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.