And then, very suddenly, the golden hills turned jet-black on both sides of the highway: black with tens of thousands of cattle crowded onto a carpet of manure that stretched as far as the eye could see. I was driving through a feedlot, with tens of thousands of animals bellying up to a concrete trough that ran along the side of the highway for what seemed like miles. Behind them rose two vast pyramids, one yellow, the other black: a pile of corn and a pile of manure. The cattle, I realized, were spending their days transforming the stuff of one pile into the stuff of the other. This is where our meat comes from?
I had no idea.
Suddenly that "happy meal" of hamburger and fries looked a lot less happy. Between the feedlot and the potato farm, I realized just how little I knew about the way our food is produced. The picture in my head, of small family farms with white picket fences and red barns and happy animals on green pastures, was seriously out of date.
Now I had a big problem. I went from never thinking about where my food came from to thinking about it all the time. I started worrying about what I should and shouldn't eat. Just because food was in the supermarket, did that mean it was good to eat?
The more I studied and read about food the more I realized I was suffering from a form of the omnivore's dilemma. This is a big name for a very old problem. Human beings are omnivores. That means we eat plants, meat, mushrooms—just about anything. But because we are omnivores we have very little built-in instinct that tells us which foods are good for us and which aren't. That's the dilemma—we can eat anything, but how do we know what to eat? The omnivore's dilemma has been around a long time. But today we have a very modern form of this dilemma. We have a thousand choices of food in our supermarkets, but we don't really know where our food comes from. As I discovered, just finding out how our potatoes are grown might scare you off french fries for the rest of your life. In the past, people knew about food because they grew it or hunted it themselves. They learned about food from their parents and grandparents. They cooked and ate the same foods people in their part of the world had always eaten. Modern Americans don't have strong food traditions. Instead we have dozens of different "experts" who give us lots of different advice about what to eat and what not to eat. It's one thing to be crazy about food because you like to eat. But I found I was going crazy from worrying about food. So I set out to try to solve the modern omnivore's dilemma. I decided to become a food detective, to find out where our food comes from and what exactly it is we are eating. My detective work became the book you now hold in your hands.
As a food detective, I had to go back to the beginning, to the farms and fields where our food is grown. Then I followed it each step of the way, and watched what happened to our food on its way to our stomachs. Each step was another link in a chain—a food chain.
A food chain is a system for growing, making, and delivering food. In this book, I follow four different food chains. Each one has its own section. They are:
Industrial This is where most of our food comes from today. This chain starts in a giant field, usually in the Midwest, where a single crop is grown—corn, or perhaps soybeans—and ends up in a supermarket or fast-food restaurant.