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Book review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma August 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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If you haven’t yet read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (aka the Foodie Bible), get your nose out of your bag of Kettle Chips and go pick it up. Books like this are made for people like you.

Pollan’s project is to trace the food chains behind four meals: the fast-food meal, the “big organic” meal, the grass-fed pastoral meal, and the hunted/gathered meal. In the process he fascinates us with descriptions of corn sex and cowpatties in a way that only someone truly in thrall to the natural world could. We shake our heads at the immense impact on our food of the minor players in the story: Fritz Haber (who invented the process for fixing nitrogen in fertilizer), Baron Justus von Liebig (who simplified soil fertility into three little letters, NPK), and Earl Butz (Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture, who set up the modern farm subsidy framework that enables us to eat so cheaply). We live the food chain side-by-side with Joel Salatin, hero of grass-based rotational grazing; Angelo Garro, hunter, wine-maker, and foodie extraordinaire; and #534, a steer Pollan bought to gain insight into Confined Animal Feeding Operations. To Pollan’s credit, not a single anecdote is superfluous; every character and subplot both engages and informs.

However, OD is much more than just a vivid representation of food production from many different perspectives. It is a call to action – to wake up and educate ourselves about the food we eat. Further, while Pollan refrains from urging us to use our newfound knowledge to drop our Chicken McNuggets in favor of delicacies like the Wild East Bay Yeast Levain in his hunted/gathered dinner, it’s pretty clear that he thinks that’s what anyone with any real gustatory sensibility or social conscience would do. Some call that foodie elitism; others call it good taste or good sense. A more serious critique often voiced against Pollan is that even if everyone wanted to heed his advice, only he and his Slow Food friends could afford to. And even if everyone could, does the earth have enough resources to produce food without the space-saving advantages of conventional agriculture? Pollan only lightly touches on these issues, but the virtue of OD is that it has succeeded in sparking this vital debate.

Similarly, Pollan is more suggestive than definitive when addressing the animal welfare concerns and environmental consequences of the food systems he investigates. He openly rejects utilitarianism, so he’s not in the business of meticulously weighing the costs and benefits of alternatives. This leaves the reader a bit vague about what values he’s relying on to make the judgment that we should change the way we eat. His tone hints at a mishmash of pastoral idealism, skepticism about corporate America and even capitalism itself, and (despite his disavowal) utilitarianism. If you’re looking for a more rigorous analysis of the issues that follows a strictly utilitarian calculus, Singer and Mason’s The Way We Eat, published the same year as OD, would be a better choice.

What makes OD still worth the read is precisely that Pollan is not a philosopher like Singer (or a PETA advocate, or a health nut). He’s an omnivore like most of us – who even occasionally gives in to fast food! – who has just thought a little more deeply about what we’re doing when we eat.



1. Guillaume - September 21, 2009

The biggest challenge I have with OD is Pollan’s biased writing style. He presents a lot of facts in his book, but his choice of words is a clear reflection of what he thinks of the whole subject, even while he is still laying out the facts. As a result, I constantly ask myself whether the facts he chose are really facts or merely the type of biased data that either of the extremists (i.e., PETA vs. the meat industry) commonly use as rhetoric weapons in this matter. Contrary to what the author of this blog concludes, I actually think that it’s pretty obvious where Pollan stands in this whole debate and he has as clear an agenda as anybody else.

2. Book review: Eating Animals « From Animal To Meat - April 22, 2010

[…] Foer asks tough questions about the purportedly humane alternatives. Unlike Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who uncritically champions small-scale, back-to-nature farming, Safran Foer examines these methods […]

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