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Michael Pollan: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Excluding the first and last 50 pages The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fascinating look at how Americans’ turn energy into food and how we choose to prepare, package and consume that food.  The book is broken into three parts: industrial, pastoral and personal.  Each section goes to great lengths to holistically analyze how food is produced in the specified paradigm.  Author Michael Pollan spends time working at different farms in the first two sections before being transformed into a Jewish Hemingway as he attempts to hunt and gather his own food in heroic fashion.  Pollan’s effort, diligence and attention to detail cannot be faulted.  There are sections that could certainly be more concise and moments when the book becomes more about the author than the subject, but on the whole Pollan does an excellent job of presenting all sides and allowing the reader to make his own conclusions.

Much of the first part of the book is an indictment of corn and how its subsidization is a major cause of unhealthy foods, processes and habits.  The first 50 pages that I mentioned in the first sentence include entirely too much detail including a description of “corn sex” that was enough to make maize blush.  Pollan is even able to work in the phrase ménage à trois.  Once I was able to get past the biology, the section got interesting.  Pollan described life on a farm  in Iowa that cultivates 320 acres of corn to be used to feed livestock or in processed foods, in the context of the entire corn industry.  This and each section end with the description of a meal produced from the explored food production methodology.  Corn is an ingredient in 45 items on the McDonald’s menu and so in the case of the first section, the meal came from McDonald’s.  Pollan and his wife and son consumed 4510 calories in less than ten minutes for less than $20 USD.  The cost, however, goes far beyond the $20 USD: it took at least ten times more calories of fossil energy, the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of oil to grow and process the food calories.  Industrial is definitely not Pollan’s favorite method.

My favorite part of the book was the second section most of which Pollan spends with Joel Salatin, a self-described Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-grass farmer who runs an organic enterprise called Polyface Farms.  Pollan has this to say about grass farming: “Grass farmers grow animals–for meat, eggs, milk, and wool–but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat….One of the principles of modern grass farming is that to the greatest extent possible farmers should rely on the contemporary energy of the sun, as captured every day by photosynthesis, instead of the fossilized sun energy contained in petroleum.”  Pollan laments that American cattle migrated from grass to the feedlot because our food system is organized along industrial lines, lines that “prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economies of scale.”  Salatin, conversely, espouses the virtues of letting animals live as animals should live: he rails against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  As the section progresses Salatin gains hero-like status for his sustainable methods and his integrity in sticking to said methods.  Pollan presents information from scientific studies that discuss the improved nutritional properties of animals that are  raised in more natural environments.  Wild salmon is vastly superior to farm-raised salmon; grass fed beef that is allowed to roam is superior to corn fed beef; chickens who live like chickens are less likely to be diseased and taste better according to Polyface customers.  To enjoy the benefits of grass farms, however, one must be willing to pay more for food even as the trend is toward spending less.  The average family spends 10% of its income on food whereas thirty years ago it was 20%.  It is all very disturbing and convincing.  The chapter commences with Pollan preparing a meal made of ingredients made on the Polyface farm.

The final section of the book chronicles Pollan’s quest to hunt and gather his own meal.  It is a bit self-indulgent though there are some entertaining and educational parts, especially when he learns how to shoot a gun.  I learned about a subculture I did not know existed: mushroom collectors in Northern California.  The meal Pollan prepares consists of a boar he hunted and mushrooms he gathered, as well as some vegetables from his garden.

A curious byproduct of reading the book was guilt: I felt guilty for being such an incurious eater.  In college my meal choice was determined by what Kroger was selling 2-for-1 that week.  Rarely do I consider the social, political or environmental costs of a particular food item; my choices are motivated by price, taste and volume.  No longer armed with ignorance, a trip to most restaurants and grocery stores is now an exercise in cognitive dissonance.  My wife read the book before I did and she had explained this phenomenon to me.  We began discussing our alternatives and turned to our friend google.  Up popped an organic farm called Moore Farms and Friends that delivers custom orders to several convenient locations near our home.  We placed an order for ground beef, onions, garlic, peaches, cucumber, squash, eggs, tomatoes, and blueberries.     The quality of the products from Moore Farms is varied.  The ground beef was tasty as were the blueberries and squash; the peaches were good but had a short shelf life; and the corn was tiny and had bugs so we didn’t eat it.  While still marginally inconvenient and costly, the idea behind buying local is that you are considering the environmental, political and socio-economic factors that contribute to long term costs in a more global sense.  A swelling grassroots movement to purposefully buy local (and organic) would cause retail giants like Wal-mart, Kroger, Whole Foods and Publix to reconsider how they buy and sell the food in their stores.  It would also spur the growth of more farms like Joel Salatin’s.

Anyone who has talked with me in the last month about food knows that The Omnivore’s Dilemma has changed the way I think and talk about food. If the quality of a book, non-fiction especially, can in part be determined by how much it makes you think then the quality of The Omnivore’s Dilemma cannot be questioned and it is certainly worth reading.

Albert Cea said,

August 8, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

I just watched King Corn which is a documentary about the corn industry. The doc felt like Super Size Me but was fairly balanced on both sides. I would definitely would recommend it

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