From boar to corn and back again
A review of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t just a book — it’s a journey. The author, Michael Pollan, sets off to explore the titular omnivore’s dilemma, which can be briefly summarized as “what should we have for dinner”. He divides the book into four sections (the “four meals” from the subtitle), wherein each section explores a different food chain via narrative. In the first section, the author explores the modern industrial food system by following the life of a cow from birth to slaughter. In the second, he explores the emerging production of organic-industrial foods by tracing the historical development of the organic movement and the term “organic foods”. His penultimate section explores Pollan’s experience on Joel Salatin’s “Polyface Farms”, which represents the organic locavore system that Pollan advocates. And in the final section, the author discusses his own attempt at creating a hunted and gathered meal.
As the reader may have gathered from having read either of my previous reviews (Nudge and The Confidence Game), I appreciate the power of a narrative structure in non-fiction books. Pollan pulls this off better than most because he commits himself to telling a story and then supplementing the narrative with outside evidence and data. With the possible exception of the first section, each section’s narrative provides the context in which the facts are relayed. The narratives aren’t simply stories or anecdotes tacked on; they are the driving forces for their respective sections.
Corn corn corn. That’s essentially how Michael Pollan begins his examination the agro-industrial complex which creates the modern American diet. He talks about how we eat corn even if what we’re eating wouldn’t appear to have any corn in it. The most recognizable culprit is HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), but Pollan lists a plethora of other ways corn has snuck into our diet. It’s actually possible to test the amount of corn that people eat by testing the ratio of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in a person’s hair (Pollan gets much deeper into the explanation). The results of this testing led Todd Dawson (a professor at UC Berkeley who pioneered this research) to summarize modern Americans as “corn chips walking”. Wow.
In his second section, Pollan dives deep into the story of the organic farming movement. He ties together organic farming and the 60s counter-culture, referring back to the military-agro-industrial complex he touched on in the previous section. But this section isn’t an exaltation of the modern organic movement (which he snidely refers to as “industrial organic”) as much as it is a story of fall from grace. Pollan recounts the corruption of the organic movement by agro-industry, culminating in the purchase of Cascadian Farm by General Mills. Although not outright hostile to the modern organic industry per se, the author does end up criticizing the the movement for not sticking to its original intentions.
Which brings Pollan to the agricultural model he himself advocates for: Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm model. While the first two sections described narratives that were largely impersonal, in this section the author discusses his own experience with traveling to and living on the farm. At Polyface, Pollan learns about Salatin’s vision of farm-as-ecosystem, where the cycles of production mimic the cycles of nature that Salatin observed. Cows eat grass and produce manure, then chickens remove flies larvae from the manure and spread it around, thus creating a natural fertilizer for the plants. In this way Polyface Farms breaks away from the modern reliance on the Haber-Bosch process to synthesize artificial fertilizers and allows Salatin to diversify his output. Pollan seems enamored with Salatin and the farm, and his experience with Polyface Farm seems to have shaped his perspective on where modern agriculture should go.
Pollan’s last section is about the oldest system of food collection: hunting and gathering. In this section, Pollan ends up making a vegetable salad from his own garden (which in my opinion is rather cheating, considering that gardening is more agriculture than gathering), freezing his butt off catching abalone, gathering multiple types of mushrooms, hunting wild boar, baking bread from wild yeast (but dough from farmed wheat), and making a pie from cherries he urban gathered. He attempts to isolate salt he gathers from the saltlands of the Bay Area and ends up catching abalone as well, but the salt ends up being too polluted to be edible and the abalone must be eaten at once. This section actually made me feel something I’ve never felt before: the urge to go hunt something. I am not a violent person, and I’d hardly understood the appeal of the hunt before. I’ve never been morally opposed to hunting (after all, a hunted boar gets treated significantly better than a pig in the modern agro-industrial complex), but I’ve just never understood the appeal. Reading Pollan’s account, however, made me crave the whole hunting experience in a way I never have before.
Overall I found Pollan’s book to be compelling, although I disagree with some of his conclusions. He seems to wholeheartedly endorse locavorism, without having discussed the many costs (especially reduction in access to out-of-season fruits and vegetables). On the other hand, his analysis of the treatment of mammals in the agro-industrial economy has reaffirmed my stance against the over-consumption of mammal meats. Additionally, his long-winded discussion of corn has reminded me of my commitment to reduce my consumption of overly processed sweets that contain high fructose corn syrup. I can see now why Pollan’s book was and continues to be so influential. His clear writing style is both persuasive and informative, and his talent as an investigative journalist really shines through here. For those who might be interested in Pollan or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I would highly advise checking out the docu-series “Cooked” on Netflix. It’s very well produced and gives you a taste of the kind of insights and narratives you can expect when reading a Pollan book.
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If you have any questions or recommendations for books to read and review, feel free to comment here or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, look out for my next review: “The Tao of Pooh” and “The Te of Piglet” by Benjamin Hoff. Thanks for reading and have a great day!