The Omnivore’s Dilemma

— A Natural History of Four Meals — 

If you eat anything — or care about anyone who does, you owe it to yourself to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, designated as one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times Book Review. Michael Pollan, who also wrote The Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, and Cooked, challenged himself to follow the ingredients of a typical meal back to their sources — taking the process from “earth to plate.”

Initially dividing his subject into three main sections — industrial, pastoral (organic), and personal, Pollan’s research and experimentation uncovered two kinds of “pastoral”: “big organic,” and a more sustainable, if labor-intensive, polyculture based on grass (what farming used to be before it became “agribusiness”). What he found surprised him enough that he realized he had to be more discriminating in his demarcation points. Thus, a natural history of four meals, which turn out to be:

  • Fast-food: standard fare, usually including grain-fed meat and grain-oil-cooked “vegetables,” from the likes of McDonald’s
  • “Big organic”: foodstuffs that can be found at a Whole-Foods-type supermarket
  • Grass-fed: the variety of edibles (protein and non-protein) that comes from the kind of polyculture found on most independent family farms until the mid-20th century
  • Foraged: whatever a hunter-gatherer can scrounge from the surrounding environment

Asking himself what’s for dinner?, Pollan shows how the state of our food supply, our overall health, and our ability to feed ourselves, literally, has never been in worse shape. And those problems are linked to America’s national energy, resource, and security issues. They’re also implicated in global health and food concerns, environmental anomalies, and climate change. Everything is connected. If we examine the U.S. epidemic of childhood obesity, the push for ethanol to power our vehicles, the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics, the increasing numbers of food supply infections from E.coli to mad cow, we see some incredible relationships. Pollan starts with and can relate almost everything about our current problems in food, health, energy, environment, and security back to one plant: corn. Amazing. A-maize-ing.

But just what is the omnivore’s dilemma? Pollan credits Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist, for the title phrase, citing it as “a particularly sharp tool for understanding our present predicaments surrounding food” (the feeling that we need “expert help” to figure out a basic activity: what to eat).

“In a 1976 paper called ‘The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals’ Rozin contrasted the omnivore’s [organisms with digestive systems that allow them to eat anything] existential situation with that of the specialized eater, for whom the dinner question [Pollan’s opening line and challenge to himself: What should we have for dinner?] could not be simpler. The koala bear doesn’t worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner. The koala’s culinary preferences are hardwired in its genes. But for omnivores like us (and the rat) a vast amount of brain space and time must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential dishes nature lays on are safe to eat. We rely on our prodigious powers of recognition and memory to guide us away from poisons (Isn’t that the mushroom that made me sick last week?) and toward nutritious plants (The red berries are the juicier, sweeter ones). Our taste buds help too, predisposing us toward sweetness, which signals carbohydrate energy in nature [the substance our brains need to function], and away from bitterness, which is how many of the toxic alkaloids produced by plants [for their own protection] taste. Our inborn sense of disgust keeps us from ingesting things that might infect us, such as rotten meat. Many anthropologists believe that the reason we evolved such big and intricate brains was precisely to help us deal with the omnivore’s dilemma.”

So Pollan takes us on a journey through “the three principal food chains that sustain us today: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. Different as they are, all three food chains are systems for doing more or less the same thing: linking us, through what we eat, to the fertility of the earth and the energy of the sun…. As ecology teaches…, it’s all connected….”

A main theme in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is that “the industrial revolution of the food chain, dating to the close of World War II, has actually changed the fundamental rules of this game. Industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete reliance on the sun for our calories with something new under the sun: a food chain that draws much of its energy from fossil fuels instead.” This leads to unintended consequences. “Many of the problems in health and nutrition we face today trace back to things that happen on the farm, and behind those things stand specific government policies few of us know anything about,” including the farmers who are right in the middle of this system. Our disconnection from nature could be considered absurd, except for the fact that we all still live in it and must live with the consequences — or attempt to change the relationships.

While it may seem surprising to find in a book nominally about food, Pollan provides one of the most lucid and compelling explanations of changes in U.S. farm policy and the havoc wreaked by that on food, health, energy, environment, and security. New Deal farm policies actually did a pretty good job of stabilizing the farm economy that was in turmoil from unpredictable catastrophic weather fluctuations and the economic Great Depression of the 1930s, providing a modest system of support for food and energy security. But farming is hard work, demanding both multi-layered intelligence and physical effort, and independent farmers have never been a politically malleable or predictable lot. By the time of the Nixon administration, farmer independence was seen as a political problem. Earl Butz was unleashed to decimate the family farm, centralize control of the food supply (albeit in private hands — think Cargill and ADM), and foster an agribusiness economy based on fossil fuels. Corn, the self-sustaining grass teosinte that had evolved its own reproductive system to depend on human cultivation, was the means, and we have since experienced what Wendell Berry calls “the unsettling of America.” Because plant hybridization clips the capacity of farmers to grow their own seed (the seeds of certain hybrid plants do not germinate again), the “business” part of agri-business, not the farmer, became the beneficiary. Farmers who could not — or would not — make the leap went under and everyone moved to town.

Consequences have spread far into the food and energy arenas, both of which have now been enlisted to absorb the surplus corn produced in the environmentally depleting fencerow-to-fencerow monoculture promoted by the Nixon-Butz agriculture department and others. Pesticides and fertilizers were developed to use what was left of WWII chemical warfare agents. High fructose corn syrup, that pervasive multi-form ingredient in virtually every packaged food and the means by which most Americans now ingest two-thirds of their daily calories, is the refined product of a significant chunk of U.S.-grown corn. Ethanol production converts another batch of this mass-produced grain into fuel energy for motorized vehicles.

Pollan provides extensive data about the inefficiencies of such a system, from the basic cost of production (dual-rotation monoculture corn/beans depletes the soil and costs a farmer at least $1.00 per bushel more to produce than the market will pay, but agriculture policies keep production levels high), to the amount of energy or calories it takes to produce a unit of energy or a calorie of food. ‘Out of whack’ is a generous description of the result.

On the other hand, a well-functioning, grass-based, polyculture farm actually creates a virtuous circle, with little or no waste — and little or no disease. This kind of farmer sees a blade of grass as a photovoltaic cell: “The simplest way to capture the sun’s energy in a form food animals can use is by growing grass.” It’s a “self-contained world,” harking back to the “agrarian self-sufficiency that Thomas Jefferson celebrated.” In fact, some of us are still young enough to remember growing up on this type of small, sustainable farm. What “used to be a matter of course and a matter of necessity” now represents a “deliberate and hard-won” independent “politics and economics and way of life,” not something generally celebrated or considered viable. As Pollan states:

“It isn’t hard to see why there isn’t much institutional support for the sort of low-capital, thought-intensive farming Joel Salatin [self-proclaimed “grass farmer” and owner of Virginia-based Polyface Farms] practices: He buys next to nothing. When a livestock farmer is willing to ‘practice complexity’ — to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as they evolved to — he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and most strikingly, chemicals. He finds he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn’t designed to eat. This is perhaps the greatest efficiency of a farm treated as a biological system: health.”

Human and animal health, the generative capacity of the soil, the quantity and purity (or lack) of our water supply, the quality of the air we breathe, the diversity of species, our food security, our sources of energy, and our energy security: all have been put at risk by the way we currently produce and consume our food. There are many interesting and unexpected connections in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and we would do well to absorb their global ramifications as we contemplate Pollan’s provocative question: “What should we have for dinner?”

Author: Michael Pollan
Published: New York: The Penguin Press ©2006

Copyright ©2013 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos