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, we humans 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 
Pollan begins with an exploration of the food-production system from which the vast majority of American meals are derived. This industrial food chain is largely based on corn, whether it is eaten directly, fed to livestock, or processed into chemicals such as xanthan gum, often in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, and ethanol. Pollan discusses how the corn plant came to dominate the American diet through a combination of biological, cultural, and political factors. He visits George Naylor's corn farm in Iowa to learn more about those factors. He mentions the fact that human cultivation of corn has greatly benefited the plant, and that corn has come to depend on humans for its survival. He argues that the "cob and husk arrangement... renders the plant utterly dependent for its survival on an animal in possession of the opposable thumb needed to remove the husk, separate the seeds, and plant them" (26-27). The role of petroleum in the cultivation and transportation of the American food supply is also discussed.
A fast food meal is used to illustrate the end result of the industrial food chain. Pollan is highly critical of the industrial model of agriculture. He describes how scientific innovations such as the creation of the Haber process to fix nitrogen allowed a widespread simplification of agriculture. He argues that at one time, farmers applied a cultural knowledge to the growth of plants, but that this "intelligence and local knowledge" (220)  has since been removed from their farms and put into the laboratory. He believes that this is a negative development, and that a return to localized agriculture would solve many of the health and environmental problems that he believes are the result of modern agricultural practices.
In addition to visiting Naylor's corn farm in Iowa, Pollan spends time in a feedlot, observing the conditions in which a steer is kept prior to slaughter. He explains that the steer is fed a corn-based diet, which has a detrimental effect on an animal adapted to consume grass. Pollan claims that this unnatural diet detracts from the nutritional value of the meat produced from the steer, not to mention the quality of life of the animal. Additionally, Pollan contends that the excessive use of antibiotics in these feedlots has led to drug resistant microbes, neither of which would have become issues if cows were allowed to live under more natural conditions (78).
The following section delves into the principles of organic farming and their various implementations in modern America. Pollan shows that, while organic food has grown in popularity, its producers have adopted many of the methods of industrial agriculture, losing sight of the organic movement's anti-industrial roots. A meal prepared from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods Market represents this food chain at the table. In his discussion of the foods he purchases from Whole Foods Market, Pollan comments on the growing popularity of “supermarket pastoral” (134) literature. He claims that people like to read about free range chickens and cattle grazing in idyllic pastures so that they feel better about purchasing meats.
As a study in contrast, Pollan visits Joel Salatin's minor ecological rotation farm, where natural conditions are adhered to as closely as possible, very few chemicals used, and waste products are recycled back into the system. He then prepares a meal using only local produce from nearby small-scale farmers.
Pollan praises Joel Salatin’s farm, explaining that a system of “relationship marketing” in which customers personally know the farmer from whom they purchase their food will cause farmers to possess greater integrity and produce higher quality products (240). He also speaks of a sense of nostalgia attached to the local farming ideal, quoting one of Salatin’s customers as saying, "'This is the chicken I remember from my childhood. It actually tastes like chicken'" (242). He argues that Americans should attempt to return to a pre-industrial agricultural system based on local foods from family farms like Salatin’s. By promoting this local farming ideal, Pollan is carrying on the tradition of writers such as Wendell Berry.
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. Critics of Pollan have argued that he perpetuates a similar false narrative by holding up Joel Salatin's farm as a model and by advocating eating only food from local producers. Salatin's farm has been controversial because he does not place an emphasis on animal rights, while eating only local food has implications of xenophobia and can be harmful to the environment.
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". In doing so, critics argue, Pollan inverted the environmentalist component of veganism and used it to argue for increased, albeit local, meat consumption. Critics of this view have noted that many patrons of Salatin's farm must drive hundreds of miles to access his products, which may offset any environmental benefits gained through locavorism, and that similar problems would likely apply if Pollan's vision of food production were put into practice on a large scale.
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.
See also 
- 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