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The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Thoughts from Rob King on Chapters 4 through 7

I re-read Chapters 4 through 7 of The Omnivore's Dilemma this week. Along with the content of these chapters, I'm struck by Michael Pollan's skill as a writer. The "participant observer" techniques he uses are remarkably effective. If you read his more recent book, In Defense of Food, I'm guessing you'll miss these entertaining first-person accounts.

I have just a couple of questions to share this week.

In the following passage from Chapter 4 (pp. 82-83), Pollan introduces the economic concept of an "externality."

"The $1.60 a day I'm paying for three meals a day here is a bargain only by the narrowest of calculations. It doesn't take into account, for example, the cost to the public health of antibiotic resistance or food poisoning by E. coli O157:H7. It doesn't take into account the cost to taxpayers of the farm subsidies that keep Poky's raw materials cheap. And it certainly doesn't take into account all the many environmental costs incurred by cheap corn."

An externality is a cost imposed upon or a benefit provided for others that is not priced in the marketplace. What effect would "internalizing" the cost of antibiotic resistence have on feedlot operations? Realistically, what kind of policy could be used to internalize this externality?

In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 6, Pollan describes the "national drinking binge" in the early nineteenth century that some have attributed to surplus corn production. He then goes on to say that, "The Alcoholic Republic has long since given way to the Republic of Fat." He attributes the obesity epidemic to our glut of corn. With the rapid rise of biofuel production, which is actually very similar to the process of making whiskey, the price of corn has risen rapidly and concerns have grown about conflicts between land use for food and for fuel. Could this dramatic change reverse the rise of obesity? Whether your response is "yes" or "no" how can we accurately trace the impacts of biofuels production through the complex "food system" we currently have.

Finally, I hope you're enjoying the fresh foods of early summer as much as I am. We've been eating lettuce from our garden almost every night, and we had fresh strawberries from the farmers' market for breakfast this morning. If the warm weather continues as expected, we'll be picking raspberries soon.

1 Comment

First, I wanted to say that I also love Michael Pollan's writing. I think he has the two ingredients necessary for a successful book: a compelling story to tell and love of language. A powerful combination.

What is our national eating disorder? When I first opened The Omnivore's Dilemma, I was struck by that phrase. I have often thought about whether we are becoming fat and toxic, and have worried for years about the societal aspects of nutrition related health problems, including obesity related problems, and the lack of education, awareness, and personal responsibility that helps create them.

Since reading Omnivore's Dilemma, I have come to question the ethics and morals of the food industry. Can't this industry derive profit from making us healthy and healthfully fed, rather than making us fat and sick?

A whole bunch of us can join the national eating disorder complicity club. In a sense, our lives hang in the balance that Michael Pollan encourages us to consider.

Andy