Review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Readers of this blog know that the books I choose to write about are books that I personally have read. I don’t always read the latest releases. It takes me a while to find some books. Such is the case with this book, which was originally published back in 2006.
I’m not sure what drew me to this book, besides great reviews. I didn’t particulary like the title. And the subtitle wasn’t any more illuminating about what was inside. In fact, the title didn’t make sense to me until I had finished the book.
The title Omnivore’s Dilemma, as I understand it now, refers to the debate over the pros and cons of including meat in our diets. It also refers to the dilemma we face in trying to find the right balance of fair and humane treatment of the animals that we eat against the growing demand for food.
The four meals in the subtitle refer to the following: A fast food meal of hamburgers and fries, an organic meal from an industrialized organic farm, a purely grass fed animal meal, and a hunter and gather meal consisting in part of wild pig and wild mushrooms.
Don’t let that description scare you away. The meals are simply the end of a journey that Michael Pollan takes the reader on. He buys a steer and attempts to follow the steer from its birthplace to his dinner plate. In the process you get to visit behind the curtains of the food industry. He goes to work on a farm and personally kills a chicken that he eventually has for dinner. He hunts for and shoots the wild pig that he ultimately serves for dinner. Yet that description still does not do justice to the wealth of information that this book provides.
When you go to the supermarket and purchase a pound of ground beef or a chicken breast, you have no idea how industrialized the process has become. Feeding 250,000,000 Americans daily requires a lot of cows, chickens, pigs, and turkeys. This industrialization of our food has many negative ramifications both for the animals and the environmnent. From the overproduction of corn to the overuse of chemical fertilizers, we are heading down a path that will have long term negative cosequences unless we make changes now.
The pestcides and chemical fertilizers we use find their way into our diets not only from the foods themselves but from those same chemicals getting into the water tables. Obesety in America is partly due to the overuse of corn derived sweetners such as high-fructose corn syrup. That same overproduced corn is fed to animals that weren’t designed to eat it. The process of growing only corn has also eroded the soil to where it’s almost unusable for anything else.
So what’s the solution. The author gives us the solution, or at lest a possible solution, when he describes the perfect farm, the Polyface Farm. This section alone is worth the price of the book. Here he describes a farm where every aspect of the food produced is well thought out with consideration for both the environment and the animals. Basically it is a farm where the cows are allowed to graze on grass. Once the cows are done with one section they are moved to another section of grass. When they leave, the chickens are brought it to eat the larvae and grubs left behind in the cow’s manure. I know this doesn’t sound too appetizing, but trust me the process results in the best outcome for everyone involved. Problem is you can’t reproduce it on a large scale. More animals requires more land and more labor which raises the price and difficulty. Thus the dilemma.
Another solution is to go with a strictly organic vegetarian diet. But here again there are problems. The author points out how the animals left behind would most certainly meet a fate worse than what they now face. He gives the example of there being some ten million domesticated dogs but fewer than 10,000 wild wolves.
The real solution to the problem is to eat locally produced food that does not come from an industrial farm. It’s possible.
Michael Pollan takes what could be a dry subject and makes it highly entertaining and informative. This should be required reading by everyone, especially if they work in goverment. Read this book. It will change the way you eat. I’ve already switched from regular eggs to buying only cage free, hormone free, organic eggs.
I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve already put one of his earlier books on my must read list, The Botany of Desire. If he can make food this interesting, I can’t wait to read about flowers.