In his next chapter, Pollan does yeoman’s work in putting us off our feed. He does this by taking us to a feedlot in Kansas, an animal city where multitudes of cows are fed corn until the day of slaughter. In the olden days, it took 4-5 years before a cow was slaughtered. Now we get there in 14-16 months. The economies of scale are based on cheap and plentiful corn, and this is why meat is a regular part of the American diet, to a much greater extent than it used to be.
The bulk of this chapter depends on a truth that has nothing to do with the advent of industrial farming. The manufacture and preparation of food can be . . . well, unappetizing. I can easily imagine following my food chain back upstream in 13th century Milan, 19th century New York, or 10th century Rome, and discovering at some point that I was not nearly as hungry as I was before. As Bismarck famously put it, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” It is probably wise to not inquire too closely into how chitlins come to be either.
Another interesting thing about Pollan’s argument is how much it depends on evolution. He is not a writer about food who happens to be an evolutionist — he
appeals to evolution regularly. It is foundational to his argument. “The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution” (p. 68). Unfortunately for Pollan’s point, the logic of evolution is not, to use a Pollan word, sustainable. Is not industrial thinking itself a product of evolution? Are we not doing a great job multiplying our genes? And isn’t that the whole point? Without industrial farming, we could only sustain the life of about 40% of the world’s current population. If we were to voluntarily limit our genetic sprawl so that far fewer cows could eat their grass in peace, where is the evolutionary logic in that? Shouldn’t the dominant species make the less dominant species eat corn to fatten them up? And isn’t evolution about change? Why shouldn’t cows learn to eat corn and like it? May take a bit of time, but that’s what evolution is all about, right? Time? In short, Pollan’s argument, given his premises, collapses on itself.
A Christian anti-evolutionist could have something more substantive to say about all this, but Pollan can’t. But the Christian appeal has to be something more than the perennial ick factor. Watching how the chickens get their heads lopped off at Salatin’s organic farm is not my idea of an evening’s entertainment either.
Another argument is that Pollan wants to show that the result of this industrial approach is that the cows are mostly sick, and because of that, we, the eaters of these cows, are facing various new and strange diseases that our fathers of old did not have to deal with — the E coli argument, along with its cousins. The problem here is that we are living longer, and considered in the main are far healthier than our forefathers. Sometimes we do get sick, and it is sometimes related to some creepy-crawly microbe that came to us courtesy of a feedlot but, taking one thing with another, we are a lot better off than our great grandparents were. I was in the Navy, for just one example, and we spent a lot of time at sea, and I never met anybody with scurvy.
Pollan does score one point here, however. I don’t think he can justify having scored it (given his evolutionism), but I think a Christian could make a case that we ought to quit doing something that Pollan identifies in this chapter. That is the practice of feeding beef tallow to the cows. The FDA, while banning the feeding of ruminant protein to ruminants, does allow for blood products and fat from ruminant animals to be fed to the ruminant animals who showed up a little later for their processing. Thus the cows can have beef tallow mixed into their feed, with that beef tallow coming from the slaughterhouse they are all headed for. I can imagine trying to explain this to Moses, and have him go pop-eyed at me, and saying, “That’s just messed up, man!” You know (Dt. 14:21).