The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Food and its discontents

Big MacBy Robert Silvey

Michael Pollan’s delectable new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, examines the wretched state of modern agriculture—and the unhealthy relationship most of us have with what we eat—by tracing the origin and consumption of four very different meals. He concludes that Americans now live in a wasteland of bland, interchangeable commodities, dominated by monocultured corn and fueled by imported oil. It’s not a pretty sight, but Pollan writes with such verve and insight that the book is hard to put down.

For the first meal, Pollen takes his family to McDonald’s; like 19 percent of all meals in the US, this one is eaten in the car. Next, he prepares a meal from ingredients labeled “organic,” a feel-good label that is now often applied to food produced in industrialized, energy-wasteful ways. He then visits a farm in western Virginia where sustainable multicrops, free-range animals, and ecological reuse create a happily updated version of the traditional family farm. And finally, he turns hunter-gatherer to create a meal with ingredients from the gardens and forests of Northern California: he shoots a feral pig, hunts mushrooms, picks cherries and lettuce, and even captures wild yeast for his bread.

As Pollan describes the making of each meal, he examines various aspects of the dysfunctional agribusiness system that feeds us cheap food but extracts the cost in other ways: degraded ecosystems, bankrupt farmers, hollowed-out communities, tortured animals, tasteless food, increased obesity and diabetes, and military expenses to protect our sources of oil. The consequences of how we eat ramify in every direction, affecting economy, environment, psychology, and government—and the effects are usually bad.

But there are heroes in the book, notably Virginian Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, who practices a holistic, hands-on “grass farming” that produces large quantities of chickens, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, beef, and pork in a recycling dance of interrelated growth, consumption, decay, and regrowth. He calls his work “grass farming” because most of the energy input is sunlight transformed by chlorophyll into grasses that are eaten by the animals, who in turn replenish the soil with manure. It’s a nearly closed system in which Salatin buys almost everything he needs locally, and he sells all of his output locally.

The lesson, as Wendell Barry once said, is that “eating is an agricultural act.” Pollan adds that is is “also an ecological act, and a political act, too,” and we can do many things to improve our own eating habits that will also improve, bit by bit, the agricultural system that feeds us. He does not suggest that we return entirely to hunting and gathering, though growing a small garden is a feasible gesture even for many urbanites. Buying organic food is also a step in the right direction, though the label often means only that the food is free of chemical pesticides, not necessarily that it has been grown sustainably or humanely.

Buying from a local farmers’ market—or a local farmer—is the best approach, and the more frequently we can eat locally (and seasonally) the better it will be for our health and for local farmers’ finances. It is a way to avoid wasting energy by transporting food long distances and at the same time to create a living community of producers and consumers who operate outside the industrialized world of big agribusiness. Pollan puts it like this:

[T]here exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized. Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature’s way of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures. This is something nature never does, always and for good reason practicing diversity instead.…

Another theme, or premise really, is that the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.… Our eating also constitutes a relationship with dozens of other species—plants, animals, and fungi—with which we have coevolved to the point where our fates are deeply entwined.

The dilemma of the omnivore? It’s simply that since our bodies have evolved to digest anything from carrots to chicken eggs, from radicchio to seal blubber, we must make decisions every time we eat. Unlike the koala, for whom eucalyptus leaves are in the class of edible things and all else is in the class of inedible things, humans have to choose, and the line can be drawn in many different places. It’s easy enough to rule out poisonous items, but harder to balance more or less healthful, cheaper or tastier, greater quantity or higher quality. And harder still when we begin to consider buying locally, or buying only well-treated animals, or eating only organic foods, or becoming vegetarian.

I can think of no better primer for these vexed questions than The Omnivore’s Dilemma—Pollan is an engaging storyteller and a challenging thinker. Just don’t try to read him while eating a Big Mac. You may lose your appetite.

