June 23, 2011

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I recently devoured a terrific book by Michael Pollan entitled The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Now, this book was released in 2007 so I’m a bit behind the ball, but Pollan’s message strikes such a deep chord with me that I feel I need to spread it around.  Last summer, I crossed this great country on a motorcycle (read about it here) and, having never seen the Midwest except from the seat of a jetliner, was shocked and more than a bit dismayed to experience firsthand the American industrial agricultural machine.  I witnessed field after field, mile after mile, and DAY after DAY of nothing but corn and soybean!  Yes, I understand that we are a nation of 300,000,000 people and need vast amounts of food, but the utter lack of biodiversity across an entire region just confounded and contradicted every bit of knowledge that I have gained in my studies in biology and environmental science.  Now, I know that as kid from the suburbs of Connecticut, my critique of American farming may ring hollow in the ears of those living in the farm belt, but for crying out loud, do we really need to be injecting pure anhydrous ammonia into our soil to fertilize our crops?  How could we have gone so far astray?

Well, apparently I’m not the only one who pauses to think about our food in such a light.  In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan essentially investigates the various ways in which Americans produce, process, and consume food.  Naturally, he starts out with a bang and dives right into a dissection of the vast corporate agri-business that supplies the majority of our food, with the discussion centered on the exploits of the humble (or not so humble) corn plant.  Through the “miracle” of modern agricultural and food science, the corn plant has become the foundation of our processed food system in which a grain of corn is broken down into basic molecules and synthetically reassembled into much of the “food” available at the local supermarket.  Take a look at anything with a nutrition label and a list of ingredients – much of the stuff that you can’t pronounce is probably manufactured from corn.  I won’t even get into his descriptions of industrial meat production, but I’ve seen the feedlots in Kansas and can vouch for his tale.  Why so much corn, you might ask?  Pollan hints, no, jabs at various government policies and market conditions that drive farmers closer to the brink of financial extinction to supply large corporate grain processors with ever cheaper raw materials.  The unwritten message is, “Gee, I bet these processing corporations can afford to purchase some pretty influential congressmen on Capitol Hill”.  The written message is that the industrial agricultural system, with the backing of the United States government, endeavors to transform petroleum into food at the expense of fair economy, the environment, and our health.  Do heart disease, obesity, and diabetes ring a bell?  They're all linked to industrial food.  Pollan takes the stance not that of the typical tree-hugging enviro-conspiracy theorist, but of a horrified, intelligent observer looking into the system as an outsider.  Skeptical?  Read it.  Your library probably has a copy on the shelf right now.

Pollan ventures next into the burgeoning "organic foods" market, with a focus on the type of organic goods that you might buy at Whole Foods.  The results of his investigations are disappointing but not surprising.  As you might suspect, the organic food industry is, for the most part, just that - an industry.  Yes, lettuce may be grown without petroleum-based fertilizers and chickens may not be fed antibiotics, but the system still suffers from monocultured fields, crowded animal feed lots, and intercontinental transportation of foods (carbon footprint, anyone?).  Pollan cites the example of an “organic TV dinner” as the ultimate hypocrisy of the organic food movement.  There is redemption, though, in his exploration of the “beyond organic” food movement.  In the most enlightening chapters, Pollan visits a Virginia farm where one visionary farmer studies and applies the rhythms of nature to his cattle and chicken operation.  The farm, by Pollan’s description, is really such a beautiful ecosystem that I won’t attempt to paraphrase – just read the book already, eh?

The last chapter focuses of Pollan’s efforts to serve a meal entirely of his own creation, and by that I mean he hunts the boar, picks the mushrooms, grows the lettuce - you get the picture.  Delicious yet time consuming and, he admits, just as impractical for modern life as the industrial system is deleterious to the environment.  The compromise, he argues, should be somewhere in between. 

My overall take on the book is that it confirms what I already suspected about industrial food, but Pollan blows me away with his detailed research and engaging writing style.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma left me disgusted with the current state of affairs, hopeful with the promise of ecology-based local farming, and fearful of the government’s reaction to alternative food movements that challenge their corporate partners.  (In what backwards world do live when locally-produced vegetable, dairy, and meat is considered “alternative”?)  So what are your thoughts on this subject?  Do you eat?  (That’s a rhetorical question, folks…)  Do you know where your food comes from?  Are you a thoughtful consumer?  How do you rate the tradeoffs between nutrition and cost?  Would you be willing to support local farms?  Do you believe that your food dollars may be more influential than any vote you cast in a ballot box?


  1. We raised three children on homegrown veggies, fruits and wild game. There were chickens for eggs and countryside to play in. (yes we did purchase some items from stores!).
    One day at a large warehouse store iur youngest son, then about 4 years old saw all of the cartons of eggs. Then he moved down the aisle to look into the storage area where the man had just wheeled out more eggs from. I asked him what he was looking for..."chickens", he answered. "they must have alot of them, did you see all them eggs?!".
    I couldn't help but laugh and be proud...it was his chore to collect the eggs each day so he knew there just HAD to be chickens in there somewhere!
    Just found your blog and enjoy it...we have a Harley sportster and hubby is remaking and customizing a '71 ironhead...am jealous of your cross-country journey ;)

  2. OK blogspot, why can't I sign in to post comments anymore? Anyways, Woods Hippie here. Tina, thank you for commenting, glad you enjoyed the motorcycle trip report. Wonderful egg story! I wonder how many children these days fail to make the link between their scrambled eggs and a real, live hen.