The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
A Natural History in Four Meals (2006)
Michael Pollan (1955)
Read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma at your own risk: you might learn more than you want to know about our food supply, and it may make the otherwise simple trip to the grocery store much more complicated for you.
In the title, Pollan refers to the fact that while most animals rely on a single food source or a limited number of foods, humans are omnivores; we can pick and choose from anything edible that we encounter; thus our dilemma, as we select among a range of foods, from the healthiest to the least so. This “anxiety” over what to eat has had far-reaching impacts, beyond one specific person’s diet choices. It has created an agricultural system in which an ever expanding variety of foods are created and provided for us to choose from. And this same agricultural system also dedicates significant resources to creating and disseminating large amounts of information, to assist --- or bias --- us in our daily selection of foods, information that can be driven by scientific, marketing and political motivations, and which often leads to confusing and contradictory conclusions.
As the book’s subtitle indicates, Pollan structures his story around four meals. Each section traces the history of a set of foods, to the point at which they become a meal for him. The four meals include a fast food dinner, eaten for good measure in a moving car; an “organic” meal from his local Whole Foods supermarket; a second “organic” meal from a locally focused farm operation in Virginia; and finally a meal from food that he has foraged and hunted for himself.
The first section, which culminates in the fast food meal, deals primarily with corn and its impact on our diet and on our agricultural system. Pollan describes the shocking ubiquity of corn (or more properly, corn-derived-products) in the modern day food system. He covers the history and biology of the corn plant, the codependency between corn and humans that has developed, and the farm policies that we have supported that have driven up corn production while maintaining low corn prices. He describes how this abundance of corn has consequently led to the creation of a myriad of uses for corn, as it is broken down into its constituent parts and then reassembled into all manner of food and non-food products. Finally, he highlights the key role corn has played in the now nearly complete transition to industrial-scale farms dedicated to a single or at most pair of crops, or to raising a single species of animal.
Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s), often referred to as feedlots or animal factory farms, have developed largely as a result of federal policies that have encouraged increased corn production. These policies have led to a dramatic growth in the amount of corn produced by subsidizing farmers to grow corn --- including paying them the difference when the market price is too low, creating a glut of corn on the market, and thus holding corn prices low. This mass of available, low-priced corn has essentially demanded that our agricultural system find more and more uses for it. One such new use has been as animal feed, for cows and chickens, despite the fact that corn is not part of their natural diets. Pollan outlines how cows, for example, need to be fed significant amounts of antibiotics in order to ward off the illnesses that come directly from the fact that they are not adapted to eating corn. By concentrating so may animals in such a small place, corn having replaced open-pasture feeding, the CAFO’s also end up with huge lagoons of animal manure and urine, concentrated into a small area, and laced with the antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals.
And on the other side of the corn equation, most of this corn now being grown comes largely from industrial sized fields of corn, fields that look lush and green, but are unnatural monocultures --- essentially a bio-wasteland from an ecological point of view, inhospitable to most types of wild animals. These monoculture farms, no longer also raising cattle, must turn to artificial fertilizers for their crops; artificial fertilizers whose production is heavily dependent on petroleum.
Pollan’s detailed discussion on the large-scale industrialization that has developed in the areas of food production and processing can be summarized by a quote from another author, Colin Tudge, in his book The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact: “... the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people.” The food industry has become like any other, a source of profit for investing corporations. That the competition inherent in such a set-up may have brought with it significant and important advances does not alter the fact that there is a dark side to treating the generation of food, whether animal or vegetable, as a profit focused activity.
In the next section of the book, Pollan looks at organic food, following its development from the initial, very small-scale farms created by idealistic young people in the 1960’s and early 70’s, to its almost inevitable industrialization, as large companies discovered a new market to exploit. That path is hardly surprising given the big corporation-driven development of food in general that Pollan describes throughout the book, but it is all the more dismaying in the area of organic food, whose initial growth came specifically from the desire for a new, healthier and sustainable alternative to food production.
