The Omnivore’s Dilemma

omnivores-dilemma.gif“How and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world and what is to become of it,” says Michael Pollan. And not just the environment, but also its human caretakers, particularly those of the American variety with a demonstrated national eating disorder, “a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

As a farm-raised Midwesterner that saw our apple orchard suffer economically from the 1990 Alar scare, now an urbanite that delights in grazing Whole Foods for my dinner, I had my (conflicted) reasons for reading Pollan’s bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. After 411 pages, a good chunk of which involved more than I ever wanted to know about the history of corn farming, I say without hesitation that reading this was a valuable time investment.

Here’s a brief overview. Part one examines the industrial food chain, derived almost completely (including most of our meat) from corn. This section offered the biggest political and ethical challenge, discussing how World War II chemical surpluses made corn king of the Midwest; how industrial animal feedlots turn natural solutions of fertility and waste into problems and thereby cause unnecessary suffering to animals and sometimes humans (vis-à-vis, the revolting origins of mad cow disease); and how government subsidies and agribusiness lobbyists are “seducing the omnivore into eating more of a single plant than anyone would have thought possible.” This section was, pardon the pun, the hardest for me to digest, mainly because of what it reveals of the dangerous philosophies underlying most of our food sources, and my ignorant compliance.

Section two on the grass-based food chain begins on a slightly less depressing note, analyzing the “big organic” industry, led by Whole Foods, and raising the question of whether an organic lettuce grown on a pesticide-free but nonetheless industrial complex and washed with chlorine then trucked cross-country is more healthy for me or my planet than the traditional bag of supermarket greens (his short answer is yes, slightly; Whole Foods has a long and respectful response on their website). But then Pollan looks at another approach, “little organic,” studying in depth the worldview and methods of one alternative farmer (an innovative, hard-working, Bible-quoting, homeschooling, anti-establishment, Bob Jones University graduate). After working the farm with him for a week, Pollan argues that recognizing the interdependence of a natural ecosystem has the potential to feed human stomachs and souls (food that is “good to eat and good to think”) without waste, pollution, and big government. He also acknowledges that various systems may be necessary to feed urban centers as well as rural (in contrast to the farmer who wants to know why we need New York City in the first place!).

In Section three, Pollan turns to the forest to discover for himself ancient hunting and foraging methods of food procurement. He wrestles with the naturalist ethics of animal rights philosophers, experiences both pride and revulsion at his first kill on a wild boar hunt, and spends far more calories collecting mushrooms in a burned-out forest than eating them will return to his body. He revels in his ability to produce a “perfect meal,” one hunted, grown, or gathered entirely with his own hands, but here also acknowledges the limits of such a task.

Pollan puts considerable physical and intellectual effort into discovering “what can be learned about the nature and culture of human eating.” He gets more than his hands dirty driving a combine through a cornfield, buying and following a beef steer from ranch to feedlot to slaughterhouse, baling hay, butchering chickens, hunting wild pigs, hiking for mushrooms, diving for abalone, even emailing with Peter Singer. Though his claims sometimes take the vague form of “it’s not hard to argue with…,” for the most part he is reasoned and thoughtful, not the alarmist I suspected him to be as I began the book. He does not presume to have all the answers, but suggests that the “best way to fight industrial eating is by simply recalling people to the infinitely superior pleasures of traditional foods enjoyed communally.” And that’s just what his book does.

The focus on community is at least one aspect that reflects a biblical emphasis (Pollan has a Jewish background) of a body of people who sacrifice for the needs of others and celebrate their blessings together. Pollan calls his readers to make informed, deliberate choices about our food that respect our fellow eaters (human, bovine, and otherwise), that allow us to work together to secure a healthy food supply and ultimately enjoy as a community the fruits of our joint labors.

While I continue to process the complex issues Pollan raises, I see at least three principles in his work that I can begin to observe as a more responsible eater:
1. Recognize the value and true cost of what I eat so that I spend food money on quality instead of junk (“it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price”); slow down so I can savor that quality; and ultimately be more satisfied and thus eat less (all of which are healthy practices in the first place).
2. Whenever possible, eat locally, and re-learn to eat seasonally.
3. Politically support the phasing out of industrial agriculture subsidies and instead support sustainable farming methods that economically reward farmers for their responsible labor and care.

This is the kind of book that requires and provides an index, as well as a solid list of sources; so whichever chapter gets your hackles up (there’s bound to be one or more), you can at least begin to follow up on the author’s research. And you might want to. Mr. Pollan has initiated a fairly broad dialogue that I suspect will become increasingly central over the next few years to growers, politicians, food scientists and marketers, taxpayers, and eaters—which is pretty much the whole American community.

12. April 2007 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 7 comments

Comments (7)

  1. I wonder what Mr. Pollan’s response is to the increasing price of corn due to the push for bio fuels.

  2. Good question, Suzanne. I suspect he would prefer that corn subsidies go toward biofuel development rather than processed foods, thus limiting the increase in price, or just stop sneaking corn into processed foods and meat altogether and use it for biofuels instead. Perhaps his next book will investigate biofuels!

  3. Hmm. Wow! This sounds very interesting and enlightening. I’m learning to take advantage of the local farmers market and miss it during off seasons. This book sounds like a fascinating “think” source. Thanks for the review.

  4. Nice review of a book with *so* much in it that I couldn’t even figure out where to begin (I wrote this months ago, and still haven’t attempted the review.

    I thought that there was really enough stuff there for 3 or 4 books – one on corn, one on organics, and one on hunting & gathering. And as someone always complaining about the lack of an index in non-fiction books, I too was thrilled with his index and suggested readings.

  5. Thanks for the review. I’ll have to check this out. Think it could be a book club read?

  6. I think this sounds fascinating, Mindy (it’s the farm girl in me)! From your review it sounds as though it’s (mainly?) focussed on the situation in the US? Does he have anything to say about agriculture/food in other developed nations, or in the developing world?

  7. Sandy, glad to know you enjoyed the book, too. I agree there is more than enough research for one volume!

    This is definitely a good book for discussion, Diana, but it does take some discipline (and time) to get through, and some parts are not for the squeamish. So I’m not sure how well it would work in a mixed book group. If they are game, though, I’d love to know what everyone thinks of it.

    Ros, I can’t recall any significant discussion about methods, etc. outside of the US. Frankly, that would have made the book unbearably long! Perhaps someone in the UK has written a comparable book—anybody know?