on August 11, 2007
In this comprehensive book, Michael Pollan presents many of the grisly details of the industrial food system which dominates North American society. While many readers may have encountered stories of animal abuse, genetically engineered foods, and irresponsible agri-business/ government partnerships, this book ties all the threads together in a somewhat bleak picture of current food market conditions. Alternately though, Pollan presents a variety of options that conscious consumers may choose to empower themselves in their culinary choices, while supporting local, sustainable farmers. The highlight of this book is the introduction to the innovative, post-modern farming techniques employed by Joel Salatin and others like him. This author presents a problem, and is refreshingly responsible enough to provide solutions.
This is the most basic culinary detective book. In modern America, Michael Pollan wonders what to eat: "... imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found it's way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost."
Of course most North Americans can't answer these questions in any self-satisfying way, so Pollan sets off on the case. He journeys through the belly of the food industry beast -- to the massive government-subsidized corn plantations of Iowa, the huge cattle feed lots and the slaughterhouses. He visits the plants where trainload after trainload of corn is refined into the chemical components of processed food, and then he takes his family to McDonalds.
Searching for alternatives to totally explore, Pollan visits large-scale organic plantations. He works for a spell on an organic family farm in Virginia, helping to slaughter the chickens for his next gourmet meal. And last he goes whole hog back to the hunter-gatherer days, searching for mushrooms and shooting a wild pig in the forests of Northern California.
The whole experience yields tons of great stories, and the kind of good common sense I can't resist quoting:
"A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximise efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which have historically served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. 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. Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such cruelty." (p. 318)
But aside from the politics of soil and animal abuse, Pollan ends up with some damn fine meals, eaten with friends he makes along the way:
"Was the perfect meal the one you made all by yourself? Not necessarily; certainly this one wasn't that. Though I had spent the day in the kitchen (a good part of the week as well), and I had made most everything from scratch and paid scarcely a dime for the ingredients, it had taken many hands to bring this meal to the table. The fact that just about all those hands were at the table was the more rare and important thing, as was the fact that every single story about the food on the table could be told in the first person." (p. 409)
on July 31, 2007
Or an even better question is 'what is dinner made of?'. Michael Pollan brings to us his journey to find the 'perfect meal'. In the process of his search, he debunks several myths about the industrial agriculture that produces the majority of food at your local supermarket. One of the more revealing discoveries is that buying 'organic' is pretty much the same as your ordinary industrial agriculture, sometimes grown right next to the regular supermarket foods.
While Pollan does go on to describe a meal entirely hunted and gathered (mostly but not entirely actually), he concludes to eat this way in our modern world is virtually impossible. So, we basically have no choice other than to eat what is available in the supermarkets and 'organic' food stores which after all hasn't decreased the average lifespan. Ultimately, while corn-fed animals may not be as 'clean' as grass-fed animals, it won't make much difference in how long you live.
The book is very well-written and Pollan's research is extensive. His mix of documented research and first-hand accounts is what makes the book so credible and insightful.
on December 23, 2008
The Omnivore's Dilemma is the product of a very talented investigative journalist (who also happens to be a good writer) tackling one of the most important issues facing N. American consumers - what's on their dinner plates.
The book isn't written as an "expose" of the food industry - Pollan isn't trying to grab you by your shirt collar and slap you around with information. And despite the lengthy discussion of the factory farm system, this isn't a vegetarian or vegan call to arms. Although he never actually states his position, it's fairly clear that Pollan is an omnivore who finds it defensible to eat animals raised on organic / natural farms who lived a good life and had a quick clean death. What he does not find defensible is eating animals - like the billions going through the factory farms - that did nothing but suffer for their entire existence before they reached our plates.
Pollan emphasizes several times the fact that it is incumbent upon the eater to truly look at, and make a conscious moral decision, about what he/she is eating. On page 312 he writes about the choice you have to make after you accept the evidence that an animal was tortured to get to your dinner table: You look away (and ignore the truth) - or you stop eating animals.
Aside from the moral problems associated with the factory farm system, Pollan is also great at discussing what is actually happening in this system. Listen to this description of the food given to cattle:
Around to the other side of the building, tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped tanks into which they pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplements. In a shed attached to the mill sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen beside pallets stacked with fifty-pound sacks of antibiotics - Rumensis and Tylosin. Along with alfafa hay and silage (for roughage), all these ingredients will be automatically blended and then piped into the parade of dump trucks that three times a day fan out from here to keep Poky's eight and a half miles of trough filled.
.... [corn kernels were] the only feed ingredient I sampled, and it wasn't half bad; not as crisp as a Kellog's flake, but with a cornier flavor. I passed on the other ingredients: the liquefied fat (which on today's menu is beef tallow, trucked in from one of the nearby slaughter-houses), and the protein supplement, a sticky brown goop consisting of molasses and urea. The urea is a form of synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas, similar to the fertilizer spread on a farmer's fields].
So the cows (whose bodies can only naturally tolerate grass) are eating antibiotics, steroids, liquefied fat, and natural gas? And I'm then giving this to my kids? Fat chance!
