Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen. New York: Penguin, 2007.

Summary: An examination of the American way of eating, considering our industrial food chain and how it has affected our diet by contrast with organic and hunter-gatherer food chains.

Human beings are omnivores. From our teeth to our gut, we are able and designed to extract the nutrition we need from a wide variety of foods. What Michael Pollan observes is that our American industrial food complex has led to an imbalance in our diets. Instead of being based on a wide variety of foods, it is concentrated on corn, particularly with regard both to beef, poultry and even fish nourished on corn-based diets, as well as the corn products added to many of the processed foods on our shelves. An epidemic of obesity points to something out of kilter.

Pollan sets out to examine the food chain from the corn in the farmer’s field to the poultry farms and feedlots to our tables, and the impacts of these processes on us, on the animals, and on farmers and the land. He then contrasts this food chain with organic food chains, both industrial and a small sustainable farm, and finally a hunter gatherer food chain. Each culminates in a meal.

The industrial food chain presupposes large corn farms, monoculturally farmed with the aid of expensive farm machinery, fertilizers with run-off, pesticides, storage, and government subsidized prices. Farmers often carry huge debt loads and barely stay afloat. The land suffers as do rivers, lakes, and oceans from fertilizer runoff. The one thing huge harvests do is get turned into the primary food source for the meats we eat. Industrial methods are applied to them as well. Pollan bought a cow that he tried to trace through the process. He was not allowed to see the butchering. But he learned about the problems cows and chickens have with the diet and crowded conditions, requiring more antibiotics to keep animals alive. The meal at the end is a trip to McDonalds, eaten on the road in a convertible–the ultimate in our fast food lifestyle.

The second food chain is the organic food chain. He divides this into two chains. The first is an organic-industrial chain. Food is grown organically, but often packaged and shipped long distances to fill our produce aisles at Whole Foods. Pollan traces the chain from these farms, some which started out as counter-cultural organic farms but increasingly conformed to the USDA “organic standards.” The biggest problem is the “ocean of petroleum” needed to sustain the supply chain. But often organic is more technical, in which “free range” poultry has access to narrow grassy strips for only a brief period of their lives. The meal at the end of this chain is one purchased at Whole Foods.

Pollan then spends a week with Joel Salatin, a “grass farmer” in Virginia. On his small farm, he grows chickens, turkeys, cows, and hogs, observing cycles where each sustain the others, in a rotation where the pastures grow richer year by year with minimal external inputs, other than the sun and rains. The pastures feed the animals who sustain the pasture with their manures. Salatin sells locally to individuals who can watch their chickens slaughtered, gutted and plucked if they wish, and to local restaurants. Pollan learns to move cattle from space to space in the pastures, with chickens following. The meal is various meats from the farm and other locally grown food, marked by a drastically enhanced quality of taste.

The final food chain is the most unconventional. Pollan joins foragers who shoot wild game, gather mushrooms and morrels, bake sourdough bread from yeast spores in the atmosphere as well as cherries from a neighborhood tree, and abalone from an inlet of the ocean. Pollan, who has not hunted kills a wild pig, helps dress it, and learns about all the different types of meat that can come from it.

Amid all this, he engages Peter Singer’s opposition to the killing of animals. In the end, he concludes that, while factory feedlots are problematic, there is some sense in the natural order of animals best lives including at least a portion becoming the prey of others, including human beings. At the same time, he comes to realize the dangers attendant when the same person slaughters animals day after day.

He also concludes that both our industrial way of food supply and hunting gathering are problematic and unsustainable. Our “cheap food” does not reflect many costs absorbed by farmers, by the land, and by us as taxpayers. He is drawn most to the Salatin’s Polyface Farm, the growing of good food that is good for us and the land. A chicken that has lived the way a chicken is supposed to live tastes better–their eggs as well. The book also captures the joys of slow food–good food that is leisurely enjoyed.

Pollan’s book is perhaps more urgent now as we recognize the costs of our petroleum fueled supply chains. A century ago, we knew where much of our food came from, much of it from within 100 miles of where we live. Might we be approaching a time where this is so again, or at least to a much greater degree? Pollan makes us think about how our food arrives at our table and what has gone into it along the way. He also helped me realize how hard the people who grow and harvest and butcher our food work, the life of the creatures who become our meals, and how grateful one must be to receive such gifts to the nourishment of our bodies.

Review: Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots

Water at the Roots, Philip Britts (edited by Jennifer Harries, foreword by David Kline). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: The collected poems and essays of Philip Britts, a farmer and pastoral leader of a Bruderhof community in Paraguay, where he died in 1949 at the age of 31.

Philip Britts lived a short and obscure life, dying in Paraguay in 1949 of a deadly tropical fungal disease. He was born in Devon, England in 1917. The first poem in this collection was written in 1934, and expresses both his search for and awareness of God and a theme that would run through all his poetry of observing carefully the book of creation, and discerning in this the character and presence of the creator. He graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in horticulture in 1939 and married Joan that June. In 1936, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, and as England rushed toward war, Britts more deeply embraced pacifist convictions. Eventually, he learned of a Christian pacifist agricultural community in the Cotswolds known as the Bruderhof.

