Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

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