March 1, 2010| 0

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals


by Michael Pollan (New York: Penguin Books, 2006. 450 pp)

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written seven books and countless articles on current agrarian issues. In 2010 alone, Pollan added the Social Justice Champion Award from the California Center for Public Health to his many recognitions as well as being named to the "Time 100", the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people. He lives with his wife and son in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Book review by Donovan Richards

When I was young, I vividly remember receiving harsher punishments when I lied about my misdeeds

Something about human nature compels me to hide when I have made a mistake. If I broke my mother's precious vase yet denied it, grounding became inevitable. But if I immediately told my mother about my mistake, she would be disappointed but certainly not angry.

It probably took longer than necessary for me to understand that while transparency might entail consequences, those consequences were better than the ones I would face if I had lied about my actions. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan seeks to expose what the food industry has hidden behind the pre-packaged meat and cereal boxes.

Ubiquitous Corn

Pollan divides The Omnivore's Dilemma into a three-course meal. In the first part, he traces the steps of a McDonald's combo meal from his plate to its source.

Behind the billboard advertisements and catch phrases of McDonald's, Pollan uncovers a sea of gas-guzzling corn growing in America's heartland. In between harvest and the dinner table (or the car if you are in a hurry), the kernels of corn enjoy heavy government subsidies and meet the most technologically advanced machines in the food industry.

Corn finds its way into the supersized Coke in the form of high fructose corn syrup, the Big Mac through the highly concentrated corn fed to the cattle in order to fatten them up, and the French fries by means of the corn oil used to fry the spuds.

The Grass Really Is Greener

As a second course, Pollan investigates the sources of organic food — both from a meal made by ingredients purchased at Whole Foods and a dinner crafted by elements found at local organic farms.

On the Whole Foods side of the organic spectrum, Pollan learns that there are minimal differences between Whole Foods and its industrial brethren. While it's true that less processing exists in these organic supermarkets, Whole Foods sells organic TV dinners. And a quick glance at the ingredients label of some items reveals organic high fructose corn syrup.

Additionally, fruits and vegetables ship from all over the world to provide customers with a cornucopia of options. Although Whole Foods provides more transparency in what it sells, the organic label provides little difference from its industrial counterpart when food is produced on such a massive scale.

On the other end of the organic continuum, Pollan profiles Joel Salatin, an organic farmer whose holistic agricultural methods create a desirable alternative — in the eyes of the author — to the industrial organic structures of Whole Foods.

The source of the roasted chicken Pollan shares with close friends in Virginia can easily be traced back to Joel Salatin's PolyFace Farm, where the chicken lived and grazed. Pollan argues that when chicken and cattle eat grass as nature intended them, the animals are not only seemingly happier, but the meat we eat is healthier.

In fact, he asserts, “Conventional nutritional wisdom holds that salmon is automatically better for us than beef, but that judgment assumes the beef has been grain fed and the salmon krill fed; if the steer is fattened on grass and the salmon on grain, we might actually be better off eating beef.” (p. 269)

Foraging in the Forest

As a final serving, Pollan attempts to remove all parties from the food chain, desiring to hunt and gather all of the resources needed to make his own meal.

Taking this task to heart, the author spends extensive time wading through the ethics of hunting, killing, and eating animals. After a suitable justification is found, the hunting and gathering commences.

Pollan describes an underground culture in the Bay Area known as the Slow Movement. Meant as a reaction to the fast-paced lives of seemingly everyone in our culture, people in the Slow Movement desire to stop and smell the proverbial roses.

Under the guidance of some new friends from this movement, Pollan hunts and gathers the ingredients for his final meal: a braised leg and sirloin roast that found its way to the dinner table through the barrel of the author's gun, and mushrooms that found their way because their camouflage failed them in front of Pollan's watchful eye.

The Value of Transparency

Of course, Pollan makes no claims that one of his meals is intrinsically more valuable than another. Even though his writing tends to betray the fact that he leans toward local farmers and hunter/gatherer methods for food sources, the core question remains the same: Where does our food come from?

Food exists commonly in everyday life to the extent that nobody questions what the body intakes. Sadly, upon further inspection, there is no easy answer. (For further information on the debate, check out Ethix conversations with Greg Page and Peter Dill)

Ultimately, Pollan calls for transparency in the food industry. The concrete wall built around the food industry only leads to further issues of public health, whether it is obesity or E. coli. Yes, opening up slaughterhouses might lead to a drop off in meat consumption. But eating less meat might be a better practice.

As with any industry, opacity tends to bring further problems. Although Nike and Wal-Mart currently run highly ethical companies, past mistakes once hidden under the cloak of efficiency give both companies a negative perception in the eyes of the public. Transparency does not always maximize profits; transparency provides an open door for consumers to investigate and purchase with a clean conscience.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is thought-provoking and Pollan's writing is engaging. I highly recommend this book.

Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.

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