Pollan shows how organic products have become a commodity, and so, in the drive to lower cost and maximize profit, have inevitably lost at least some of what made them special and desirable in the first place. As in other parts of the book, he does not shy away from the fact that there are not easy answers: is making organic foods more prevalent and available worth the loss of some of the advantages that existed when they were grown in a small scale environment? Pollan doesn’t settle on an easy answer, because there isn’t one. He leaves it to us, his readers, to carry on the investigation he has begun for us in the book.
The “organic” section also covers the inevitable backlash among farmers who try to develop sustainable farms outside the standard, corporate market place. By their very nature a loosely connected group, these farmers form a kind of guerrilla action, fighting the industrialized organic companies on a vast number of individual fronts. At the same time they must struggle against government policies that are prejudice against them, often intentionally due to the lobbying efforts of the large producers. Pollan demonstrates too, using as an example a particular farm that he visits and works on for a week, that the farmers in this movement are often not simply calling for a simple “back to nature” drive; instead they investigate and develop new approaches to optimize the use of their land and make their farms more successful, methods that compliment and extend ancient techniques.
Tying together what he learns about the industrial-sized farms of crops or animals, and the smaller scale mixed use farm which, like most farms up until a half a century ago or so, raise both crops and animals, Pollan comes to sudden realization: the move to industrial-sized, monoculture farming has broken in a fundamental way the natural synergies which exist on small-scale, mixed product farms. Just as one example, he reminds us that a mixed product farm is naturally self-sufficient: the animals provide fertilizer for the crops; the crops provide food for the animals. On an industrial-scale monoculture farm on the other hand, there are no animals to provide fertilizer, and so artificial fertilizer must be purchased. Similarly, on a CAFO the animal wastes have no where to be used, and so must be stored in huge lagoons near the animals; in reality the waste in these lagoons is not usable for fertilizer anyway, because it is a toxic brew containing the antibiotics and hormones fed to the animals. And these are only two of the natural connections now broken by an unnatural agricultural system.
While the sections on fast food and organic food are each impactful in their own way, the last section of Pollan’s book is perhaps the most dramatic. In this section he goes back to the original human lifestyle: hunter-gatherer. He talks about the challenges of forging for mushrooms without poisoning himself, but also of learning to shoot a gun and hunt, having come from a background in which he had no connection to guns or hunting. His experience of hunting and killing a wild hog --- the thrill of the chase and the kill, and the reflection later on about what he has done --- leads him to consider the ethics of eating animals at all. His does not argue this discussion from a preset point of view, content rather to describe how his thinking evolved on the issue, and the complexity of its various aspects. The psychological drama of having the most basic and fundamental possible relationship with his food source when he finally sits down to eat this last of the four meals makes for compelling reading, especially for anyone who shares his background as a non-hunter.
Pollan has written an engaging and fascinating review of our food and agricultural systems, and their impact on both our diet and our environment. While recognizing that these changes have brought us cheaper food and a greater variety of available foods, he also shows the less visible but equally dramatic effects the changes have had: significant petroleum resources going to the production of artificial fertilizers, disturbingly harsh lives for animals raised on industrial feedlots in terms of animal diet and living conditions, pollution of the environment from the toxic waste coming off such animal feedlots, and the dietary impact of the new foods being developed, for example the use of corn syrup as a sweetening agent in so many foods. He acknowledges that easy answers do not exist for many of these questions, but he encourages us to at least become more aware of where our food comes from, to understand the full impact of modern day agriculture and to begin to look at alternative methods of growing food and raising animals that may provide solutions to some of the worst of the impacts of our modern day food systems.
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On a related topic: I've read Eric Schlosser's <u>Fast Food Nation</u> (2001), which is another wonderful, if also scary, look at the food industry, focused on the dietary aspect and its affect on our health.
In a lighter vein: I've read Michael Pollan's <u>Second Nature</u> (1991), which is about his attempts to begin gardening. His tone throughout the book is an engaging mix of seriousness and humor, and most any gardener will find themselves nodding and laughing to themselves as they relive through Pollan their own trials and tribulations in the garden.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION