Book Review - The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Since we, as humans, can eat just about anything we want to eat (within reason of course), our main concern with feeding is “what do we eat.� Just think if you were a Koala. Are those Eucalyptus Leaves? Yes. Let’s eat. No they're not? I’ll pass. Humans have the ability to choose between many types of meat, fruits, vegetables, fungi, and grain. All of which are pleasing to the palate, nutritious, and digestible. This question of what to eat is explored at great depth by Michael Pollan in his engaging book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan traces the food that we eat every day right down to the farm. He visits a large farm in Iowa and describes how corn has become the king of all crops. Farmers have become so productive in growing corn that food processors had to come up with new ways use it. That is why our Cokes are sweetened with corn syrup and not cane sugar and corn is the main feed for cows even though their stomachs are made for digesting grass. In addition, Pollan buys a cow that is being bred for slaughter and is able to follow its life right up the point it enters the slaughter house. This monoculture farming means that farmers have to consistently spray their fields with fertilizer to maintain the health of the soil. Animals are given a whole slew of antibiotics because their bodies were never meant to consume that much corn. The farmers have it easy. The Iowa corn farmer barely needs to tend to his fields except to plant, spray and harvest, but at what cost? At the end of this section, Pollan and his family buy a meal at McDonald’s for less than $15.00 and consume it while riding down the highway going 65 miles per hour. Unfortunately the real cost of that meal is passed on to the general population through environmental degradation and increased dependency on fossil fuels.

In addition, Pollan examines the growth of the organic farming industry in this country. From its roots as way for hippies to get back to nature even though they didn’t know how to farm organically (thus organic’s original reputation as bad tasting and expensive) to today as a multi-billion dollar industry that is basically dominated by two large, industrial organic farming operations (one owned by General Mills). Those “free range� chickens you are buying at Whole Foods? Sorry to say they are raised primarily in large hen houses and only get a few days of sunshine at the end of their life. They are so used to the chicken coop, that they don’t want to go outside and after being physically forced to go outside, don’t know what to do once out there.

Pollan also visits a small organic farm that raises beef, pork, chickens, and vegetables. Nothing is wasted on this farm as the waste from the animals fertilizes the plants, cows eat the grasses, chickens root through the cow pies for grubs, etc. It’s time intensive but no pesticides and herbicides are used. Animals don’t need a lot of antibiotics because they are eating what they are suppose to be eating. The farmer sure works a lot harder than the Iowa corn farmer or the South Dakota rancher. But the food he produces is a lot closer to the food that nature intended to provide.

Finally Pollan decides to hunt and gather for a meal, including hunting and shooting a wild boar. There’s a lengthy section on the ethics of killing animals for food but Pollan provides ample examination to both sides of the issue. Pollan does feel a little guilty about shooting the boar but decides that in the end it is best to honor the animal (now dead) by serving it in a scrumptious meal.

Pollan is an engaging writer and puts his heart and soul into his story and the book affected me profoundly. This isn’t a polemic like Fast Food Nation but it is powerful nonetheless. Clearly it is healthier for ourselves and the planet if we can eat more food that is produced locally using sustainable farming practices and eat only foods that are in season (understanding this is difficult in a place like Minnesota). It’s not easy but not impossible either. Being surrounded by a largely agricultural area there are numerous local farmer’s markets from which one in Minneapolis-St. Paul can select locally grown produce that is farmed in a sustainable manner (alas very little fruit). Just this weekend I was able to purchase a number of cuts of meat from local farms, for a price that was not much more than one finds at the supermarket. This includes a chicken that was quite tasty (and juicy) after grilling.

I strongly encourage you to read this book, even if you don’t ever plan to “go organic� or start up your own slow-food chapter. As is pointed out in the book, it is amazing how little time we Americans actually spend thinking about what kind of food we buy and eat, even though grocery purchases make up a large part of a family's budget and has a huge impact on everyone's health and well-being. This book will help you think more about what you put in your grocery cart whether you shop at Cub, Whole Foods, or the local farmer’s market.


8 Comments

You might also want to check out a book called "Plenty" by Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon.

They wrote about their experience of spending one year eating locally, using 100 miles as their range limit.

I'm still working my way through it, but it's been pretty good so far.

I might have to check that book out Snyder but I've got a long list of books to read, that's why it took me so long to get to Omnivore's Dilemma.

No typo's this post? I'm counting on you to check my work :o)

Pollan is terrific--if you ever get a chance to see him lecture, do so. His In Defense of Food is a great book, and much easier to read than lots of his other stuff.

Go Slow Food!

I think you managed to escape typo-free with this one. :-)

BTW, I'm also a fan of Fast Food Nation. Sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is.

I think it's a disgrace that they claim free range chickens are outside a lot of their lives when in-fact, as you stated, they are cooped up for most of their lives.

I keep a few chickens in my backyard, i don't eat the chickens, but i do eat the delicious, fresh, eggs they produce everyday. The difference in taste between supermarket eggs and my eggs is phenomenal. It's something i definitely think more people should do.

I will be finding and reading the books you recommended. Thanks for the interesting blog.

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