I'd first heard about Michael on NPR, when he was interviewed about this particular book. It was a good year or two ago and I was struck by his descriptions of the corn food chain, how "organic and free range" chickens are raised (up until five weeks they're kept in a shed without "outside access" at which point a door to the outdoors is opened to them, but their living habits are so established at that point that they never venture out, which is good as without antibiotics, there's a real problem with this monoculture of chickens catching cold), and how there's this farm in Virginia that uses at least three species of animals and dozens of species of grasses and trees to create a real, sustainable, farm that raises meat from sunlight.
The book goes into deep details on all of these. The details are sometimes even more disturbing than those presented in Plenty, but, oddly enough, for me they were far more palatable, as Michael presents them as the dilemmas they are rather than given evils. He presents the data, what just is about the industries and then businesses that make it their business to feed us. And he is very good at presenting the questions of what really is the cost of our food, not just in dollars and cents, but in environmental damage, petroleum usage (which is also environmental damage in a sense), and cost to the animals and people involved in the production of what's on our tables. And then he questions everything. I was very fascinated when he questions his own "decision" to eat meat.
The book was fascinating for me as a person who prefers a sea of data to pat answers. But I'll happily warn folks that don't like that kind of things that the book was very dry at the start. I *like* to know about my food. I like to know how it's made, what goes in it, who husbanded it into being, where it came from when I can. I think the most important thing about this book is linked to that way of seeing, what he calls "transparency". I want to open my eyes and really see what's going on and some of it is very, very ugly indeed and if you can't stand looking at the kinds of death, suffering, and destruction our "conventional" food, vegetable as well as animal, now deals, don't read this book. I'll admit that I now have to close my eyes in sheer pain any time someone says, "This thing is made with corn, a *renewable* resource!"
The overall structure is very appealing, though. He goes through four meals and the start of all four of them through the chain from sunlight to table and, so far as he's able, he details exactly what happens. The four meals were a McDonald's lunch eaten in his car, a meal made from organic stuff from Whole Foods, a meal from the sustainable farm in Virginia, and a meal that he admits was a self-indulgence which he created from things he had killed, foraged, or grew with his own hand. The last turns into something far more than the premise suggests, though I recognized something like it in my own cooking style.
Each meal he represents with a way of getting food. The McDonald's lunch, of course, is the industrial. The Whole Foods meal he called the organic industrial (which was eye opening for me, I don't shop there much, but I'm now much more likely to shop at our own Vitamin Cottage than enter a WF again). The Virginia meal was "pastoral". And the last was "personal".