He gave himself to the work, told stories to the children, and his poetry began to reflect his life in the agricultural community. A sung version of one of these. “The Song of the Hedgers and the Diggers” may be heard on the trailer for this book. Eventually, the community either needed to give up its German members or emigrate. When the opportunity came to go to Paraguay, they took it, establishing a community they called Primavera. Quickly he became one of the most astute agriculturalists in the area, and was called upon increasingly in consultations. During one trip to Brasil, he apparently contracted a deadly tropical fungus, that first manifested a couple years later with painful mouth sores, and would eventually claim his life. In his last year, he became a pastor to the community and even as his energies waned, he reflected and wrote and taught on everything from care of the land, to the fundamental choice he believed faced every human between the spirit of the beast and the Spirit of Love. He wrote:

“This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace which is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons which are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the Good Man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helpfulness of man; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness sake.”

So much of his work is characterized by a seamless connection between the practice of farming and the practice of faith. The title of this work comes from one of his last essays where he writes of faith as being like “water at the roots” that sustains us in the heat of life. He draws the connection between our dependence upon the grace of God for faith, even as we depend upon the grace of God for rain.

A poem, “Quicken the Seed” reflects a similar connection between farming and faith:

Quicken the seed
In the dark, damp earth.
Nourish our need,
God of all birth.
Thou art the seed
That we bury now.
Thou art our need,
God of the plough.
Bury the spark
Of our own desire
Deep in the dark,
God of the fire.
After the night
When the fight is won,
Thou art the light,
God of the sun.


I am not much of a critic of poetry. My hunch is that most of the poetry here is good but not great. What makes this work great is the seamless integrity between poetry, essays and the life of the man. He has been called a “British Wendell Berry.” In many ways, he embraced a far more difficult life than Berry–a costly affirmation of pacifism in wartime Britain, a communal existence, emigration, and establishing a viable community under primitive conditions, an integrity of living with the land, and suffering that came from his embrace of that land. What comes through is the wonder of living in this creation with all its challenges, a sense of the tragedy of a world at war with itself when the Prince of Peace beckons, and a life permeated by the grace of God. Like Berry, he awakens us to what it is to live in harmony with the land one farms. Like Berry, he recognizes the treasure of life in a place, and in a community. Like Berry, he reminds us of the deep, pervasive presence of the grace of God in all of creation. The God whose grace waters us at the roots, sustaining our lives.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

A River Runs Through It

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. (Genesis 2:10, NIV)

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:1-2, NIV)

The story this past weekend of the City of Toledo losing its water supply for a half million residents caught my attention. Not only is this a city in my home state but I lived there for four years. Had this occurred at that time, we would have been among those searching for potable drinking water. We still have friends in the area.

Ironically, before I knew of this breaking story, I posted another of my posts on growing up in working class Youngstown, this one on the Mahoning River. Like Youngstown, a river runs through it, in this case the Maumee, which originates in northeast Indiana, flowing northeast through rural agricultural lands until it reaches Toledo and Lake Erie. It empties into the western end of the lake, into a part of the lake that is shallow.

"Maumeerivermap" by Kmusser - Self-made, based on USGS data.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Maumeerivermap” by Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

The Maumee is not an industrial river in the same sense as the Mahoning. What is more significant is that the river and its tributaries drains the rich agricultural land of northwest Ohio and most of those studying the algae blooms in Lake Erie attribute these to the runoffs of phosphorus from these lands that under the right conditions of heat and stagnation provide the nutrients for these toxic algal blooms.

What both rivers have in common besides the letter M and that they run through Ohio is that the flow of wastes that have deleterious effects have been known about for some time but the industries (whether steel or agriculture) that produce them have enjoyed a protected status. Neither has had real accountability for the chemicals flowing into our water supplies and the impact of these chemicals on aquatic ecosystems.

These two rivers represent two of the great watersheds in our country–the Great Lakes system in the case of the Maumee, and the Mississippi watershed in the case of the Mahoning River. While politicians and others debate about climate change, one thing that is becoming abundantly clear is that we cannot take our water resources for granted, as those in the southwest can attest.

People have been settling along rivers since the garden of Eden as the biblical quotes above suggest. The picture of the new Jerusalem, the city of God come down on earth has a beautiful, clear river running through it that results in flourishing agriculture and healing. Clean, healthy rivers are essential for both agriculture and city life and it seems that both town and country are obligated to attend to the health of our rivers. They nourish crops, provide drinking water, serve for transport, handle waste and recycle it into the environment, and provide wonderful gathering places like the San Antonio Riverwalk, the Scioto Mile in our city, the flats in Cleveland to name just a few. When we lived in Toledo, we could look out our screened in back porch onto the Maumee and often took walks along it.

We are all responsible for the health of our rivers. How I use chemical fertilizers on my lawn and wash my car are just as important as the practices of farmers and feed lot owners or manufacturers. Taking measures to prevent runoff into our sewer systems which ends up in our rivers, and putting nothing toxic into our water supplies (including outdated pills) is all a part of it. Drinking Toledo’s water during the ban could literally kill you, or at least make you very sick. How we care for our rivers and water supplies is literally a matter of life or death, and one that involves every one of us as citizens.