Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma

I finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma last Saturday morning just before going to that Science Blogging Convention I posted about last Sunday. It's a book that is very difficult to put down. The book is well written which is no surprise since Michael Pollan has long been a contributing writer at the New York Times as well as a professor of journalism at UC Berkley.

Pollan asks the question "What should we eat?" in this book and the answer occurs organically during the course of the book. By the time you've finished the last chapter you'll know the answer to that question and I doubt it'll be the same as before you started the book. In that sense The Omnivore's Dilemma is revolutionary. It will affect the way you look at food and change your world view of the morality of food and of the government agencies that have aided in making our food choices of today what they are. Is that a run on sentence? It felt rather long and breathless.

First of all, let's define what the title The Omnivore's Dilemma refers to. The dilemma in question is that, unlike a Panda which will just eat bamboo shoots and nothing else, omnivores can eat nearly anything, and thus have to constantly decide which of the available edibles they should eat. This choice can lead to anxiety--which we've all felt when looking at all the choices in a grocery store or restaurant and tried to decide what to eat.

Pollan organizes the book around four different meals and the food chains leading to each. The four food chains are the industrial (a meal at McDonalds), the industrial organic (a meal made from items bought at Whole Foods), the pastoral (a meal from a sustainable farm in Virginia), and the personal (a hunter/gatherer style meal). Pollan's narrative takes us from the cornfields of Iowa to food-science laboratories and feedlots and then onto organic farms and then Polyface, a small farm in Virginia owned and operated by Joel Salatin.

Here's a paragraph from a NY Times review of the book:

Even if the author weren't a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and therefore by definition a liberal foodie intellectual, you could guess how this scheme will play out: the McDonald's meal will be found wanting in terms of nutrition and eco-sustainability; the Whole Foods meal will be decent but tainted with a whiff of corporate compromise; the Virginia farm meal will be rapturously flavorful and uplifting; and the hunter-gatherer meal will be a gutsy feast of wild boar and morels, with a side of guilt and some squirmy philosophizing on what it means to take a pig's life.

I love that paragraph. I really can't do this book justice in a short review. There's just too much information in The Omnivore's Dilemma for me to cover it in even the most meager of ways. Further, the books information is so well integrated that every sentence I think of just leads to more info that I think I should include. It's aggravating!

Here's a few things to ponder that I gleaned from the book. Corn is a very energy intensive plant to grow. It takes a third of a gallon of oil to grow a bushel of corn. And then even more to harvest and distribute it. Corn is very inexpensive because farmers have their crops partially subsidized by the government and that takes away the problems associated with overproduction, thus encouraging over production and so the price of corn continually falls. And that cheap corn encourages its use in producing just about everything. It's what feeds the chickens and cows, supplies the food industry with raw material, even makes alcohol for gasoline. Corn is everywhere.

However that huge reliance on one crop profoundly influences many facets of life here in the US in ways that really can shake you. Read the book! Do you shop at Whole Foods? There's a reason that the CEO of Whole Foods is pissed off at Pollan. Apparently most of the food sold in Whole Foods is in a way a marketing sham. Sure, the food labeled as organic is indeed grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizer but just read about the actual growing/breeding conditions of the food. For example, free range is largely just a gimmick. Read the book! LOL

The chapters relating to Polyface, the farm in Virginia, are quite amazing. The owner, Joel Salatin, practically uses magic to use his land in the most natural and productive manner imaginable. It was quite inspiring to read about his work and well worth the price of the book for just those chapters alone. However that does bring up a problem with the book. It's obvious that Pollan's conclusion is that the methodology of the Polyface farm is what should be used as a model for the agricultural industry but wonderful as the farm is--it just doesn't produce enough food for it to be a viable model to feed the nation. I don't know what the answer is, but it's obvious that the odious methods in use in the industrial food companies, organic and normal, need to be avoided. It's just as obvious that the alternatives can't produce enough food to feed us all--and the prices would easily be triple what we're used to paying. Probably even more.

Food for thought. Summary? This is the best nonfiction book I've read in several years. Do read it. It's worth the time--and you might not hit McDonalds ever again.


PI said…
Hi Utenzi!
I would never eat at Macdonalds and really try to avoid junk food. I have more or less worked out a way of eating which seems to suit me - lots of fruit and veg, low fat and sugar etc.
Michelle sent me.
Anonymous said…
Wow the book sounds interesting.

If you are willing to accept, I hope to invite you to write a reveiw at my other site, made by book lovers for book lovers.

You can check it out and let me know:
I Hate to Cook said…
Actually, that might make a good birthday present for my daughter... who likes to cook!

Anonymous said…
I never go to McDonald's anyway. I will look for the book, Dave.

Michele sent me.
Anonymous said…
I haven't eaten at McDonalds or other junk food palces for years. PLease don't tell me though that Pizza is a no-no too!

It sounds like a great book that you have obviously enjoyed so I will look out for it.
I Hate to Cook said…
Yes, I'm back again from Michelle's. It's snowing like a bitch here so that book would be nice to curl up with.

Moogie said…
Wow, I'm here via Michele's but I'm glad I came. This sounds like a wonderful book. Luckily, I rarely go to McDonald's or any fast foods so that's ok. Thanks for the recommendation.
Becky68 said…
That book sounds really interesting, I'm not a big fan of McDonalds since it was my ex's favorite place to eat I got really sick of it & almost never go there- Supersize Me helped too! Here from Micheles tonight.
Justin said…
Now I've got to read this book. I've read so much about food and health in the last year that it all seems to be mixing together in my brain though. I'll be sure to add it to my Amazon wishlist.

Thanks for taking the time to look through my site. I appreciate that you looked back through the archives.
scrappintwinmom said…
I haven't entered a Mickey D's since I watched "Supersize Me". Here via Michele.
Anonymous said…
But without McDonald's, where am I going to people watch...?
Anonymous said…
That book has been on my wishlist for ages...I'm waiting for it to be published in paperback so I can read it on the train.

BTW Koala bears live on bamboo shoots?! Maybe pandas do...koalas prefer eucalyptus leaves ;)

Michele says hi.
utenzi said…
*ouch* You caught me in a major goof, V'knid. I changed it to Panda. Thanks for the error checking!
Anonymous said…
Your timing is impeccable: I just finished reading his piece in today's NYT.

Now I understand why the NYT named it a top pick for 2006. You're right on the money.

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