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Omnivore's Dilemma

xhan's picture


Michelle Han
Professor Grobstein
December 17, 2009
Book Comentary-The Omnivore’s Dilemma
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes about how our food is grown -- what it is, in fact, that we are eating. There are three parts to this book. The first section discusses industrial farming; the second, organic food, both as big business and on a relatively small farm; and the third, what it is like to hunt and gather food for oneself. I love the way Pollan introduces the idea of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety. The Koala doesn’t’ worry about food-he just chews eucalyptus leaves. Humans however, have greater dilemmas. Pollan believes that the way we eat represent sour “most profound engagement with the natural world” (89). He is appalled by modern industrial food production, and how it separates us from the sources of our food. He looks at three principal food chains: Industrial, Organic, and Hunter/Gatherer and has a meal from each-- a cheeseburger and fries from McDonald's; roast chicken, vegetables and a salad from Whole Foods; and grilled chicken, corn and a chocolate souffle from a sustainable first section is a wake-up call for anyone who has ever been hungry. In the United States, Pollan points, out, everything we eat comes from corn and oil. Although we may not actually consume petroleum, almost everything we eat has used enormous amounts of fossil fuels to get to our tables. Oil products are part of the fertilizers that feed plants, the pesticides that keep insects away from them, the fuels used by the trains and trucks that transport them across the country, and the packaging in which they're wrapped. We're addicted to oil, and we really like to eat.
Although oil underlines Pollan's story about agribusiness, but corn is the main focus. American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even farmed fish. But that's just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills. "Tell me what you eat," said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, "and I will tell you what you are." We're corn. Each bushel of industrial corn grown, Pollan notes, uses the equivalent of up to a third of a gallon of oil. Some of the oil products evaporate and acidify rain; some seep into the water table; some wash into rivers, affecting drinking water and poisoning marine ecosystems. The industrial logic also means vast farms that grow only corn. When the price of corn drops, the solution, the farmer hopes, is to plant more corn for next year. What remains controversial is that while farmers earn less, there's an over-supply of cheap corn, which means that they must find ever more ways to use it.
This highlights another potential problem: Is eating so much corn good for us? If not, how would we compensate or find ways to substitute corn? Pollen argues, “We've lost touch with the natural loops of farming, in which livestock and crops are connected in mutually beneficial circles” (188). The ‘wholesale adoption of artificial manures would destroy the fertility of the soil, leave plants vulnerable to pests and disease, and damage the health of the animals and people eating those plants. Moreover, the short-term boosts in yield fertilizers could not be sustained; since the chemicals would eventually destroy the soil’s fertility, today’s high yields would “rob the future” ( 221).
Pollan also uncovers organic industry in this book. He shows that while organic food as grown in popularity, its producers have adopted many of the methods of industrial agriculture, losing sight of the organic movement’s anti-industrial roots. According to Pollan, “the inspiration for organic was to find a way to feed ourselves more in keeping with the logic of nature, to build a food system that looked more like an ecosystem that would draw its fertility and energy from the sun. To feed ourselves otherwise was “unsustainable,” a word that’s been so abused we’re apt to forget what it specifically means”(183). In the next section, Pollan discusses the alternatives to industrial farming. He spends a week at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley, a farm that works with nature. Salatin calls himself a grass farmer, though his farm produces cows, chickens, eggs and corn. But everything begins with the grass: The cows nibble at it at the precise moment when it's at its sweetest and are moved from pasture to pasture to keep the grass at its best height. Everything is done quickly and humanely, even slaughtering in the open air. Compared to the way cattle are fattened and slaughtered in meat industry feedlots and slaughterhouses, this appears to be a reasonable alternative.  In the final section, Pollan attempts to prepare a meal using only ingredients he has hunted, gathered, or grown himself. He recruits assistance from local foodies, who teach him to hunt feral pigs, gather wild mushrooms, and search for abalone. He also makes a salad from his own garden, bakes sourdough bread using wild yeast, and prepares dessert from cherries in his neighborhood.
In my opinion, the tile The Omnivore’s Dilemma captures a struggle that humans battle with on a daily basis. From “what should we have for dinner”, to “what color shoes should I buy?, how do humans choose between the countless options available, and what ultimately dictates the choice they make? Does the myriad of options make our decisions more difficult? Moreover, in terms of food, are the choices we make that different from another-if everything comes from corn one way or another-aren’t we just consuming some version of corn or corn-related product? Also, using corn in large quantities because it is cheap-while we may benefit from this in the short term-what are the implications of this in the long run and what alternative solutions can we find to limit the negative effects of the over-consumption of corn?
Works Cited
1.      Pollan , Micahel. The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  New York: Penguin Group.  2006.



Paul Grobstein's picture

too many choices?

"Does the myriad of options make our decisions more difficult?"

With regard to food? to mate choices? to friends? to health care providers? to political systems? to religious beliefs? Would we prefer it otherwise, in all cases?, in some? Why?