The Omnivore’s Dilemma
by Michael Pollan
Penguin, 2006 $26.95
When The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in ’06, it was not the first book to take a look at our industrial food system with a critical eye, but it quickly became one of the most well-known. Part of that is due to the interesting structure of the book, where Pollan reports on the origins four different meals available in America: factory-farmed fast food, mass-produced but technically organic fare, small production beyond organic goods, and even hunting and gathering a meal.
Pollan writes in first person and speckles his prose with personal details about his reactions to things like the horrible stink of lakes of animal feces at factory farms and the equally disgusting smell from the entrails of the wild boar he kills. Along the way, Pollan takes a look at how the majority of food in America now comes from Zea mays, also known as corn, and is supported by massive amounts of petroleum used in transport and chemical fertilizer production. Pollan visits the vast seas of corn and soybeans grown using oil-based fertilizers and pesticides, and recounts how, despite great food production increases and government subsidies, small-time farmers are losing out to big agribusiness.
Contrasting the industrial monoculture is the Polyface farm, a “beyond organic” farm based in Virginia. Pollan paints a lovingly pastoral view of Polyface, which proprietor Joel Salatin calls a “grass farm” because of their focus on the interdependence of the different grasses on their pastures, and the animals that graze on them. Cows move along the pastures in a particular cycle to keep the grasses from being over-grazed, and their manure provides a natural fertilizer in a self-reinforcing relationship. Pollan obviously thinks this model is the best, and critiques the boom of so-called “organic” products for only meeting the USDA’s loose guidelines of no chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Big-time organic producers like Cal-Organic and Earthbound might use compost instead of chemicals, but they still use lots of oil shipping their products around the country.
The final section of the book, where Pollan hunts a boar and gathers morels, a kind of mushroom, is the most unconnected of the three—both because of the funny mishaps that befall him and the fact that few readers will try to replicate the meal. It does, however, show how rewarding food can be outside of the grim fluorescent lighting of a supermarket, fitting for a book that is a very readable critique of how we eat and how that should change.