could, but the bombs dispersed too widely.
Captain D. C. Bennett came up with a plan to send a small group of bombers ahead of the others. These Pathfinder bombers would drop green and red short-burning flares called “sky indicators” on targets so that a bigger group of bombers would know where to aim.
Just as this new strategy was developed, the Royal Canadian Air Force created its own Bomber Command. It assigned the 405 Squadron to the pathfinder role and moved it to Gransden Lodge. The squadrons originally based there researched the use of radar. As the use of that technology expanded, they had to be moved to larger, more secretive locations.
Meanwhile, Charlie began training as a tail gunner just before Christmas 1943. His two-and-a-half month journey ended with a mark of 76.1%. I think this is a pretty good grade, but his course instructor P.W.H. Walker clearly expected better. Walker wrote in Mathieu’s log book that he was “a pupil who would have done better had he devoted more time to his work.”3
He worked harder after that, training from March until May in a Wellington in Wellesbourne Mountford and then from the 9th until the 24th of June in a Halifax. For that last training session, his instructor gave him a mark of 91% and assessed him as “average.”
Then it was off to the Navigational Training Unit, which used the new safer, faster bombers known as Lancasters. The Lancasters also marked a vast improvement in technology. After successfully prototyping by the A.V. Roe Company in Chadderton, the manufacture of some Lancasters moved to Canada. Charlie told me that plane saved him and his crew multiple times.
Charlie’s study habits by then had vastly improved; he and his rear gunner came in second and third in the class. Together, they got assigned to the elite squadron 405, something that shocked Charlie.
The rest of the crews were all experienced, some with two tours of ops to their credit; we didn’t even have one flight.4
Charlie arrived in Great Gransden, a tiny hamlet in Sandy, which was part of Bedfordshire in Huntingdonshire County, 11 miles west of Cambridge in early July 1944. He got a welcoming pamphlet from his predecessors that said in part:
“We old die-hards, some of whom you will have the pleasure of meeting later in this booklet, began our P.F.F. life just as you are, with few clues but a willingness to learn. We settled down and soon became enshrouded with the spirit, that we not only had a job to do well, but one which was to be done far better than was expected, no matter how small it proved to be. That spirit and responsibility is handed down to you by the older crews as they end their tours.”5
Charlie’s log shows eleven-and-a-half hours of day flying and two-and-a-quarter hours of night flying over a three-day period that ended on July 10, 1944.6
That same day, Charlie got a new “class A” driver’s license that gave him the right to drive “heavy locomotive, light locomotive, motor tractor, heavy motor car, motor car, or motor tricycle equipped with means for reversing”7 for a year.
He wouldn’t need the last six months.
Read my other stories about WWII service at:
Last flight (this is more about Uncle Charlie)
Difficult holiday for two families (this story features the death of a crew member on Charlie’s last flight)
Sad death (this story features one of the women who served)
Kitty Freeman: WWII Heroine and Food Research Pioneer (another story about a woman who served)
Visit Picton for insight into military ancestors from WWII (Charlie trained in Dunville, but the site was similar to this one)
1https://www.camgliding.uk/about/airfield-history/, accessed January 29, 2020.
2 Skaarup, H. (n.d.). Canadian Wings: The History & Heritage of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Retrieved November 24, 2014, from http://www.canadianwings.com/Squadrons/squadronDetail.php?No.-405-Squadron-64.
3Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943, December 12, 1943 to February 26, 1944.
4Mathieu, John Charlie. All this Heaven Almost, private manuscript.
5 No. 405 Squadron Operational Books, Library and Archives Canada, microfilm reproduction copy number C-12272.
6Log book, Personal documents, John, Charles Mathieu, Flying Log book for Navigators, Air Gunners, Flight Engineers, Royal Air Force, Form 1767, Revised October 1943.
7Huntingdonshire County Council Road Traffic Provisional Driving Licence No. A6430.