I really enjoyed "The Botany of Desire", so when I saw (a bit late, admittedly) that Pollan had published a new book, I bought it immediately. The book starts off with a sad or, more precisely, bitterly ironic observation: there are now more people on earth suffering from overnutrition than from malnutrition (the figures he quotes are 1bn and 800m). The USA being at the forefront of the "obesity epidemics", Pollan sets out to inquire about what it is that people eat that makes them so unhealthy. His journey will take him from the monstrous factories of agribusiness at its worst, to the forest where he will hunt his own dinner, with a middle stage in the organic - or not so organic - world. Along the way he gives a wealth of information which is always interesting and sometimes frankly scary.

The first part of the book - on industrial food - starts from something that you might think as being not so industrial: a corn field. This corn field however is far removed from the ideal picture of golden ears waving with the wind. The plants are so densely packed that I'm not even sure they can wave with the wind anymore. These cornfields are of particular interest because it turns out that most of what Americans eat is actually corn. People don't realize it because they don't eat a lot of corn directly. But most of the meat they eat has been fed mainly with corn (even cows, who are by no means supposed to eat corn). The sweetener in your soda is made of corn (actually, when you drink your soda, all you have is water, corn, and a few additives for the 'taste'). And these are only a few samples of the very impressive list of stuff (for lack of a better word) that resourceful food scientist have managed to extract or make from corn.

To make his point, Pollan uses one of the funny properties of corn: it is one of the rare (widespread) plants that is able to metabolize a particular isotope of carbon. So it's quite easy to tell what proportion of a meal, or of a person is actually made of corn. And the conclusion of a Berkley biologist who performed such a study is that "we North Americans look like corn chips with legs".

After the cornfield, Pollan follows some bushels of corn to the place where most of it is going to be consumed: a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). A place in which hundreds of cows (or other animals) are fed mostly corn and antibiotics so that they can grow fat fast without suffering from the diseases that would normally plague such a concentration of animals. Feeding corn to cattle strikes most people who know anything about cattle as being, well, let's say unnatural. One of the problem this creates is that the pH in the cow's guts increases due to this strange diet. This, in turn, leads to the evolution of high pH resistant strains of bacteria, strains that are now able to survive a passage through our own stomach and then proceed to kill us. Oh, and if you though that after all the mad cow disease craze (ahah) people had become sensible and had stopped feeding dead cattle to cattle, I'm afraid you were being optimistic: they don't feed dead cattle to cattle anymore (it's forbidden!), but they feed the same dead cattle parts to chickens, and they feed dead chicken (and chicken shit by the way) to cattle...

And I can't resist mentioning one last gory detail: pigs whose future lie in a CAFO are weaned prematurely (10 days instead of thirteen week!). This premature weaning in turn leads them to develop a strange habit of chomping their neighbor's tails. And these neighbors, being so bored and desperate (I'm sure pigs can be desperate, but I have nothing to prove it) don't even react to having their tails chewed on! They might then develop infections, have to be clubbed to death and - horror - lower the benefits. So their tails are cut (without anesthetics, that goes without saying). The cruelest part is still to come though. They don't cut the whole tail, they leave a small piece. Besides the obvious psychological damage (what is a pig without its corkscrew tail?), this treatment is also very painful: the small piece of tail that has been left, when chewed on by some other pig in need of a psychoanalysis and desperately trying to find a breast substitute, hurts like hell, so that even the most depressed pig reacts, kicks his neighbor who then stops chomping what remains of the tail. No infection. No clubbing. More benefits.

In the second part of the book, Pollan embarks on a critical review of organic food. He contrasts the "industrial organic" complex with a small Virginian farmer. According to him the first, if an offshoot of the organic movement of the sixties and seventies, has lost most of its spirit. In some cases it is using dubious practices that allows it to keep the label 'organic' while using practices that are not that different from that of the other industrial food sectors. For example, some "free range" chicken are only hypothetically "free range". Granted, these chickens have access to a small square of grass. However, most of them will never cross the door that separates the overcrowded barn in which they live from the small pasture. Why is that so? Because the door opens only for their two last weeks of life, after they have spend their first weeks in the confine of the barn, where they can find food and water in profusion. So most of the chicken, not being particularly dauntless by nature, will just stay in the barn. And this is well for the owners: since they are genetically identical, they are very vulnerable to infection and it allows for less loss if they just stay inside. In this case, calling these chicken "free range" hinges in dishonesty.

Pollan is more than willing to grant even this "industrial organic" movement some important benefits: the simple fact that no pesticides are used, for example, is certainly a boon for the environment. However, the contrasts is stark between these practices and that of the people from the Polyface farm. A considerable part of the book is a description of its owner, Joel Salatin, and his way of running the farm that verges on the hagiography. Pollan carefully describes the way in which the little details that matter are taken into account, such as the optimal day for the grass to be grazed, the maximal quantity of chicken manure that is good for a pasture or even the day in which the fly larvae will be big enough, but have not turned into fly yet so that the chicken can make the most of what grows in the cows manure. Even though a lot of manure is involved, the delicate intricacy of the process by which solar energy is turned into steak, chicken breast and eggs makes one ponder over the beauty of nature and, well, want to eat one of these steaks, if possible tartare with one of the aforementioned eggs.

The sustainability of such farming methods for different places, or different scales is clearly questionable. However, in the third part of the book Pollan explores some more 'primitive' ways to get food, ways that are not supposed to be a solution to the current "eating disorder" in America, namely hunting and gathering.

Before exposing his own adventures, Pollan tries to clear his conscience of meat eater. He describes the conflict aroused by reading the famous essay by Peter Singer "Animal Liberation" in a steakhouse. As is the first reflex of everybody who has been alerted that he might be doing something morally wrong (here, eating meat), Pollan tries to justify his actions. Even though some of his arguments are interesting, but I'm not sure they would convince a well informed animal rights activist. But they manage to fulfill their role: Pollan can happily resume eating meat (he had become a vegetarian while pondering on the arguments) without feeling the stings of his conscience (not any meat though: if we wants to be true to his justification, he will have to avoid meat from CAFOs or eggs from so called 'egg operations', since it contravenes to the animals "characteristic form of life" that involves, for example, having some space to move around).

Having alleviated his conscience, Pollan goes hunting. And, believe it or not, his description of the hunt (a pig hunt in Northern California, you could imagine something more romantic) is compelling and makes his reader want to join him. His experience reminds him of his youth when he was smoking pot, and he suggests a very funny hypothesis about the role of cannabinoids for hunting:

Could it be that the cannabinoid network is precisely the sort of adaptation that natural selection would favor in the evolution of a creature who survives by hunting? A brain chemical that sharpens the senses, narrows your mental focus, allows you to forget anything extraneous to the task at hand (including physical discomfort and the passage of time), and makes you hungry would seem the perfect pharmacological tool for man the hunter.

After the hunt, he goes looking for mushrooms, and there again suggests intriguing hypothesis about some psychological effects: for him the "pop out" effect (when an object that was there all along 'suddenly' becomes visible) might be linked to gathering, and particularly to gathering mushrooms that, contrary to fruits, don't try to make it easy for the gatherer. After all these tribulations, here comes the happy ending: he comes back home and cooks a meal with all the stuff he had gathered. And they all lived happily ever after (save for the pig they hunted).

A final note for our American readers who, too, want to alleviate their conscience. Pollan criticizes quite heavily Whole Food in his book, but some of his critics may have been misguided: see this open letter by the CEO of Whole Food.