As I said, this isn't really intended to be a shocking wake up call. However, after reading 400+ pages of patiently researched material, there's no doubt you're going to be a lot more careful the next time you're at a supermarket. Great book on a very important topic.
on May 24, 2008
This book could be broken down into three parts. The first few chapters document the shocking state of our current agricultural industry and in particular the ecological costs of our massive overproduction of corn and the consequences it is having on the beef we eat. The middle portion is a first hand description of one farm in particular that has bucked the trend and still remained viable. This is then expanded into a more comprehensive look at the organic food industry and how it is evolving. Finally the author takes us on his own personal journey as he attempts to become a hunter/gatherer and ultimately prepare a meal in keeping with the philosophy set forth by the slow food movement.
The author is a journalist who I feel really attempts to look at both sides of the issues and does not come off as being too alarmist as many others have been when writing about this subject. In fact, as a life-long hunter, I found his discussion about the ethics of hunting and meat-eating to be one of the most balanced arguments I have read.
This book will definitely change the way you look at the food you eat and may even change your shopping habits, as it has mine. Pollan's other book "In Defence of Food" is a companion to this one and I strongly recommend reading both.
on June 13, 2007
This is one of the most important and thought provoking books I've had the pleasure (however scary) to read in a long, long time. Pollan traces the roots of four meals down to their component parts. You will never look at "high fructose sweetener" the same again, and the sight of vast fields of corn now fills me with grave concern. But more importantly, it has helped me understand the real cost of the food I eat. In a way that the 100 mile diet alludes to, but this is a far more in-depth look at the food chain and the perils of mono-culture.
It is also an excellent read. Well written, thoroughly researched, and interesting. The audio version is very well read by Scott Brick. I found myself getting to my destination and then sitting in the car listening to the book instead of getting out. But I ended up buying the hardback as well to have and re-read.
on April 16, 2008
Like An Inconvenient Truth, The Omnivore's Dilemma is a wake up call to the realities of the present day and a warning that our current lifestyles are unsustainable.
The Omnivore's Dilemma brought to mind another book--the classic, The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition)by John Steinbeck. Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath took place during The Great Depression. I recently re-read the book and was struck by how connected to the earth most Americans used to be.
In the past two hundred years, America has gone from a mostly rural population to a country where the majority of the nation lives in cities, suburbs or exurbs. In "the olden days,"people farmed, hunted and fished; they made their own clothing, food and shelter. People were attached to the land and to nature. In The Grapes of Wrath we see how many farming families in the Midwest were forced out of their homes. Through one character's experience, we are shown how the pain of leaving his beloved land and home was so devastating that it literally killed him.
Contrast that to how disconnected so many of us are to the food we eat, the environment and the welfare of animals today. We actually need a book to tell us where our food comes from!
I finished this book with a renewed commitment to growing my own vegetables and for purchasing as much food as I can from local farmers.
Author of the award winning book,Harmonious Environment: Beautify, Detoxify and Energize Your Life, Your Home and Your Planet
on July 24, 2011
Reading this book inevitably will forever change the way you think about the food you eat and buy for yourself and your families. While we eat for many different reasons, many of us don't necessarily know where what we feed ourselves comes from and the important implications; environmentally, ethically and economically. While somewhat tedious at times to read, i give it five stars because of the wealth of knowledge and the candid explanation of important implications found within its pages. Pollan has done brilliant work and i'm personally recommending this book (as well as one of his others which i've recently read; In Defense of food) to all my friends and family because i think creating awareness is powerful and the only way to incite change. While Canadian's food diets are different to american's in many respects, many have adopted a "fast few lifestyle" and disconnect with their food and our population (though perhaps to a lesser degree) share the plethora of diseases associated; high cholesterol, diabetes,cardiovascular issues. This book is about so much more than the fast food diet but i make the parallel as we see more and more conglomerate corporations introducing and pushing their products in foreign markets and as we see many of their citizens replacing traditional diets with western ones and emulating American lifestyles more and more, this book is relevant to most everyone regardless of nationality. If you care about the world we live in and your health and that of those around you, this book is for you.
on September 24, 2006
Reading this book is like taking a trip inside the food chain down to the atomic level. It is well researched and full of amazing facts. It has captivated me and taught me more than any single book ever had before. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in where the food we eat comes from.
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
Why do you eat what you do? How was it produced? If you can answer with more than the aisle of the supermarket you bought it from, well done. If you can’t, does that worry you? Is all food created equal and of equal health benefit? Is beef from a grass-lot the same as feed-lot, or vegetables grown industrially the same as organic? Do you know the answer to that? If not, does that worry you?
Michael Pollan argues it should worry us. Three principle chains of food sustain us, all of them linking one biological system, ourselves, with another, a patch of soil. Most of us, however, remain woefully ignorant of any sort of understanding of our food systems. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explores each of the three methods of food creation, industrial, organic, and hunter/gatherer, and examines the costs and benefits of each.
There are of course two sides to every story, and Pollan is careful to examine the benefits from cheaper food in terms of health and living standards. He’s right, and the animal rights movement sometimes unfairly ignores these benefits. The reality though is that most of us aren’t in a position to decide either way; we remain willfully blind to the reality, ignorant of what we eat and where it comes from. Perhaps the tradeoff is worth it, but we should at least be aware of the processes our food goes through, whether that means glass walls on slaughterhouses or increased education about industrial production. In the end, what you eat is a personal choice, but it’s one that should be made out of information, not ignorance.