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The Omnivore’s Dilemma, book review

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Here is the book review I wrote up for a geography class. It’s not the best writeup but I’ve been stressed and I’m very tired.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma

13 November 2009

Pollan explores the question, “what should we have for dinner” by tracing food through three different food production systems: industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer. The “dilemma” is that American’s are faced with a dizzying variety of foods; most of which do not consider the health of the consumer or the welfare of the animals which become the food. This creates anxiety for the modern eater. Pollan suggests that as American’s we are not guided by a specific food culture and “…might explain why American’s have been such easy targets for food fads and diets of every description (Pollan 299)”. The omnivore’s anxiety, his argument continues, is compounded not only because of America’s lack of a stable cuisine, but also because the industrial food system has control over how food is made and how it is sold. Pollan’s critique on the industrial food system is logically sound but his solutions are not.

The central problem for Pollan is the industrial food system. As it turns out, the average supermarket contains over 45,000 different products, the majority of which have been cleverly derived from the same plant: corn. Processed corn is found in everything: bread, condiments, soup, soda, chips, snacks, toothpaste, breakfast cereals, meat, and thousands of other products. High-fructose corn syrup is found in virtually every liquid beverage in a supermarket. Other corn derivatives found in our food include modified starch, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, ascorbic acid, “natural flavor”, “natural colors”, MSG, and polyols. “Even in Produce on a day when there’s ostensibly no corn for sale you’ll nevertheless find plenty of corn: in the vegetable wax that gives the cucumbers their sheen, in the pesticide responsible for the produce’s perfection…(19)”.

How did this happen? Corn is given a helping hand by government subsidies. The farmer is encouraged to grow as much corn as he can do even if it doesn’t benefit himself to do so. The result is that the market is flooded with more corn which invariably ends up in thousands of products. The industrial food system tricks the consumer into buying the glut of cheap corn by adding “value”: flavoring the corn with even more corn. So the four-cents worth of commodity corn is transformed into four-dollar processed cereal we eat for breakfast (93). American’s are what the Mayan’s used to be, the “corn people”. The humble cob has domesticated humanity with its overwhelming possibility to become any new food a chemist can dream up. The problem with a corn-based diet is the negative impacts to health and the ill-effects are well documented (62-63, 100-102, 107-108, 117, 201). The brutality of the industrial food system in regards to livestock is also part of Pollan’s argument against the system. On any given day millions of animals are subjected to the cruel industrial system outlined throughout the book.

“Organic” is what Pollan describes as the Supermarket Pastoral, a ‘literary genre’ where animals are supposedly raised like the farm animals we read in books as children (137). The word organic creates a wonderful narrative and the shopper is “engaging in an authentic experience and imaginatively enacting a return to a utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact (137). This of course is against discomforting facts: organic is now Big and even Walmart is getting into the $11 billion a year industry.

Whole Foods has adopted a regional distribution network which actually makes supporting small farms impractical. Most of the organic produce comes from two large organic growers in California: Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farms. What does this mean for the consumer? The result is that organic conjures up an image that is distorted from reality. Organic from large chains (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart) is rarely local. Organic also does not suggest that the animals are treated any better than conventional ones. There are thousands of Holsteins where they never encounter a single blade of grass and are fed “organic high fructose corn syrup” (139). The goal of organic farming has been to somehow replace the evils of conventional farming. The difficulty for Pollen is deciding if whether organic farming is already like conventional farming: “…what sense can that box of salad on sale in a Whole Foods three thousand miles and five days away from this place truly be said to be organic? (165)”.

While reading this book I was fascinated by the overwhelming amount of information. The Omnivore’s Dilemma truly requires two or more reads to fully digest. That said, what stood out immediately for me was the spatial relationships between the foods we eat:

“I had never tasted organic South American asparagus in January, and felt my foray into the organic empire demanded that I do. What better way to test the outer limits of the word “organic” than by dining on a springtime delicacy that had been grown according to organic rules on a farm six thousand miles (and two seasons) away, picked, packed, and chilled on Monday, flown by jet to Los Angles Tuesday, trucked north to a Whole Foods regional distribution center, then put on sale in Berkeley by Tuesday, to be steamed, by me, Sunday night? (175)”. I see a two major problems with this scenario. The first is that although products may be derived from organic rules, how is it organic/environmentally friendly to fly those products in airplanes over vast distances? Part of the organic philosophy is that foods are grown without petroleum (fertilizers, pesticides, etc) yet those same products are being flown across the globe to satisfy upper-class American’s who can shop at Whole Foods. The second major problem with this scenario is that in South America, hunger is widespread. Many South American’s do not meet their nutritional (mineral and vitamin) requirements and no doubt there is something strange about growing foods for rich American’s when South American soil should be used to feed their own people. The simple fact is that organic farming is much like conventional: to ship, process, truck, and fly products over vast distances for optimal profits, even at the risk of the environment and well-being of their employees. Some of the largest farms in the United States are organic (Earthbound Farms) who are dependent upon workers to do backbreaking work.

Pollan suggests that there must be a complete overhaul of the global economy which is based upon fossil fuels. We can no longer afford (economically and health) to completely depend on oil. Our oil based economies is absorbed by the foods we eat which make us sick and fat. The problem is that people do not change readily unless thrust into a dire situation rapidly. We have become addicted to cheap Middle Eastern oil and to the High-Fructose Corn Syrup in our Coca-Cola.

Pollan’s solution is idealistic: extricate ourselves from fossil fuels, eat less processed food which invariably contains HFCS, and eat more locally produced organic food. The first issue is that distancing ourselves from fossil fuels is beyond what we’re capable of doing technologically (though this is slowly changing) or socially. The second issue is that not everyone can afford Whole Foods (colloquially known as Whole Paycheck) nor does everyone have the time to cook meals from scratch. The final chapter more or less explains what Pollan considers the ideal meal. Two major problems that Tyler Cowen points out: “Pollan neglects another cost of his perfect meal: our authors time is gone forever. There are plenty of cheap ways to produce food if we do not measure or time and trouble as relevant costs. The problems with Pollan’s self-financed meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets (http://www.slate.com/id/2152675, accessed 11-15-09)”.

I also believe that only industrial sized farming can truly meet the demands of a growing population. Consumers do benefit from cheap food. Most people can not routinely pay $5.79 for organic eggs, $6.99 for organic berries, etc. Until the day where organic food is priced competitively, it will remain a luxury for the affluent.

The book is however a success in identifying the problems with the industrial food production system. And even with the idealistic solutions of locally grown organic foods, there is a lot to learn from the book. It is a book I recommend professors use in class and for people in general to read. I’m looking forward to rereading the book again in the future.

Works Cited

Michael Pollan. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin.

Written by latierraybicicleta

November 19, 2009 at 1:47 am