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Friday, August 11, 2006

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

If you follow the worlds of food, literature, or public radio, you've almost certainly heard about Michael Pollan and his recently-released book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.   The book has generated a lot of discussion in the food community, including a very spirited and very public online debate between Pollan and John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods.   Over the course of a recent (and desperately needed) vacation, I finally had a chance to sit down and read Pollan's latest offering.

Overall, I found The Omnivore's Dilemma to be thought-provoking and informative, and I would highly recommend it to a wide variety of people.   Specifically, those who have any interest in the food that we eat and where it comes from should certainly read this book -- as should those who care about their health, the environment, the treatment of animals, or the alarming extent to which corporations and corporate interests have come to dictate governmental policy in this country.   In short, just about everybody in the United States really ought to read The Omnivore's Dilemma.   I say this not because this is necessarily the best treatment of the subject matter covered, or because I think the book is brilliantly written, or even because I agree with everything Pollan suggests.   No, I say this because the information that Pollan presents and the overarching lessons and trends he sets forth are things that have been kept, no doubt deliberately, from the American food consumer for far too long.

Pollan organizes the book around four very different meals and the food chains leading up to each, and he spins off into various related topics along the way.   The four food chains include the industrial (culminating in a meal at McDonald's), the industrial organic (ending in a meal made from items purchased at Whole Foods), the pastoral (leading to a meal comprised of ingredients from a sustainable farm in Virginia), and the personal (yielding a meal made from food that Pollan hunted, foraged or grew himself).   Pollan's treatment of the first three of these struck me as the most informative and illuminating, while his tale of his hunting and gathering experiences -- though mildly entertaining -- seemed much more self-exploratory and, frankly, self-indulgent.
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There's more...
The most compelling aspect of The Omnivore's Dilemma is the stark contrast Pollan is able to draw between the industrial food supply and the sustainable farming practiced at Polyface, a small farm in Virginia owned and operated by Joel Salatin.   Salatin has created an almost entirely self-sufficient (i.e., closed) ecosystem that comes close to mimicking nature;   the grass, chicken, beef, turkeys, laying hens, rabbits and sweet corn that he raises are interlocked together in an amazing symbiotic symphony, the outputs of one serving as the inputs of another.   The net result is as efficient as nature itself;   there is no waste product, there is no need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or antibiotics, and each animal is able -- more or less -- to act out in precisely the way nature intended.   Thus, cows graze on grass to create beef, laying hens dine on larvae found in cow manure to produce protein-rich eggs, and manure from all of the animals nourishes the soil that, in turn, feeds the grass.

The industrial system, on the other hand, is characterized by waste, toxins, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, animal pharmaceuticals, degradation of the environment, exacerbation of global warming, abuse of animals, and adverse impacts on public health -- to name just a few.   How can any system with such gross inefficiencies and negative consequences not only survive, but thrive?   Easy -- capitalist greed, coupled with healthy servings of human arrogance, an uninformed and ignorant public, and a complicit government.   Pollan convincingly demonstrates that, for a whole host of historical, geopolitical, and economic reasons, our country's official policy has long been to encourage farmers to produce as much of one particular crop as humanly possible, and that one crop is corn.   This senseless "river of corn," as Pollan calls it, directly benefits a number of large corporate interests:
  1. the petrochemical companies that make the fertilizer and pesticide necessary to promote the crop's boundless growth;

  2. the feedlot operators that save money by using corn -- dirt cheap due to the glut of it on the market -- to feed animals that have no desire or natural propensity to eat it, such as cows and salmon;

  3. industrial purchasers of feedlot meat, such as McDonald's, that save considerable money by purchasing beef raised on cheap corn rather than on grass;

  4. the pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs necessary to enable the bodies of non-corneating animals to tolerate the grain, and to enable them to survive the horrid conditions that exist at industrial feedlots;

  5. the corn processors -- most notably ADM and Cargill -- that make an astonishing number of products derived from the crop, including vitamins, nutritional supplements, oils, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup; and

  6. the industrial giants that make the thousands upon thousands of processed food products -- cereals, snack foods, soft drinks, frozen dinners -- using the corn-based outputs of ADM and Cargill.
Faced with the choice of advancing these industrial interests on the one hand, or protecting the environment, public health and animal welfare on the other, which do you think our government has chosen?   Let's face it:   we live under a government of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.   Compounding the problem further is the fact that the general public has been kept completely in the dark about all of this.   In fact, Pollan could not even get access to ADM's and Cargill's operations, purportedly due to some trumped up nonsense about "security" concerns.   Yeah, I'll say;   if the truth about the industrial food supply ever became common knowledge among the general population, the "security" of unconscionable profits that ADM and Cargill presently enjoy would come to an immediate end.

The Omnivore's Dilemma makes a slightly less compelling case when taking on what Pollan terms the "industrial organic" food supply -- i.e., the processors and distributors (including Whole Foods) that sell organic food on a large scale.   As you might expect, the exponential growth in demand for organic, pesticide-free produce has not gone unnoticed by the very players who pioneered or perfected the offending foods in the first place.   Moreover, this exploding market has also led to stunning growth for a few once-small organic producers, who now find themselves trying to produce their products on a massively larger scale.   Despite acknowledging that all of these "industrial organic" players have prevented millions of pounds of fertilizers from being deposited on thousands of acres of farm land, Pollan subtly takes them to task for using practices that are not sustainable.   And this, I believe, is where Pollan overplays his hand.   After all, sustainability is certainly a laudable and worthwhile goal, but to intimate -- as Pollan seems to do -- that a company like Whole Foods is barely distinguishable from Wal-Mart because neither is demanding sustainability is an unwarranted cheap shot.

