Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 38.1 (Michael Pollan)

The Omnivore's Dilemma
Pollan, Michael
The Omnivore's Dilemma

This book belongs to Lori. I think I bought it for her at Talking Leaves. She has read it, I have not.

I remember her lending it for several months to our next door neighbor at the last house, L. She is an epidemiologist who works at a local college. Her husband is the chief curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

They have two daughters. Our houses were so close together that when we lay in bed in the morning we could here the little girls running up and down the staircase so clearly it was as if they were running up the stairs in our house.

When we got our dog, I began a morning routine of taking her for a walk around the block. I used to see L. walking her daughters to the bus stop or meeting up with another friend to fast-walk around the neighborhood. She subscribes to the Babel series and we often talked about what books we were reading and who she might like to see come read in the series.

She always seemed slightly afraid of the dog.

I have noticed since becoming a dog owner that there are three different kinds of people: dog-lovers, dog fearers, and those who are indifferent. Zelda is a strange mix of shyness and excitability. When we first got her, she liked to jump on people a lot. Dog lovers tend to welcome this. Dog fearers, on the other hand, tense up, which causes the dog to get more excited.

L. always became visibly tense when she saw Zeda, especially if the girls were with her. Her fear was so palpable that it made it difficult to get the dog to calm down around her. I always felt bad that she was afraid, but then it's hard to tell someone having a fear response to an animal that if they would just stop acting afraid there would be no problem.

I ran into her just the other morning. I had let Zelda off-leash to play with another dog in a little pocket park in the new neighborhood. I saw L. and her friend fast-walking over the path that bisects half the park before splitting again in two directions near where the dogs were playing. L. is nearly blind, so could not see me or Zelda, but when she heard the dogs, she immediately took the fork going the other way instead taking of the one that would have her pass near me and the dog.

I called her name. She stopped. Her friend recognized me and told her who I was. They came back down the other path and chatted for a while before continuing on their way.

from The Omnivore's Dilemma

Before I began working on this book, I never gave much thought to where my food came from. I didn't spend much time worrying about what I should and shouldn't eat. Food came from the supermarket and as long as it tasted good, I ate it.

Until, that is, I had the chance to peer behind the curtain of the modern American food chain. This came in 1998. I was working on an article about genetically modified food—food created by changing plant DNA in the laboratory. My reporting took me to the Magic Valley in Idaho, where most of the french fries you've ever eaten begin their life as Russet Burbank potatoes. There I visited a farm like no farm I'd ever seen or imagined.

It was fifteen thousand acres, divided into 135-acre crop circles. Each circle resembled the green face of a tremendous clock with a slowly rotating second hand. That sweeping second hand was the irrigation machine, a pipe more than a thousand feet long that delivered a steady rain of water, fertilizer, and pesticide to the potato plants. The whole farm was managed from a bank of computer monitors in a control room. Sitting in that room, the farmer could, at the flick of a switch, douse his crops with water or whatever chemical he thought they needed. One of these chemicals was a pesticide called Monitor, used to control bugs. The chemical is so toxic to the nervous system that no one is allowed in the field for five days after it is sprayed. Even if the irrigation machine breaks during that time, farmers won't send a worker out to fix it because the chemical is so dangerous. They'd rather let that whole 135-acres crop of potatoes dry up and die.

That wasn't all. During the growing season, some pesticides get inside the potato plant so that they will kill any bug that takes a bite. But these pesticides mean people can't eat the potatoes while they're growing, either. After the harvest, the potatoes are stored for six months in a gigantic shed. Here the chemicals gradually fade until the potatoes are safe to eat. Only then can they be turned into french fries. That's how we grow potatoes?

I had no idea.

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