I finished The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, a few weeks ago, but I have needed time to distill my thoughts about it into a coherent review. I am still not sure what I am going to write, so we shall see what comes out. I talked quite a bit about the book to whoever would listen as I was reading it and soon after I finished it, but I found it difficult to summarize his points and to explain what it meant to me. Pollan covers a diverse array of issues centered around food production and consumption, exploring many different aspects without trying to make one single point overall. At this point, let me say that I highly recommend that you read the book yourself, as I am sure my review will not do it justice.
The omnivore’s dilemma is the question of what can and should I eat? Omnivores, including humans, are capable of digesting and obtaining nutrients from a wide variety of plants and animals, and thus we are faced with a choice of what to eat. Pollan’s premise is that our ability to answer this question has become obscured by the path food production has taken, and he sets out to explore the different ways in which we obtain food. He first goes in to gritty detail about industrial food production, including descriptions of visits to cattle feedlots and corn processing plants. In the next section, he breaks down the organic food production system, including both “industrial organic” and small-farm, self-sustaining “beyond” organic. Finally, he explores putting together a meal entirely from hunted and gathered ingredients.
In response to my post asking for questions to answer in my book reviews, bookchronicle asked me, “Did you find the book an engaging and quick read? Would you also consider it a well researched book?” My short answers are yes and yes. Pollan is a very engaging writer; I often did not want to put the book down, even when he was describing a feedlot or slaughtering chickens. I got the sense that he put a lot of time in to researching the things he writes about – and not just the sit in a library or at a computer kind of research. He actually bought a calf to follow it from birth to slaughter, he spent a week helping out at Polyface Farms, the self-sustaining organic farm, and he did his own hunting and gathering. He also presents many facts and numbers, all of which are backed up by a long list of references.
Also in response to my previous post, bybee asked me, “Do you think Michael Pollan’s discussion about the way we deal with food is fair? Does he make good suggestions about how we should eat? Are these suggestions realistic, doable?” One of the things I particularly liked about The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that Pollan is not pushing a single agenda. I felt that it was very much an honest exploration of the troubling question of “what should I eat?” Many of his words are a presentation of his own experiences and thought processes as he examines and analyzes a particular aspect of food production and consumption. I feel that it is “fair” because it is ultimately about his one perspective, based on his research and experiences, and I felt that this came through in the writing. He also does not always give answers to the questions he asks – he does not present things as “this is the way we should eat,” but rather, “here are some of the ramifications of different choices about what to eat.” For example, one question is whether industrial organic is a positive thing or not. There is no easy answer to this question, and Pollan does not try to provide one.
Pollan does give some suggestions, primarily about things he feels we should think about as we eat and make food choices. Particularly in the last section, he gets a bit philosophical, reminding us that we are in fact animals and part of a food chain, and that perhaps it is worthwhile to remember this fact every once in awhile. He suggests that with industrialized food it is too easy to become distanced from the source of our nutrients. I think these suggestions of things to think about are completely realistic and important. Another, more act-upon type suggestion that Pollan makes is that localized food production is perhaps a more sustainable approach than the current distributed industrialized food production. I agree with this suggestion, and I think it is realistic in the sense that the way food is currently produced is not sustainable, so we are going to have to start making changes. However, it is unrealistic in the sense that practically speaking, industrialized food is currently often cheaper than local food, and for many people all that matters is the amount they pay, because they simply cannot afford to pay the extra cost for local or organic food.
Finally, there is the question of how the book affected me. Chris asked, “Was there anything that stuck with you from this book? And are YOU an omnivore?” and maree asked “Did The Omnivore’s Dilemma change the way you look at food and its sources?” I found myself agreeing with Pollan’s perspective much of the time. I have always been sickened by processed foods (e.g. twinkies, fast food, anything with corn syrup, etc.) and his discussion of industrial food simply reenforced that feeling. I was not particularly aware of feedlots before, and his description has really stuck with me – perhaps solidified by the fact that shortly after reading that section, I went on a bicycle trip and passed right by a real live feedlot. I have been thinking about food somewhat differently since reading the book. I have for a few years enjoyed going to the farmer’s market to buy produce in the summer, but now I feel even more convinced that buying locally produced food is an important thing to do. His discussion of organic food made me feel both positive and negative about industrial organic – I think it is better than regular industrial, but ultimately will not be much more sustainable if it continues in the direction it is going. If I had the choice between a locally-produced non-organic peach and an organic peach from 1000 miles away, I would probably choose the local one. I think the description of Polyface Farms made the biggest impact on me. I had no idea that a farm with such self-sustaining, symbiotic relationships between animals was possible. I would feel completely morally comfortable with eating an animal from such a farm (I do not generally eat meat, however, since I feel that industrialized meat is not sustainable and cruel to the animals).
Most significantly, though, Pollan made me really think about food and what it means to eat and feed ourselves. We are part of a food chain, and I think it is important to remember that. What we choose to eat and how we choose to provide that food for ourselves (e.g. how we raise the animals or grains) has an impact on many things in the “natural” world (of which we are a part), not least of all our own health. I AM an omnivore, and I believe that eating whole foods rather than processed foods, and a wide variety of foods (not just corn-based products) is best for both the environment and our health.