The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

Penguin, 2006 (2007 reprint), 450 pages, C$19.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0

I should preface this review by saying that I worked several summers on my uncle’s farm, and that I’m no stranger to that end of the food production chain. Several of the experiences described in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma aren’t so strange to me: I have moved cattle from one field to another, shoveled excrement, held on to carcasses being gutted and everything in-between the life of a farm hand from dusk to dawn. When I eat steak, I can tell you where it came from, how it was processed and why cows deserve to be eaten.

But few North-Americans can say the same about what they eat, and the nature of the modern food-processing industry is such that no one can vouch for the provenance of the stuff they eat. It’s that realization that led Pollan to embark on a major documentary project: Trace the origins of what we eat, and do so using the excuse of four different meals.

The first meal in an all-American McDonald’s lunch, and it’s the most hard-hitting part of the book. While many people (myself included) still harbor quaint notions of family farms, feeding North America requires an industry that is more about chemicals and overproduction than free-range cattle. In a few eye-opening chapters, Pollan describes entire agricultural landscapes taken over by the monoculture of corn, floating on virtual oceans of oil given how non-renewable substances are essential in pushing corn growing well beyond self-sustainability. In a few cogent passages, Pollan directly links government policies and subsidies to the corn-saturated diet of all Americans, a diet whose deleterious impacts are still being discovered. Corn has come to invade nearly every single aspect of food production, even in food that seemingly has nothing to do with corn: the modern chemical industry has found hundreds of derivative corn-based products, and a similarly robust effort to re-create artificial smells and flavors can seem to transform corn into just about anything. That’s the first of the many revelations in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the shocks keep piling up as Pollan tries to learn more about how beef is grown and raised on the gigantic meat factories of the Midwest. (There’s a limit to what he can find out when the biggest meat-producers forbid him from getting inside their factories.) Pollan’s first meal tastes of chemicals and oil in more than metaphorical ways as we’re left to contemplate a system engineered for cheap food, not necessarily for good or healthy or sustainable living.

But is there an alternative? Pollan’s second meal is assembled from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods supermarkets, but his research into “Big Green” suggests that the Organic movement is little more than a feel-good label on environmentally unsound practices. Better than McDonald’s, sure, but still nowhere near self-sustainability: on the way from the hippies to Whole Foods, the process was co-opted and corrupted by the very same corporations that Organic food was supposed to run against.

Pollan’s third meal is a little more encouraging. Wearing overalls for a week, Pollan finds himself on Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm, working for his food in a highly optimized ecosystem where few things are ever wasted. As luck had it, I ended up reading this section on the family farm, and my descriptions of the various ways in which Polyface recycles and reuses its ecosystematic components caused a number of favorable comments from family members better equipped to evaluate the process. Pollan finds some peace and contentment in putting together his third meal from the environmentally-sustainable Polyface products, but he’s more than ready to admit that the process doesn’t scale up: Trying to feed North America using a Polyface model would require a lot more land and farmers than we’ve got.

But the experience of cutting chicken necks on Polyface soon leads Pollan to his fourth meal, for which he intends to gather all the material himself from local sources, from killing a wild board to gathering salt from the ocean. His experiment doesn’t always go as planned (the salt from the San Francisco Bay seems too toxic to consume), but the digressions along the way include meditations on being a hunter, and the strange sub-culture of mushroom-gatherers.

But a bland recitation of Pollan’s four meals misses the point that this is a fantastic non-fiction exploration of food and how it’s tightly integrated with the environment, with economics, with society and with our own biology. This is investigative journalism at its finest, as Pollan not only finds the facts, but manages to present them vividly. The Omnivore’s Dilemma has a nearly perfect narrative drive (the only exception being Pollan’s chapter-long exploration of vegetarianism, which isn’t something in which I’m terribly interested) and plenty of jumping points for personal inquiry.

I found myself wondering, for instance, whether there was an appreciable difference between Canadian and American diets: given the role that US sugar subsidies have played in promoting the use of high-fructose corn syrup in just about every facet of American food; can there be other differences between Canadian and US food? Despite its climate, is Canada closer to food self-sustainability than the US?

But chances are that everyone will find themselves looking at food differently after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Going to the supermarket becomes a different experience once you can picture the oceans of corn that are distilled into making up a significant fraction of what’s on the shelves. Ingredient labels become fascinating. Processed food become less appealing. Heck, even a locally-grown stalk of broccoli is somehow ennobled by Pollan’s book.

It helps that Pollan isn’t quite as strident as other food writers (such as Susan Powter, for instance) in convincing us to change our rotten ways. Most of his argumentative power comes from implication. Environmentalism may be an unarguable conceptual virtue, but it’s more sobering to consider that the end of cheap oil will have a profound impact on our food supply. Self-sustainability means planning for the long term, and our food supply chain in its current form definitely isn’t built to last.

Good non-fiction is always a pleasure to read, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma goes beyond that to become a mesmerizing experience, filled with revelations and questions. It will spur you to learn more (Pollan’s own follow-up In Defense of Food was written partly to answer some of the most nagging questions left by this book) and maybe even nudge you gently toward more responsible lifestyle choices. Even, especially, if you’ve never worked on a farm.

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