[Cross-posted at Rubicon]

5 replies »

  1. as a member of the family farm community and an oponent of the factory farms that seem to be taking over my whole state, I want to tell everyone who buys “organic” to please investigate those origins. What you think may be more healthy may only be disguised as that with a vague labeling. Factory farms, anxious to gain that market will do the minimum to meet what amorphous requirements have been set to qualify foods as “organic”. I hate too much government, but I also hate the effects of huge agri-businesses and the destruction of the family farms. We really do need to support the local growers and try planting some vegetables yourself, it’s not that hard to do. For those who eat meat, the confined livestock method of high volume meat production requires so much antibiotics and other chemicals to make sure the animals survive, and then we ingest that with our meat. I have watched my neighbors who raise beef cattle, or dairy cows, or grow crops on small farms, (small these days is under 1,000 acres) throw in the towel because they just cannot compete with these huge mega-farms that we have fought for a long time. The egg “factory” near me was finally shut down for environmental, and health reasons by our attorney-general, but only after we few country bumpkins organized and continued the fight against it. It is happening everywhere and the hazards these huge food factories raise for our bodies and for our environment and for our economy need to be conquered.

  2. You mean our 12-year-old boys who are 6′ tall and muscular and girls who are menstruating by age 9 may not be normal? Nonsense! It’s all part of God’s corporate plan.

  3. The Economist of 6 December 2006 refutes these claims in a seminal article:

    i) FairTrade: by subsidising small subsistence farmers it disadvantages consolidation and business development and entrenches poverty in the countries in which it operates. For example, says The Economist, “The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium

  4. Gavin, you are correct that direct political activity is very important, as we proved in the US last year and hope to do much more decisively in 2008. At least in the short term, it is more important than any of the approaches in this book. But the very point of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that since we must always eat and we must always make choices about our food, making informed choices is better than making uninformed choices. It is one small but significant way to improve the health of ourselves, our economy, and our democracy.

    You are, however, speaking at cross-purposes with Pollan, particularly with regard to subsidies. The US Department of Agriculture now provides $19 billion in direct subsidies to American farmers, and the result (as he describes) is that individual Iowa corn farmers are trapped in a spiral of increasing production and decreasing prices, just like the coffee farmers you mention. The corn profit goes to Cargill, Archers Daniel Midland, and other large, wasteful agribusiness concerns. Fair Trade, at its best, ensures that the profits for coffee (and corn) go increasingly to the farmers instead.

    There is a bookshelf of proof that pesticides are bad for human health; they build up in the body, with serious long-term consequences. A good place to start is the Pesticide Action Network website. As for the health of the soil, you are making the usual mistake of assuming that “organic” means nothing more than “nonpesticide.” Good organic farming includes crop rotation and manuring, and it cuts farmers free of the natural gas-based synthetic fertilizers that, being nonrenewable, will become increasingly unaffordable. Furthermore, Borlaug’s assertion about traditional techniques does not take account of the sensibly updated organic methods that allow Polyface Farm to flourish while returning 450 of its 550 acres to forest. Efficiency does not require a corporate face, and intensive farming does not require industrialization and wasteful transportation, which will also become increasingly unaffordable.

    The British study you mention is also a narrow look at limited options. It may well be true that trucked Spanish tomatoes are cheaper than those grown in local heated greenhouses, but it is cheaper yet to eat only local produce in season. As for the many short driving trips, this sad datum merely points up the fact that the problem is not unidimensional; we must also modify land-use policies to encourage walking, biking, and transit use (a much worse problem for the US than it is in Britain) to get our food.

    There is also a body of evidence that organic farming is in fact more economical. In the case of corn and soybeans, writes David Pimentel of Cornell, there is a saving of “30 percent less fossil energy” using organic methods. Pimentel goes on to enumerate other advantages: organic practices “also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does.”

    As for the effect on the community, agribusiness is much more destructive than smaller family farms. The west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley is dominated by enormous corporations using subsidized water to support great monocultured plots; immigrant labor comes and goes as needed, the towns atrophy, and profits end up in corporate portfolios far away. The east side has a more local, less extractive farming economy, with many flourishing towns and recycled wealth.

    I would add that there is nothing inherently protectionist about sensible food policies. Some trade is essential if we want certain foods: my California neighbor is not growing coffee. But a shift toward local, noncommodified production and organic, nonindustrialized processing is as advantageous for the Kenyan farmer as for the California consumer.

    It is attractive to think you can save the world by free trade for corporations and commodity slavery for food producers, but don’t be misled. Poor countries need a benign environment as much as rich ones. These are all political choices, at the fruit stand as well as at the ballot box.

  5. Thanks for your personal perspective and the added information, Dianna. One American farmer, according to Pollan, now supports 129 consumers. But how will the farmer be supported