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The Omnivore's Dilemma

jmstuart's picture

 Julia Stuart

Biology 103

Book Commentary


The Omnivore’s Dilemma


Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma presents two different topics related to food: the current industrial food industry, and the general human processes and histories related to the food we eat coupled with the act of eating itself. Michael Pollan examines the difference between three food chains, from the industrial to the pastoral to the personal. Tied to each are a different set of ethics and effects on both health and the environment. Pollan’s book encourages further thought into what makes an omnivore, and discusses the options of the modern eater. By following the “journey” of food, we learn a significant amount about the biology of our eating habits and really calls into question how Americans allow their food chain to be altered and manipulated.

The descriptions of the industrial food chain are easily the most vividly disgusting (and memorable) images in the book. The narrative follows the journey of one theoretical grain of corn from a monoculture farm in Iowa to an animal feedlot in nebraska and finally to a McDonald’s in California. I learned that food manufacture and transport accounts for fully 1/5 of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Also, the milage per calorie is incredible. Also, the food industry has very little transparency, which strikes the author as odd for something as essential and basic as food. This untraceable food chain adds to the problems of food contamination, spread of disease, and solution. I wonder how much certain food are tampered with. This reading is well supplemented by Fast Food Nation, a book by Eric Schlosser, which discusses the “taste” factories of the East Coast, which add small amounts of chemicals that mimic the idea of a certain food smell. This is part of why the fries taste so good at places like McDonald’s. Obviously, much scientific research and chemistry goes into creating what’s supposed to be a naturally-occurring element of our food.

The next part of the book is dedicated to the organic movement-both the industrial organic farms and local, grassroots organic farming. They both adhere to more naturalistic farming practices, but one is as mechanized and regimented as the regular industrial food chain. On the small side, Pollan focuses in on Polyface Farm in Virginia, which practices grass-based farming and intricate field rotations that encourage the interdependence and total use of resources seen on a well-planned farm. Also, it cuts the transportation food chain down very sharply by selling to people in the area and restaurants in the community. Otherwise, the purpose of organic is, in part, defeated. Pollan also elaborates on how eating organic is probably healthier in the long run. For example, the author discusses the biological importance of omega acids 3 and 6, which are lipids provided by animal consumption. Both are necessary, but eating only from the industrial food chain throws the proportions off kilter. This leads me to question how much we rally know about health and nutrition, because we’re still only discovering these intricate details of diet requirements, and also exploring how those were evolutionarily important. 

This approach of shortening the food chain also adds transparency. For the omnivore, food choice is one of the most important traits that comprise our eating habits. People should take the effort to be choosy about their food. The problem is that many government requirements for operations such as animal slaughter and agriculture price fixation are tilted in favor of large scale, industrial-type operations. The final food chain presented in the book is almost archaic, but definitely worth modern exploration. What would it take for us to prepare an entire meal by ourselves, without the assistance of the local supermarket? Details such as eating seasonally, food preservation, and hunting would suddenly become much more important. Also, you, as a eater, would have a direct hand in procuring everything that came onto your plate. While this is used in a more metaphorical fashion in the book, it certainly brings up an interesting point: how would our eating habits change if we were responsible to provide for ourselves? 

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was an incredibly interesting read. By incorporating his own experiences tracing, investigating, and final eating three representative meals becomes a lens to examine the role the biology of eating plays in society. Aside from a piqued interest in responsible and sustainable agriculture, this book reminded me of some of our class discussions based on the responsibility scientists have to get something “less wrong.” Also, how often does science have to be re-examined and tempered with societal pressures? When faced with a hungry populace, the solution that makes the most immediate sense is to produce as much food as possible for as many people as possible. While I would never advocate a different route than this, in the interest of getting it “less wrong”, perhaps there’s a way to re-localize and clean up America’s food industry. The first step to any change is awareness; in order to protect and preserve the basic tenets of being a good omnivore, America’s eating habits need to shift away from mass produced and towards a more accountable and reliable system.


Paul Grobstein's picture

human food: the tradeoffs in biological systems?

" in order to protect and preserve the basic tenets of being a good omnivore, America’s eating habits need to shift away from mass produced"

Makes sense, but ... presumably there is a reason for the shift toward "mass produced" and therefore something that would be lost if we shift away from it?