This, no doubt, is part of what prompted Whole Foods founder and CEO, John Mackey, to pen an open letter to Michael Pollan, complaining about the various statements made in the book about the grocery chain.   Yet, The Omnivore's Dilemma raises some legitimate criticisms, including the fact that some of what Whole Foods sells is more PR than substance:   certain products marketed as coming from a pastoral haven where animals roam free, for example, are actually produced in conditions that differ imperceptibly from those that prevail at non-organic industrial feedlots.   Another fair point is that Whole Foods is increasingly procuring its produce from large centralized farms and then shipping it to stores around the country, rather than purchasing from local farmers as the glossy photos in its stores would suggest.   Mackey would be well advised to take these points to heart, and the debate he has had with Pollan suggests that he is.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is generally well written, and -- with a few exceptions -- it tends to flow relatively well from beginning to end.   One of the organizational choices that I found rather puzzling, however, was Pollan's decision to treat the "industrial organic" food supply in a single, enormous chapter dropped right into the middle of the several shorter chapters that deal with the pastoral food chain.   A better route would have been to give this topic its own separate section in the book.   But the single most distracting thing about Pollan's writing is something that also represents a failure in editing, and that is his propensity to use certain words over and over again.   If I had a nickel for every time Pollan uses the word "conceit," or "atavism/atavistic," or "prodigious," well, let's just say I could buy copies of the book for everybody I know and then some.   A minor annoyance to be sure, but an annoyance nonetheless.

When you think about it, there are few things more fundamental -- or more important to our health -- than the food that we put into our bodies each day.   And yet, so many of the decisions that are being made regarding our food supply -- including what gets produced and how -- are shrouded in secrecy and shielded from public view or discussion.   Meanwhile, the consequences of those decisions -- on public health, on the environment, on animal welfare, and so on -- are buried even more deeply underground.   That is the reason why books like The Omnivore's Dilemma are important and worth reading.   By exposing the food industry to the cold hard light of day, Pollan has given us the information that is likely at first to outrage, and then later to spur us to action.   And that is the only way that we, the people, are ever going to wrest control of our food supply away from the conscience-free conglomerates that are presently calling all of the shots.


Blogger K & S said...

Thanks for the very informative review of this book. I had wondered about it, now I'll put it on my Amazon wish list :)

August 11, 2006 2:49 AM  
Blogger Green Living Radio said...

Hello NS:

Yes I do agree with K&S, a very informative review of Michael Pollan new book. If interested Organically Speaking a Seattle base website has released a conversation with Michael Pollan podcast (audio conversation). Interesting tidbits on farmers markets, CSAs, and more!

Some Podcast Show Note Questions:

Q) Why the price difference between conventional food and organic and how do we go about bringing down organic food prices?

Q) How can small local organic farmers remain local in a capitalistic system?

Q) What is the "Food Web" you briefly touch on in your book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.


All the best,

Holistic Conversations for a Sustainable World Who Share Your Passion for:

* high quality organic food
* natural, sustainable lifestyle
* ecology
* holistic health

August 11, 2006 5:07 AM  
Blogger Joy said...


How timely! I've been meaning to read this for months and just ordered it a few days ago!

August 11, 2006 7:19 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Kat & Joy: I think you'll both find the book to be quite interesting -- please let me know your thoughts after you've read it!

Ricardo: Thanks for the link -- I'll be sure to check it out.

August 11, 2006 1:23 PM  
Anonymous Olivia said...

Very thoughtful review. I thoroughly enjoyed one of Pollan's earlier books as well (The Botany of Desire) and have been recommending The Omnivore's Dilemma to just about everyone too.

It actually led to a funny debate with someone over dinner at a nice restaurant the other night:
She said: "I can't believe they put grass-fed beef on the menu at a place like this. It's just awful!"
I said: "Are you joking?"
She said: "We don't really eat beef, but we tried Parker Ranch grass-fed beef in Hawaii once and it was tough and tasted terrible and the waitress told us no one ever orders it."
I said: "Maybe it wasn't prepared well? I've been reading a lot about all the problems with corn-fed beef..."
She said: "You don't eat meat, so what does it matter to you." (Yes, a period, not a question mark.)

Though I'm sure that was meant to be the end of the conversation, instead it became about why why might feel that way (it does taste different and people tend to like what they're used to) and why there are problems with corn-fed beef. It ended with a strong recommendation that the source of the "she saids" read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

August 16, 2006 9:03 AM  
Blogger NS said...

Olivia: One of the things that I continue to marvel at is how utterly twisted it is that the American consumer has been manipulated into thinking that the adjective "corn-fed" is actually a good thing when it comes to beef. Before reading about your conversation with your friend, I'd never heard of anybody actually complaining that grass-fed beef tastes worse than corn-fed. If it's the case that your friend truly has developed a preference for corn-fed beef (due to being used to it, or for some other reason entirely), well that really does represent the ultimate victory for the industrial food system! I really hope she reads the book.

August 16, 2006 5:58 PM  
Blogger K & S said...

I just finished reading this and it was quite hard to get through, but once the momentum started I couldn't put it down. I'm really glad I took your advice and read this. Thank you!

January 23, 2008 4:37 AM  

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