Book Review – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

If you could interview your food, what would it say? As a journalist Michael Pollan attempts to give a voice to what we eat: That is to say, he explains what food really is, where it comes from, and what it can do for us. The Omnivore’s Dilemma expounds on fast food, big organic food, local food, and foraged food, identifying the resources, causes, and effects of each one.

Devoted to the scientific, while valuing the personal significance of food, Pollan reveals not only the corn behind our food, the government behind the corn, the corporation behind the government, but also investigates the possibilities for eating that can bring us back to earth, and everything in between. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is our fascinating predicament; written for those who care about what they eat, it presents us with an array of menus, encourages us to eat, and to eat in good conscience.

It begins with corn. Not corn on the cob, but corn in a box, or corn in a Happy Meal bag. Corn has apparently invaded our supermarket, culture, and bodies. As Pollan puts it, “How this peculiar grass, native to Central America and unknown to the Old World before 1492, came to colonize so much of our land and bodies is one of the plant world’s greatest success stories. I say the plant world’s success story because it is no longer clear that corn’s triumph is such a boon to the rest of the world, and because we should give credit where credit is due. Corn is the hero of its own story, and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest that we have been calling the shots…there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us.”

There are a few people who benefit from the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually in America. They are the owners of corporations that genetically engineer the corn, and who process the corn. The farmer earns only four cents on the dollar for what his corn is eventually turned into. The industrialization of our food depends on the enormous production of corn at extremely cheap market prices. Taxpayers support corn from their pockets, and pay for it with their health.

The easiest way to explain corn’s role is financially. Starting in 1972, during Nixon’s rule, secretary of agriculture Earl Butz addressed the rising cost of food by simplifying the agricultural system. Rather than encouraging farmers, government subsidies went instead to corn, paying money per bushel of corn produced rather than the size and diversity of a farm. Since then, the production of corn has skyrocketed, and the cost has plummeted. Farms have become corporate endeavors, rather than family occupations; the government has become strongly influenced by corn corporations; and the health of the population has flared into an obesity epidemic.

Today it costs $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn. The market pays $1.45 for that bushel. “The market” is primarily Cargill and ADM, that, combined, buy one third of the 10 billion bushels. The government pays the rest, though it is barely enough to sustain a farmer. Many, if not most, are in debt, and some take on second jobs. The farmers cannot be said to really benefit from the flood of subsidies — $5 billion a year for corn. Rather, it is Cargill, the biggest corporation in the world, that reaps enormous profits from the massive yearly surplus. A typical Iowa corn farmer sees only four cents on the dollar for corn sold in the supermarket.

To understand how farmers  — “the most productive humans who have ever lived” — who each raise enough food to feed 129 people, can be going broke, one has to look at what happens to corn before it enters the field, and after it leaves. Corn is especially inviting for genetic modification because of its simple reproduction patterns. Corn hybrids can be drought resistant and insect resistant, and, of course, are modified for optimum yield per acre. Natural variation is eliminated, so one cornfield contains thousands of identical plants that grow straight up to the sky. This is called monoculture, and it is effective because the soil is fertilized and sprayed annually. Although this industrial seed corn is expensive, it produces an incredible amount of corn. This is not always a boon to the farmer, however, because the more corn that is raised, the lower the selling cost.

Still, why does the farmer only get 4% of the retail value? The answer is that the buyers of corn are specialists in processing corn into an incredible range of products. The technological and industrial costs soak up a lot of the price of a $2.29 frozen dinner of corn-fed pigs and mashed potatoes (made with corn). Six billion of the ten billion bushels of corn are invested in animal rearing. Pollan visits a steer confinement, and actually purchases a cow, so he can be more connected with his study. He finds the cattle are practically all sick from the diet of corn, which they are incapable of digesting (the cow’s stomach is designed for grass). Since corn is cheap, animals that eat corn produce cheap meat.

