The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the classic modern food and farming book, so I felt obligated to read it and I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I just finished it. In this book, Michael Pollan attempts to answer the question that we face as we are presented with more and more options at the grocery store: what should we eat? Meat or plants? Conventionally grown foods or local-organic ones? He investigates and travels to find the answers to these and many other questions.
Here is a video I would recommend that introduces the organization and ideas of the book. At the beginning of the book, Pollan hit me with so much information that I remember thinking, “Each one of these paragraphs could almost be expanded into a book of its own.” Pollan’s book and especially its first section will definitely show you and tell you things that you didn’t know were true. As the book progresses, it moves further from conventional industrial agriculture towards alternative ways of growing food and finally towards finding your own food. The book becomes more cultural and spiritual and less factual, which is a really interesting journey I think. Pollan becomes more and more connected to his diet as he starts to take initiative and learn more about his food. The book contains valuable wisdom and insights into food and our food system. Pollan cites many authorities that range from J.I. Rodale who coined the term “organic” to modern ethicist Peter Singer. It is clear that Pollan has done some reading and research.
Though Pollan never does give a simple answer to “What should we eat?,” his opinions become pretty clear. While I do highly recommend the book for its evaluation, analysis, and comparison of different food-production models, I warn the reader to be aware of Pollan’s bias. It took me a while to see, but I understood it more after reading some reviews of the book. At times Pollan’s opinions bring him to present ideas and information in a misleading or one-sided way.
For example, at the beginning of the book, as Pollan tries to follow a steer on its journey birth to slaughter to burger, he discusses the corn and grain based diet of beef cows towards the end of their lives. Pollan says that this diet “rarely lasts more than 150 days,” after mentioning earlier that the calf spent its first six months of life on pasture. You wouldn’t know it from what Pollan says, but 30-40% of American beef is 100% grass-fed during the cows’ entire lives. And in all actuality, there are many ranchers who feed their cattle on pasture for much longer than 6 months, often 18 months or more, before sending them off to the feedlot. And depending on who you ask or what feed lot you are at, the number of days a beef steer spends on a feedlot is usually closer to 100 days.
I am not saying that I agree with all the practices of conventional beef production, I am just defending the facts. Pollan never lies, but he does leave some things out or chooses to focus on the worst of the industry. Though Pollan has many great and insightful things to say, my one problem is that at times he presents the issues in a way that seems kind of black and white, when things are in fact much more gray. At times he seems to blow things out of proportion, state his opinions like they are facts, or just go for shock value. I suppose that it is hard to avoid some degree of black-and-whiteness when writing from a very opinionated point of view, but it is nice to be aware of the point of view when reading the book. Now that I’ve said all of this, go out, buy the book, learn something new about our food system, and form your own opinion on it! And then read some other books on the food industry and compare their ideas to Pollan’s because The Omnivore’s Dilemma isn’t the only one out their.