The Omnivore's Dilemma
|The Omnivore’s Dilemma|
|Publisher||The Penguin Press|
|Dewey Decimal||394.1/2 22|
|LC Classification||GT2850 .P65 2006|
|Preceded by||The Botany of Desire|
|Followed by||In Defense of Food|
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a nonfiction book by Michael Pollan published in 2006. In the book, Pollan asks the seemingly straightforward question of what we should have for dinner. As omnivores, the most unselective eaters, humans (as well as other omnivores) are faced with a wide variety of food choices, resulting in a dilemma. Pollan suggests that, prior to modern food preservation and transportation technologies, this particular dilemma was largely resolved, primarily through cultural influences. These technologies have recreated the dilemma, by making available foods that were previously seasonal or regional. The relationship between food and society, once moderated by culture, now finds itself confused. To learn more about those choices, Pollan follows each of the food chains that sustain us; industrial food, organic food, and food we forage ourselves; from the source to a final meal, and in the process writes a critique of the American way of eating.
Food chains analyzed
Corn is the most heavily subsidized U.S. crop. “There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them contain corn,” he reports. Corn has successfully changed the U.S. diet and animals diet. This can be seen when Pollan monitors the development of a calf from a pasture in South Dakota through its stay on a Kansas feedlot to its dreadful end. The animals evolved to eat grass, but more than half of a feedlot cow’s food comes from corn. The other half contains other products such as meat. “Feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces, and discarded bits of feed) are accepted cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish, and pig meal,” Pollan explains. He goes on to say “since the bovine meat and bonemeal that cows used to eat is now being fed to chickens, pigs, and fish, infectious prions could find their way back to cattle when they’re fed the protein of the animals that have been eating them.” Of all the terrible stuff feedlot cows eat, the most damaging is corn, which tends to damage their livers. Corn-fed cows become sick as a matter of course, a fact accepted by the industry as a cost of doing business. “Between 15 and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers,” Pollan writes.
Pollan traces the various food chains that “link us … to the fertility of the earth and the energy of the sun.” In essays culminating in the “four meals” of the title, he shines a bright light on such obscure and important sites of U.S. food production as Iowa cornfields and Kansas feedlots; he investigates conditions on the big “organic” farms that supply Whole Foods with its dizzying and high-priced bounty; he explores the potential — and difficulties — of re-creating local and sustainable food networks by visiting an innovative Virginia farm; and he takes to the woods, at times packing a gun, in search of his own “hunter-gatherer” fare.
In probably the most important section of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes what might be called the industrial-organic complex: the large-scale farms and food-processing outfits that largely satisfy surging demand for organic food. The author uses Whole Foods as a proxy for the industrial-organic ethos. He writes: “‘Organic’ on the label conjures up a rich narrative … supplying the hero (American family farmer), the villain (agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as supermarket pastoral.” For Pollan, the marketing geniuses at Whole Foods peddle an irresistible commodity: self-satisfaction. He quotes a marketing consultant waxing creepily about how the store offers consumers the opportunity to “engage in authentic experiences” and “return to a utopian past with positive aspects of modernity intact.”
Yet the virtues on sale often prove spectral, Pollan shows. The “free-range” chicken on offer, it turns out, hails from a confinement operation with a tiny yard, largely unused by the short-lived birds. And after giving gigantic organic vegetable outfits a long and sympathetic hearing, he subjects them to a devastating energy analysis. Pollan finds that while a one-pound box of California-produced organic lettuce contains 80 food calories, it requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to process and ship to the East Coast. He adds that the figure would be only “about 4 percent higher if the salad were grown conventionally.” It’s hard to dispute Pollan’s assessment of large-scale organic agriculture: it’s “floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”
In contrast to the marketing geniuses who now dominate organic food, Pollan presents Joel Salatin, a loquacious farmer who runs a successful midsized, multispecies meat farm in Virginia. While large-scale organic operations function essentially in a global economy — leaning heavily on off-farm inputs, growing for markets thousands of miles away, relying on disenfranchised immigrant labor — Salatin insists on selling his goods close by and relying on his family and a few interns to supplement his labor.
Pollan’s account of his week with Salatin captures the paradoxes of life on a bustling, successful, integrated farm: the incessant backbreaking work, the brutally early mornings, the addictive beauty of a dewy field at dawn, the fresh, alive flavor of food you can’t get anywhere else. He presents Salatin’s style as a way forward, but not a panacea: “My guess is that there aren’t too many farmers today who are up for either the physical or the mental challenge of this sort of farming, not when industrializing promises to simplify the job.”
The final section finds Pollan attempting to prepare a meal using only ingredients he has hunted, gathered, or grown himself. He recruits assistance from local foodies, who teach him to hunt feral pigs, gather wild mushrooms and search for abalone. He also makes a salad of greens from his own garden, bakes sourdough bread using wild yeast, and prepares a dessert from cherries picked in his neighborhood.
