Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

| December 23, 2008 | 5 Replies

Summary: A superb exercise in consciousness-raising; it paints a detailed picture of the food chains that supply us every day and the environmental and health consequences of each of them.

Where does your food come from?

If you answered “the supermarket”, you’re probably like most Americans. And while most people are dimly aware that there must be a deeper answer to this question, few suspect what it is, or even give the matter much thought. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma will change that. Read this book and you may never again look at a supermarket shelf of fresh produce, or an aisle of cereal boxes, or a butcher’s counter stocked with meat, in the same way.

This book tells the story of the modern food chain through the lens of four different kinds of meals. The first is the industrial food chain, symbolized by fast food, powered by fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, and an ocean of cheap, subsidized corn. The second and third meals come from two different visions of organic agriculture: one the large-scale corporate version, as symbolized by companies like Whole Foods, and one the locally grown, slow-food version that isn’t available in supermarkets. The final meal is the product of hunting and gathering, which is still possible even in today’s society, and which hearkens back to the kind of food all humans originally ate.

The first section of the book is about the modern, industrialized food chain. At the base of this lies corn – the most successful domesticated plant in human history, and the crop that underlies an astonishingly large number of the things most of us eat. Pollan visits the farms of Iowa, where corn grows in enormous monocultures – hundreds and thousands of acres of corn, every plant a genetically identical clone modified and bred for ultra-high yields, with the newest varieties capable of producing ten thousand pounds of food per acre. The invention of chemical fertilizer, synthesized from fossil fuels, has broken the limits of natural processes and permitted us to grow far greater quantities than the Sun alone could ever sustain. Monoculture is easier to maintain and harvest, and corn is more profitable than any other crop. Still, family farms across the country are drowning in debt or going out of business. Mostly, this is the fault of government policies which pay subsidies for each bushel of corn a farmer grows – creating a vicious cycle as they produce more and more, pushing down the price of the crop, making them increasingly reliant on subsidies, and being forced to grow even more corn to make up for the decreased profit per bushel.

This river of corn needs to be disposed of, and the food industry has two ways to do it. First is in the processing plants where food scientists break down the carbohydrate molecules of corn and recombine them into new, never-before-seen-in-nature foodstuffs – especially high-fructose corn syrup, which is now found in an incredibly large number of packaged foods. The other way is as feed for cows and pigs raised on factory farms, otherwise known as CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations, whose size matches some of the larger human cities. Cows are adapted to eat grass, and in fact, eating corn makes them sick – part of the reason why they’re constantly dosed with antibiotics – but it does get them to slaughter weight more quickly and cheaply in order to supply the demand for meat.

The second section of the book concerns organic farming, which has grown from a niche market into a bona fide industry. Brands like Cascadian Farms or Earthbound Farms – what Pollan calls “Big Organic” – supply most of the organic food in specialty supermarkets like Whole Foods. Although the corporate organics do abstain from chemical fertilizer, antibiotics and pesticides, in many other respects they mirror the industrial farms, and have many of the same problems: the decreased productivity and vulnerability of monocultures, the fossil-fuel expenditures involved in shipping foods across the world, and numerous legal loopholes in the definition of what counts as organic, including high-fructose corn syrup and “natural grill flavor”. The benefits of such a system, Pollan concludes, are modest at best.

Next, Pollan visits a small-scale, genuinely organic farm in Virginia called Polyface Farm, run by a farmer named Joel Salatin. Salatin oversees a polyculture, the way most farms once were, raising beef, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs and rabbits, plus tomatoes, sweet corn, berries and hay. Through natural systems of crop and pasture rotation and closed-loop cycles of nutrition (i.e., using manure to fertilize the fields), his farm is more productive, acre for acre, than industrial monoculture, without using any antibiotics, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Nevertheless, farms like Salatin’s are hobbled by regulations that, for example, prevent small producers from slaughtering their own hogs or advertising the local origin of their meat. And his farming method, though environmentally healthy and productive, is ill-suited to be scaled up arbitrarily, which makes it difficult for such a system to meet the demands of supermarket chains or major urban centers. (The slow-food movement isn’t all sweetness and light: when Pollan asks how his system would feed New York City, Joel Salatin’s response is, “Why do we need a New York City?”)

