Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma
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The Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of the defining works of the modern alternative food movement. Like Fast Food Nation before it, it brings to light the questionable operations that underlie various facets of the food system, but it isn’t just another tell-all on industrial food. Pollan also looks into the organic movement, the local food movement, and the role of hunting and gathering. He draws connections between all the different systems and speculates on the significance of various methods for acquiring food.
As editor of Farm to Table Online, I should have read this book years ago, but because it is so foundational to our modern understanding of food, most of the principles are well known by any moderately informed locavore. I know most of the issues related to food production in this country, and the local food community is informed by Pollan’s book and others like it. It is part of the canon, as it were.
That said, I still feel like I learned a lot of new things by reading Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan tends to wax philosophical about the implications of various aspects of food, and while this habit seemed a little over the top at times, it did encourage me to see things in a new light. For example, instead of presenting us as the caretakers of corn the plant, Pollan makes a strong case for corn being the active agent in our current reliance on the crop. Giving up its ability to survive on its own, corn made itself so appealing to us that we would do all the work of reproducing it and eliminating its competitors. This view encourages you to rethink our relationships with all sorts of plants and animals. We have grown into many symbiotic relationships with all sorts of domesticated species, and it pays to remember that we as a species have evolved to rely on the existence of chickens, wheat, and cow’s milk.
Examining Food Chains
Most of us distrust industrial food, but the trustworthiness of organic foods is much less well-defined one way or the other. Despite the image being sold, Pollan unapologetically reveals the truth of organics (which is that they are grown in a system almost as industrial as conventional food, though with fewer pesticides and chemicals). And while he doesn’t try to condemn anyone or any system, he juxtaposes industrial organic with the system it was originally supposed to be: a small, ecologically balanced, family farm. This comparison doesn’t make industrial organic look all that great, except for that fact that it keeps large tracts of land from being sprayed with chemicals.
Unfortunately, this could make a lot of healthy eaters uncomfortable. We want to think that we are doing our part by buying organic versions of the foods we like to eat, but the dilemma is that we are still supporting an industrial system. Ultimately, Pollan’s book suggests that ignorance will allow corporate food to take advantage of us. We can tell them what we want, and they will simply repackage their products to assuage our need to feel good about ourselves. To truly make progress, we need to know what we are eating, and the four food chains in Omnivore’s Dilemma vary mainly in their length from production to consumption; the shorter the chain, the more sustainable, healthier, and tastier the food that came out of it.
In general, Omnivore’s Dilemma avoids passing one-sided judgement on the meals Pollan traces from production to consumption. The book maintains that certain models are unsustainable, but morality is left out, which I think is a good thing.
Accounting for Food
On the other hand, Pollan is obviously a bit of a foodie, and I think anyone who cares about delicious, spiritually fulfilling food is going to see problems with an industrial system and obviously prefer a system that lets food express itself. One of my favorite lines expresses Pollan’s belief that we ought to appreciate the cost of food in order to appreciate the food itself: “this labor- and thought-intensive dinner, enjoyed in the company of fellow foragers, gave me the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding myself: For once, I was able to pay the full karmic price of a meal.”
How often do we think about the real costs of feeding ourselves? Our modern food system likes to make it seem like we can be fed for nothing, and I think most people would prefer not to be reminded how much their existence costs the planet. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in a way, is a book about one eater discovering just how costly his own existence is and how little it can cost.
In the end, Pollan suggests that we would all benefit by knowing how we figure in our environment’s balance sheet. By being aware of what it takes to feed ourselves, and understanding the implications of being costly eaters, we might be motivated to minimize our impact. In the process, we’d also end up eating healthier, tastier food, which doesn’t seem like a bad trade to me.
The book goes from a journalistic piece digging into the realities of industrial food to a more personal story recounting the adventures undertaken in learning how to grow one’s own food and eventually, to hunt and gather a meal. This is a reflection of the food systems examined. The industrial food system requires research to navigate, though it is not meant to be navigated at all. The organic food system invites engagement, but only to an extent. The family farm offers nothing if you’re not going to get your hands dirty, but it doesn’t hide anything either. And the hunted and gathered meal goes out of its way to avoid being consumed. Similarly, Pollan’s book starts off looking in to industrial food, and ends up totally immersed in the hunt.
I genuinely liked the book, and it reminded me of a lot of things I had learned over the years. Additionally, it put things into context for me, whereas I had been forced to pick up pieces here and there from websites and blogs and various articles. The Omnivore’s Dilemma relates all of our food in one coherent story, drawing connections between industrial, organic, local, and hunted/gathered food that otherwise would remain unseen. Pollan also takes great pains to remind us that food is more than just the meal itself, but involves a long chain of people and stories, and that these people and stories are as much a part of its nourishing qualities as the meal itself. When we eat, we don’t just consume nutrients. We also consume the story of the food, incorporating it into ourselves as fully as the proteins and sugars making up its material existence. If that story is hollow or depraved, it will come back to haunt us. If the story is honest and told with integrity, the food will nourish us in ways nutrition alone can’t account for.
And what about the dilemma for which the book is named? In the end, as omnivores, what we eat is up to us, and the extent to which we want to figure out what’s good for us is the extent to which we will be able to eat what’s good for us. If we leave the job to someone else, they will take advantage of the fact that we can and will eat anything to make some money off of our health.
I guess being able to eat anything comes with the requirement to enjoy responsibly, for our own sake and our environment’s.
 Pollan, Michael (2006-04-11). The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (p. 9). Penguin. Kindle Edition.