Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I had heard quite a bit about Michael Pollan before reading this book, mostly extremely positive things, to the point that I felt dubious about him out of contrariness. Also, I knew that he is one of the patron saints of eating food produced on small, local family farms (a method of food production that I have a lot of objections to), so I came into the book with sort of a chip on my shoulder.

I loved this book. It was one of my top ten this year (I usually read about 150 books/year, so that is really good). I talked it up so much that I convinced both my parents to read it. I also went back to the library and got another of his books (In Defense of Food), even though it's a diet book and I usually hate those. It's even made me feel (somewhat) enthusiastic about both small family farms AND hunting (which is a huge stretch, let me tell you).

So why did I like this book so much? It's divided into three sections. The first covers mechanized, industrial agriculture (how basically all food in the US is produced). I had only a cursory knowledge of this industry, and found his discussion totally fascinating. Did you know that chemically, Americans are basically corn chips because most of our food is just processed corn in various forms? Or that 125,000 acres of North America are covered in corn (twice the size of New York state, and visible from space)? I loved learning about the hidden processes behind the food we eat, both animal and vegetable. B liked this section too (or at least the parts I read to him) because it discusses chemical fertilizer, which is his latest research interest.

The second section is about organic farming, both the large-scale kind (which is very similar to traditional agriculture, minus the heavy chemical use) and the small-scale family farm kind. Of course Pollan thinks the small scale kind is vastly superior, and its perfection is represented by the farmer Joel Salatin. Salatin is certainly an interesting character, but also an ignorant crank on all topics not involving farming, so I found Pollan's hagiographic descriptions of him hard to take at times. Nonetheless, learning about the organic farming industry was also fascinating, and so were Pollan's lyrical descriptions of Salatin's farming operations. There is something very beautiful about the concept of a perfectly contained ecosystem run and maintained by humans, where everything is sustainable and all waste is no longer pollution, but is recycled back into useful products. It's like one of those cool little EcoSpheres, except bigger and actually societally valuable. I was almost ready to go out and join a CSA by the end.

The third section is on hunting (mostly) and gathering (tangentially; he does gather mushrooms but other plant species are neglected). It's the first account of hunting I'd read written by someone with a similar background to my own, and made me understand why people like something that had previously struck me as barbaric and vaguely distasteful: it's completely thrilling. I can believe Pollan's theory that hunting appeals to something vital and basic to human nature. Reading this chapter definitely changed my opinion about hunting (and hunters) for the better, in addition to teaching me something about the mechanics and skills involved.

Things I liked about the book:
--While (like all authors) he does have an agenda, it is not usually so strong as to overpower the narrative. He tries to consider both sides in a fairly balanced way.
--The author is self-aware and honest. In a book like this, which is partly memoir, this is very important.

Things I didn't like:
--He definitely did a lot of research. However, he is basically a journalist, not a scientist or an economist, and sometimes it shows. In particular, he is very weak on following the economic consequences of his recommendations to their logical end (like what would actually happen if the average American spent 20% instead of 10% of their income on food).
--The book is very provincial. There is basically no discussion on any food system beyond those in the US. Because the US in fact has a very unusual food system when considered globally, this is a big weakness. This is typical in American books, but as Pollan tends to speak in global terms, he really needs to expand his horizons a bit.

So will I be changing anything? I am considering. His arguments for buying organic were convincing. I had always dismissed buying organic produce as a waste of money, but I may reconsider now. I may also be buying more humanly produced eggs (though I admit this is mostly just because I am sentimental, not because his argument is really that good). I won't be going hunting (ever) but I am more sympathetic and therefore supportive to people who enjoy it. I still am pro-industrial agriculture, chemical fertilizer and agribusiness though, partly because I feel Pollan is very naive about the alternatives. I would love stricter regulations in these areas, especially from an environmental perspective, but I thought that before reading this book.

Overall, I would strongly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma to anyone interested in food, nutrition, environmental issues, animal issues, eating, or the modern world.


  1. I read it when pregnant and it changed my world. No more bad meat for our family. The next book to read - with a TON of science is "The Anti-Cancer Diet." After reading that one we went totally grass fed and organic. I actually made myself feel sick thinking about a non-organic potato I made my family. So strange - but a great read.

  2. You and I must talk more about this. I am dying to know your reasons for supporting Big Ag.

  3. GiGi, I will check that one out (though I am a little afraid as to the possible consequences...) :)

    Jenna, I support Big Ag more through default than from actual passionate support (I mean, who could really get enthusiastic about factory farming and thousands of acres of monoculture?): it's the best option given the current state of things.

    WHY it's the best option (in my opinion of course) is complicated, but is partly due to 1. price (there are so many people who can't afford food now that I can't get behind something which will make it more expensive); 2. food safety (it's easier to regulate large corporations, and they tend to be more careful; China's continuing milk issues are an excellent example); and 3. our ever-expanding population (the fact Pollan mentions, that 40% of people alive today couldn't exist without chemical fertilizer, demonstrates to me that small-scale organic farming is just not practical). There's a lot of other considerations too, but this is turning into a novel. Email me if you want to discuss more: I am certainly willing to be convinced otherwise!