In the process of preparing a meal based on hunting and gathering, Pollan grapples with the question of whether or not he should become a vegetarian. He asks if morality, which is “an artifact of human culture devised to help humans negotiate human social relations” (325), should be extended to animals. He ultimately concludes, "If our concern is for the health of nature – rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls – then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do" (327). Pollan justifies this assertion by pointing out that although killing an individual animal is obviously detrimental to that organism, it may be beneficial to the survival of its species as a whole. He asserts that humans actually provide an important source of population control for many species, claiming that the elimination of meat from human diets could cause problems with overpopulation for these animals. He also claims that although it does not often happen within the current American meat industry, it is possible to treat an animal humanely and allow it to live a happy life prior to its slaughter.
Pollan concludes that the fast food meal and the hunter-gatherer meal are "equally unreal and equally unsustainable." He believes that if we were once again aware of the source of our food – what it was, where it came from, how it traveled to reach us, and its true cost – we would see that we "eat by the grace of nature, not industry."
Economist Tyler Cowen argued, "The problems with Pollan's 'self-financed' meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets."
Washington State University, situated in an agricultural area of Washington state, chose this book to be part of its freshman reading program in 2009, but soon canceled the program. Many in the university's community, including those who run the kinds of industrial farms that The Omnivore's Dilemma discusses, were unhappy with the selection, and speculation[by whom?] was that the cancellation was a result of political pressure. Elson Floyd, president of WSU, claimed instead that it was a budgetary issue, and when food safety expert Bill Marler stepped up to cover the claimed shortfall, the program was reinstated, and Pollan was invited to speak on campus.
One of Pollan's major arguments about the organic farming industry is that it creates an unrealistic pastoral narrative, giving people the false idea that, by definition, organic products come from picturesque open pastures.
Pollan calls veganism a 'utopia', arguing that it would lead to a shortage of fertilizers and an increase in the need for "fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers since food would need to travel even farther and fertility - in the form of manures - would be in short supply".
Studies have shown that the locavorism Pollan advocates is not necessarily beneficial to the environment. A recent study by Lincoln University showed that raising sheep, apples, and dairy in the United Kingdom was more harmful to the environment than importing those products from New Zealand to the UK would have been. Critics have claimed that the cost of food production, including importing feed for animals and disruption to the energy efficiency of the ecosystem, can be more harmful to ecosystems than simply importing food. Some critics have also argued that simply cutting out meat itself would be much less energy intensive than locavorism.
The New York Times named The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the ten best books of 2006. and Pollan was also the recipient of a James Beard Award for the work. The book has also been published in a young reader's edition and is being used in cross curricular lessons by teachers interested in promoting its message.
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
- Deconstructing Dinner
- Environmental effects of meat production
- Food, Inc., a documentary film based partially on the book
- Land Institute
- Pollan, Michael (2006). The Omnivore's Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Books.
- Cowen, Tyler (1 November 2006). "Can You Really Save the Planet at the Dinner Table?". Slate. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved 18 May 2009.
- College Discourse Over Food Safety, Courtesy of Bainbridge Lawyer
- "Food Miles- Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry". Research Report- Lincoln University 285: 93. July 2006.
- Tidwell, Mike. "The Low-Carbon Diet". Retrieved April 1, 2010.
- "The 10 Best Books of 2006", The New York Times, December 12, 2006,
- "Writing on Food, Winner". jamesbeard.org.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, from Michael Pollan website.
- "Unhappy Meals", by Michael Pollan, The New York Times, January 28, 2007
- "An Animal's Place", essay by Michael Pollan, re-printed from The New York Times, January 2003. This essay was the spark of the idea for the book.
- "How Food Finds its Way to Your Plate", interview by Talk of the Nation, NPR, November 24, 2006.
- "Dinner: An Author Considers the Source", interview by "Fresh Air", NPR, April 11, 2006.
- "Michael Pollan: The Truthdig Interview", interview by Blair Golson of Truthdig, April 11, 2006.
- "No Bar Code", excerpt from The Omnivore's Dilemma from Mother Jones, May 2005.
- "Modern Meat", interview by Frontline, PBS, 2005.
- Salon.com - 'We are what we eat: The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan on how Wall Street has driven America's obesity epidemic, the misleading labels in Whole Foods, and why we should spend more money on food' (book review), Ira Boudway, Salon.com
- WashingtonPost.com - 'You Are What You Eat: A journalist traces the meal on his plate back through the food chain' (The Omnivore’s Dilemma book review), Bunny Crumpacker, Washington Post (April 9, 2006)
- San Francisco Chronicle - 'Anatomy of a Meal: UC Berkeley's Michael Pollan Examines What We Eat, and How to Decide What We Should Eat', Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle (April 9, 2006)
- New York Times Review