In the end, including fertilizer, transportation, and milling, it takes an enormous amount of oil to reach a final product. As a kind of demonstration, Pollan took his family to McDonald’s. It took 1.3 gallons of oil to produce the 4,510 calories his family consumed. If the corn had been unprocessed, there would have been enough grain to fill and overflow from the trunk of his car (his calculations and estimate). You might say, “B t there’s no corn on the McDonald’s menu.” Not exactly, but scientists in food labs have discovered ways to make cheap corn into various types of “food.” The soda is 100% corn syrup. The milk shake is 78% corn. Chicken nuggets, 56%. The cheeseburger (remember the corn-fed animals), 52% corn.

This quick-and-easy meal has a hidden cost, and it is not the free meal that Pollan is looking for. In his search for a menu that gives as much back to the earth as it takes, he studies the organic food movement. His evaluation is that organic doesn’t mean what it used to. The federal standardization of the word organic doesn’t mean sustainable. One could think of it as a struggle between what he calls, “Big Organic” and “Small Organic.” Both types of producers are competing for the same market, but the Big Organic farms benefit from more relaxed standards, because they are capable of a greater output (they have more machines, more equipment for packaging, etc.).

“Could a factory farm be organic? Was an organic dairy cow entitled to graze on pasture? Did food additives and synthetic chemicals have a place in processed food? If the answers to these questions seem like no-brainers, then you too are stuck in an outdated pastoral view of organic. Big Organic won all three arguments.” The two key requirements for organic labeling are: no synthetic fertilizer, and no synthetic pesticide. Organic foods are thus more environmentally sound, but really, as the example of a bagged lettuce shows — 57 calories of oil are used in making one calorie of food — “the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable and, yes, unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”

Pollan’s research leads to a week-long stay Polyface Farm in Virginia. Here he meets Joel Salatin, a grass farmer, whose farm is an example of local and sustainable food. The cows eat the grass, the chickens eat the worms from the cow manure, they both work to fertilize the ground, and the farm is essentially a self-sustaining meat and egg producing “factory.” The animals become producers on the farm, and seem happy to do it. Pigs are used to compost manure and clear underbrush. Reading about the farm, it seems strange that Joel’s methods aren’t implemented around the country. Government regulation might be the reason for that. “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm.”

Joel calls it a “freedom of food,” the right to choose what we eat without federal standards. Indeed, such strict federal regulations wouldn’t be needed if mass-produced meat weren’t so prevalent. Sustainable food is being marginalized. It is clear that local food is threatened by government regulations. Beginning with the corn policy, that subsidizes per bushel, driving the production of corn up, the cost down, and farmer into debt, and ending with requirements like a processing plant must provide a restroom for federal inspectors (something small producers can’t reasonably afford).

Before he pursues his most ambitious meal (the foraged dinner), Pollan reflects the ethics of commonplace food. He most notably questions the eating of animal products, particularly those produced by conventional means, those the USDA supports through its policies. “This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.” He becomes a vegetarian, contemplates his place on the food chain, and emails Peter Singer.

In the same way he concludes that corn has out-evolved humans, to benefit from us, he applies evolution to the modern predicament. If humans can, and are, inclined to eat meat, it is not unethical to do so, as long as the animals do not suffer when raised. This means Joel Salatin’s meat is acceptable, since he witnessed “animals” who were happy “being animals,” but supermarket cuts are not. Hunting, since the only meeting of animal and Pollan is as brief as it takes the animal to die from a bullet, is also an ethical way of obtaining meat; as he puts it “isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature?”

His journeys hunting mushrooms and hunting pig in California are more of a personal narrative than scientific or journalistic research. Since he is inexperienced in foraging/hunting for his own food, the narrative is a decent how-to guide, as well as a report on what the experience is like. The experience is long, stressful, and a testament to how a “free meal” is really difficult to come by. He calls it the “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving,” and, with his helpers and family around the table, the experience becomes something that can be physically shared.

The lesson is that by being connected with food, and in valuing stories of where food comes from, we can enjoy our food. He does not stress the need to change what we eat, but only to be conscious of our food. “Without a need for fast food there would be no need for slow food, and the stories we tell at such meals would lose much of their interest.” Pollan understands that wherever we’re headed, our stomachs are coming with us, and that shouldn’t make us lose our appetites.

Elias Simpson

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


One Response to “Book Review – The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan”

  1. Elias Simpson, Contributing Writer : Blue Planet Green Living on December 1st, 2009 4:04 pm

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