Omnivore’s Dilemma

First, some history. Back in 2001 Hubby brought home a New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan had written about corn and the effect it is havingAmerican diets. I read it, was sufficiently shocked, and started reading ingredient labels. A anti-corn syrup activist was born. I have changed my diet (and my family’s) significantly in the past 7 1/2 years: I make my own bread, we limit the cereal and snack intake, we only have soda rarely. Aside from that article, the other motivators for food change over the years have been Fast Food Nation (which Hubby read; he said I probably couldn’t stomach the slaughtering chapters) and Crunchy Cons. We rarely eat at fast food (not never, though I do loathe McDonalds these days), and we try our best to buy local, especially when it comes to food. (Warning: this is one LONG review. Sorry.)

So this book, for me, was not so much a revelation as a confirmation. I can — and should — take the next step, take our food awareness to a slightly higher level (even if that means, much to C’s distress, getting rid of chicken nuggets and hot dogs and mac-and-cheese in a box).

The book is divided up in to three parts: Industrial, Organic, and Foraging, where he follows four meals from the beginning through to eating them. In industrial, he follows corn through corn-fed steers being “processed” to eating at McDonalds. If you read nothing else out of this book, read this section. Please. The only way we’ll even remotely begin to change the hold of industrial agribusiness has on this country is if more people know. (At one point, Pollan writes that the best way to change things would be to require glass walls on all slaughterhouses. Then, the public would be forced to acknowledge what goes on in those places in the name of cheap beef.)

The organic section was the one that I found most interesting. Pollan’s ultimate conclusion is that big organic (Whole Foods, Trader Joes, what you get at the supermarket) isn’t a whole lot better than industrial agriculture. I found this somewhat surprising. But, he visited farms and feedlots, and was unimpressed with the organicness of it all. Sure, they didn’t use pesticides or antibiotics, but the vegetables were still being picked by immigrant workers and the animals were still living in overcrowded conditions. Not exactly environmentally healthy, even if there is an “organic” stamp on it. (He also spends a lot of time talking about USDA regulations. If you can read this book and not end up angry at the USDA, I’ll be impressed.)

The second part of the organic section is Pollan’s ultimate ideal. He spent a week at Polyface farm, run by Joel Salatin. This man is an impressive farmer. He considers himself a”grass farmer“, rethinking how he raises cows, chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Everything is eco-friendly, local and interconnected. It’s an amazing place (it almost sounds too good to be true), and it made me wish for such a place closer to me (either that, or that I still lived in the DC area so I could pop down for a visit). It also made me realize that even though I buy local, I haven’t visited the farms where I get my meat. How are the animals living? How are they slaughtered and processed? I should be more proactive.

The final section is his attempt to recreate the hunter-gatherer. He hunts for wild boar. He forages for mushrooms, and serves a meal, in the end, that cost him practically nothing (except for time). He also visits vegetarianism, and the implications that has for modern eating. It’s all very fascinating (and well-written).

But, in the end, it leaves me slightly depressed. How many people are going to pick up this book? How many people can it change? Sure, organics and farmers markets are growing, but (as we’ve found out), it’s expensive. We spend a good chunk of our monthly paycheck on food, and it’s not because we’re buying more. I liked this quote (from Joel Salatin):

“Whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy… [W]ith our food all of the cost are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water — of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”

It just seems like a huge, uphill battle. But one in which I’m more than willing to do my part.

9 thoughts on “Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this forever. I got it once and tried to read it but I have a lot of trouble reading non-fiction, even non-fiction I’m INTERESTED in. I thought I might try the audiobook next see if I have better luck getting through it.

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  2. Michael Pollan did his part in changing the way we eat in our family too! We were already wading our way towards that path- going to farmer’s market, not eating fast food, trying to eat more locally- but when my husband read this we made even bigger, more systemic changes. And my husband talked of little else for a long time! Pollan’s new book, <>In Defense of Food<> is quite good too. We know the farmers and the farm that grow our produce (in the spring-early fall anyway since we live in Minnesota!) since we belong to a CSA. Our next goal is to visit and get to know the people who raise our beef and chicken, visit the farms. We know some chicken farmers from the farmer’s market but have never been to their farms and there’s a good, local, grass-fed beef operation not far from us either- need get out there too! My single biggest concern is the cost of all this. My husband and I can afford this, both in terms of money (although we do eat less meat as it is much more expensive and anyway, it’s better, probably to eat less of it) and time invested. There are so so so many people for whom this is not an option. Although, as Salatin and Pollan both say- the costs are hidden in health care costs of those who eat cheaper, corn-, additive-, preservative-filled “food,” the cost to the environment, cost in illness, etc. But that’s a hard argument to sell when you don’t have much money to spend to begin with.Sorry– really LONG! Great review. Great book. I’ve yet to hear anyone whose life hasn’t been changed by it.

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  3. You’re right, turtlebella. Which is why I get depressed by this challenge. How can I ever hope to convince my friends to eat locally, when they’re so concerned about the bottom line? I mentioned once that I pay $3 for a pound of beef; they were shocked. Yeah, I’m paying $3 for a pound of locally grown, (hopefully) ecologically sound, lower-fat beef, but still. When you’ve got a bunch of growing kids to feed, and only a limited amount of money, it’s hard to justify that.Hubby says that In Defense of Food is Pollan’s answer to some of those questions, and is more “accessible” than Omnivore’s Dilemma. Mollie, maybe you’d want to start there.

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  4. I really should pick up a copy of this; thanks for reminding me. I prefer to make my own bread, and avoid corn syrup when possible. I don’t drink soda except for the rare soda at a restaurant, and can’t stand fast food (except for the occasional pizza). I’ve gone almost entirely whole grain, and will finally be growing tomatoes this summer. I don’t have any illusions of eating in some sort of ‘ideal’ manner, but I can at least eat better than I used to!

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  5. Ohhh, I can hardly wait till my copy comes in at the library! The money issue is the hardest thing, I think. As a nation we are addicted to eating “food-like substances” that can be purchased for so much less than real food. It requires a pretty big paradigm shift to be able to go out and spend $3 a pound on beef. But I honestly can’t bring myself to buy any beef that was raised in a feed lot on an unnatural corn diet, with hormones and antibiotics to boot. (<>Fast Food Nation<> did that for me!) So our answer has been to eat less beef. But it is hard after a life-time of training from my mother on how to feed a big family economically. I just remind myself of the hidden costs, and move on. My latest mission is to get my life organized enough to make a lot of things myself out of local ingredients. Anywho. Another long comment. 🙂

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  6. When I lived overseas, I always heard that the EU had much better organic certification process than the USDA. I have wanted to read more on that, but haven’t found anything…is that mentioned at all in the book?You are better than we are with some of your daily living. We try to cut out all HFCS and other artificial flavors and such, but some tends to sneak in on occasion (usually in the form of packaged cookies or cereal). We’ve been on the journey of more natural living for about 3 years – we have made a lot of progress but still have a long way to go!

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  7. no nyssaneala, he didn’t cover EU versus US organic standards (he dind’t mention Europe at all, if I remember right). I’m not surprised that the EU has higher standards; they’re more willing to legislate things like that than we are. And it’s not like we’re perfect: we still eat more HFCS than I would like. It’s truly impossible to avoid it entirely. Especially with kids.

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