The final section is about a genuinely homemade meal, made from foods that the author personally gathered: a wild pig that he hunted, wild mushrooms he gathered, lettuce, beans and cherries he picked, and bread made from harvested wild yeast. This section is more meandering than the others, and I found it less interesting than the other sections of the book, although there was a good exchange with Peter Singer on the ethics of eating meat.

As I said in the summary, I think this book’s most important function is as a source of consciousness-raising. It’s bound to make you think, really think, about the origins of your dinner. Although it carries a strong environmental message, it’s not overtly preachy. Indeed, when Pollan discusses the early organic farms that were bought up by large agribusiness corporations and have drifted from their roots, he doesn’t just condemn them as sellouts who’ve lost their way; he writes regretfully of how market forces and economies of scale inevitably drive all food production in the same direction, whether it be Big Corn or Big Organic. The small-scale, polyculture organic farming movement, though it’s far healthier for us and for the planet, would require radical restructuring of society to accustom people to the idea of eating locally and in season. In the long term, however, it may be that we have no other choice.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Food, Reading - Books and Magazines, Recommended Reading/Films/Sites

About the Author ()

I'm an author, skeptic and computer programmer living in New York City. I'm also an unapologetic atheist, and believe passionately that freethinkers deserve a much stronger voice in our culture than they've been given in the past. Since politicians and the mainstream media aren't willing to give us that, it falls to us to take our case directly to the public. Both on my own weblog, Daylight Atheism, and here on Dangerous Intersection, I hope to be able to spread the good news of freethought!

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  1. TJ says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. Pollan's other books that I've read have all been quite good. He has a great style and is a good storyteller.

    One thing that always comes to mind when I hear people talk about organic food being superior to mass-produced, genetically engineered monoculture is that it doesn't scale. Salatin's comment about NYC is particularly harsh if you consider that the most likely scenario in which we move to "slow-food" no longer have big cities likely involves mass starvation.

    We need to find some balance, using modern techniques of fertilization and, yes, genetic engineering, while maybe backing away from the monoculture, which leaves our food supply vulnerable (or in need of mass quantities and pesticides and antibiotics.

  2. Good review. And yes, this is a fascinating, life- changing book. If you like it, you might also like his latest, "In Defense of Food," in which he provides some guidelines for how, given the modern food production described in "Omnivore's Dilemma," we might eat. (You might also enjoy "The Botany of Desire," his earlier book on the complicated, interwoven connections between people and cultivated plants.)

    Can you tell that I'm a Pollan fan? :-)

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    From everything I've read, I would have to agree with your assessment that we are in for a radical restructuring of the food system. The main change will have to do with the skyrocketing price of energy (don't let the recent dip in the price of oil fool you). Our current system invites our consumption of foods that are grown far from our kitchens. In fact, consider this information from Sustainable Table:

    "Food miles" refer to the distance a food item travels from the farm to your home. The food miles for items you buy in the grocery store tend to be 27 times higher than the food miles for goods bought from local sources.

    In the U.S., the average grocery store’s produce travels nearly 1,500 miles between the farm where it was grown and your refrigerator.ii About 40% of our fruit is produced overseas and, even though broccoli is likely grown within 20 miles of the average American’s house, the broccoli we buy at the supermarket travels an average 1,800 miles to get there. Notably, 9% of our red meat comes from foreign countries, including locations as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

    I am also concerned about the widespread use of corn fructose, which is poisoning both people and animals.

    It sounds like Pollan's book is the right book with the right tone at the right time. We aren't going to like having to make changes to our lifestyle that will require more thought and more money, but it doesn't appear that there will be any alternative.

    BTW, a friend of mine who resides in Pittsburgh grows most of his vegetables that he and his wife use for much of the year in two 10 x 10' raised gardens on an unused part of his driveway apron. It's great tasting and fresh, as well as guaranteed organic and cheap. Further, he indicates that growing this food is not really much work.

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