The Omnivore's Dilemma The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2006
Pages: 464

To be honest, I hadn’t heard of The Omnivore’s Dilemma until I heard it referenced as something that White People Like in… Stuff White People Like. In a turn of events which is far too easy to ridicule, I read it.

Like many of its ilk, The Omnivore’s Dilemma taps a particular sort of (White?) guilt about the inevitable consequences of a modern, technologically-advanced culture. Think of it as Cat’s Cradle, but instead of world-ending weapons, we’re talking instead about the financial perils of agricultural monocultures, the oversaturation of corn as a foodstuff, and the heady thrill of having to shoot your own meat.

This book, by the apparently-notable Michael Pollan, seeks generally to look at not simply what we eat, but how and why it gets from its most basic components to the end results sitting on our collective table (and ultimately passing through our collective colon). Most illustrative, I think, is Pollan’s first section, which details the unlikely rise of corn as one of the most important foodstuffs in the American diet. Different from Old World cereals like wheat, corn (maize) is in just about everything we eat, from the high fructose corn syrup in our soda (actually, is the primary sweetener in just about everything that requires it, including such unlikely candidates as hamburger buns) to the starch in our cereals to the major source of calorie for most of the meat we eat. Americans have surpassed every other country in the world (including South American countries, which we usually think of as “corn” cultures) in the production and consumption of corn. Most tellingly, according to Pollan, farming corn is more or less a guaranteed financial loss, since it’s impossible to grow it for less than the market value. Farmers grow it only because the government subsidizes them to grow it.

This is all very fascinating, of course (though the agricultural history of the plant was genuinely new to me, I was aware of its extended reach in processed foods), but what I found most interesting was Pollan’s look at how corn has changed the face of ranching. Chickens, for instance, naturally eat grains such as corn, and are very efficient in terms of converting corn calories into protein (muscle) calories. Cows, however, the most American of American meat, is a ruminant1, extraordinarily adept at digesting grasses. Modern cows no longer eat grasses, as the picturesque notion of a Western rancher watching his cows graze over fields of clover has given way to large tenements of tightly-packed bovines living brief, brutish lives of corn-based feed, recycled animal products2. Since cows grown on corn tend to be sickly and diseased, they are also fed a continual diet of antibiotics and medicine.

This, I think, is the most politically-charged of the sections, and also the most difficult, since it has to weigh the obvious faults in the current agricultural scheme against the low price of meat—so low, even poor families can eat their fill. Compare this to the next section, that of organic food.

Pollan makes the distinction early on between “organic” as defined by the USDA—a ruling made late in the game of the organic movement, and often motivated by the wishes of Big Agra—and “organic” as defined by historical usage. There’s a list of list of allowable synthetic additives in USDA certified organic food, for instance. And “Big Organic,” as Pollan calls it, is that subsection of the organic movement which has adapted to using modern mainstream agricultural methods (mass production, mass transit, &c.) while staying to varying degrees true to the spirit of the movement. Think of Whole Foods and you’ll understand what Pollan means by “Big Organic”: Whole Foods doesn’t stock its shelves by buying up all the produce at local farmers’ markets, it forms deals with a few large distributors for consistent delivery of consistent quality. That means large-scale agricultural, at least amounts of preservatives for transit and shelf-life, and a certain degree of marketing legerdemain to produce what Pollan likes to call “Supermarket Pastoral,” this quaint notion that one can have a “pure” food experience, free of cruelty and preservatives and machinery, simply by shopping at the right franchises.

The other side of the coin, of course, is those farmers (some call themselves “grass farmers”) who grow grass-fed animals and insecticide-free crops by utilizing knowledge of the land. Their livestock live long(er), happier lives, roaming free on the pastures with personal masseuses3. This is all well and good, and certainly Pollan cites examples of such farmers/ranchers who have been extremely successful, but the conclusion is obvious: this will never scale up. Either we can all do our own tomato-growing and cattle ranching, or we have to submit such things to the efficient cruelty of mass production. Farmers markets will remain the occasional province of lucky few, and the sole province of an even luckier (and richer) few.

For his last section, Pollan embarks on a journey to grow, gather, and hunt a meal all his own. This, I feel, is the most pointless of the sections, since even Pollan seems to realize that while novel, it’s a ludicrous idea to propose as a standard.

I’m as culturally-savvy as the next guy; I’d probably do some shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s if there were any near me. I sympathize with those that mourn the plight of the modern beef cow; I’ll give the finger to Archer Daniels Midland and the rest of Big Agra for being crass and profit-driven. But I also realize that in any society with a sufficiently robust and automated agricultural system, the origins and process of boxed or prepared food is out of sight and out of mind. I truly liked Pollan’s look into the rise of corn and its current influence in American agriculture; to be honest, I would have been happy with a book solely about that. The rest of the book, with some exceptions, felt like a foregone conclusion: pure organic and self-gathered food are doomed to be ignored by any modestly-pragmatic person. “Big Organic,” while we may root for it as a slightly more eco- and health-conscious alternative to normal agricultural methods—and more importantly, one that is probably sustainable even on large scales—is to a non-negligible degree a triumph of marketing rather than agriculture or ethics.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a good book, but inconsistent. If nothing else, it’s a good jumping-off point for getting one’s mental juices flowing, though it’s superfluous chapters tend to drag it down. To Pollan’s credit, he manages to avoid the fawning, hippie-like pro-organic bent that I feared when picking it up; quite the contrary, in fact, he seems every bit the lucid pragmatist, and so manages to write a book worth reading even to those who have never bought into the Whole Foods trend.

  1. Cows are usually noted for their six four stomachs, or six four-chambered stomach, but the key to its digestive ability is the reticolurumen, the first stop in the animal’s alimentary canal, which is like a big sac of bacteria which help to digest the otherwise-indigestible.[]
  2. Though you probably heard about this during the Mad Cow Disease scare, it was common practice among by Big Agra ranching operations to supplement corn (which is bad for cows) with a protein slurry made from the liquefied bones, hooves, and remaindered parts of the previous generation of cows. When this was found to be highly-dangerous—to say nothing of silly and unethical—the practice was forbidden by the USDA. Currently, many operations get around it by feeding the remaindered cow parts to a different animal—chickens, for instance, on a neighboring poultry operation—and then taking the remaindered parts of the chickens and feeding them to the new generation of cows. Problem solved![]
  3. OK, that last one was made up. But the language of the “Supermarket Pastoral” is hardly less absurd[]
§3369 · November 30, 2008 · Tags: , , , , ·

2 Comments to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

  1. Conor says:

    This sounds thoroughly interesting. I haven’t read nearly enough of this pop bio-anth fare, but every time I stumble across a review of a new example, my interest is piqued.

    Thanks for the introduction and inspiration. And just in time for holiday shopping!

    Oh, and for the record, all these pop bio-anth books, in my opinion, suffer from the problem you identified: they’re heady, but "inconsistent" in their delivery, and often peter out quickly, having led in with their strongest material.

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