THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA
a columnist and feature writer at The Gazette (Montreal)
where this review first appeared.
We are, says journalist
and author Michael Pollan, processed corn, walking. In The
Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan deconstructs four mealtime scenarios
-- fast food, "industrial" organic, local organic
and foraged meals -- in each one, enlightening and often disturbing
the reader with his discoveries. The reference to corn originates
in its role as one of the commodity crops that has turned North
American agriculture into a blitzkrieg of chemical fertilizers,
pesticides, industrial machinery and soil-eroding monocultures.
Only a small percentage of corn is consumed directly, it turns
out. The vast majority is eaten in the form of chicken, pork,
beef, eggs, milk and more. Take those ubiquitous Chicken McNuggets.
Not only are the chicken corn-fed, there's corn in the additives,
the starches, the oils. Snack foods, soft drinks - all made
from corn. "We eat something like 56 pounds of high-fructose
corn syrup sweetener every year," Pollan told interviewer
Blair Golson of Truthdig. "When you're drinking that soda,
you're really drinking quite a bit of corn."
story of corn is one of many that Pollan tells in this book,
a personal journey based on massive scholarship, beginning with
a series of articles written for the New York Times magazine.
It's a natural follow-up to his acclaimed The Botany of
Desire, in which he proposes that plants are far from being
passive participants in co-evolution. We omnivores, says Pollan,
who also teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, have so many choices
because we are able to eat just about anything -- there's a
fascinating discussion of the things we won't eat because of
"disgust," described by Harvard psychologist Steven
Pinker as "intuitive microbiology." Yet we've become
strangers to the things we eat. No wonder so many North Americans,
yet undernourished, have such dysfunctional relationships with
I try to do in this book," Pollan writes, "is approach
the dinner question as a naturalist might, using the long lenses
of ecology and anthropology, as well as the shorter, more intimate
lens of personal experience." A curious observer in the
feedlot, on the grasslands and, finally, on a hunt for wild
boar, he offers trenchant commentary and at-times exquisite
prose. There are dozens of sentences and paragraphs that are
worth a second read.
corn seems a benign force, just a crop that covers hundreds
of thousands of square miles of U.S. farm fields -- until one
thinks back to the result of Ireland's monoculture in the 19th
century, the potato blight that caused a million deaths by starvation
and uprooted millions more, and until Pollan begins to investigate
the use of corn feed for cattle, through the short life of one
young steer he bought and followed for his award-winning Time
magazine story. After six months in the fields with his mother,
the steer is sent off to the feedlot to be fattened in record
time - on corn. Trouble is, cattle are ruminants, meant to eat
grass, not corn. It effectively ruins their health, so they're
filled with antibiotics that harm both eaten and eater.
are, Pollan argues, pawns in agribusiness, those huge conglomerates
happy to offer sweet treats and otherwise empty calories that
cost us very little and them even less.
then investigates large-scale organic farming, a growing phenomenon
in the United States, which Pollan discovers has been modelled
on industrial agribusiness. This is "supermarket pastoral."
Pollan raises questions about the meaning of free range and
organic feedlots when animals are housed in huge sheds, and
about the logic of using vast amounts of fossil-fuel energy
to transport organic lettuce and eggs. Isn't industrial organic
a contradiction in terms?, he asks.
most benevolent of the meals he consumes is based on grass.
At Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin uses sunshine, grasslands and
manure -- and sells only locally. For Pollan, this is the most
sustainable and enriching way to eat, and it offers the alternative
he chooses as an occasional carnivore.
raised meat is ecologically a very positive thing for the environment,
for the grasslands," he says. "Without animals on
farms, you'd need artificial fertilizer, because you wouldn't
have manure to compost. So I think truly sustainable agriculture
depends on animals in relation to plants."
so, write Peter Singer and Jim Mason, authors of The Way
We Eat. Using a method similar to Pollan's -- in their
case, tracking down the sources of three family meals -- they
focus on the ethics of food choices and describe in horrific
detail the suffering to which animals and fish are subjected
in order to satiate our cravings, never mind the biohazards
that fish farming and industrial pig and chicken production
are letting loose upon the environment.
have ample credentials. Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton
University's Centre for Human Values, is author of the ground-breaking
Animal Liberation; Mason is an attorney and from the
fifth generation of a Missouri farming family, and the author
of An Unnatural Order. In 1980, they co-wrote wrote
Animal Factories, exposing the cruelty and destructiveness
of factory farming. If ethics are relevant to food choices,
these authors argue, then killing animals who suffer pain is
prose is plain, their research extensive. And eating meat isn't
the only subject on which they differ with Pollan. Interestingly,
these authors come down on the side of industrial organic farming,
and are prepared to pat McDonald's on the back for the leadership
the company has shown since the public relations disaster of
a lawsuit in the late 1990s. Now the company has an audit system
that demands better treatment of animals.
the authors of both books are in agreement on a few points:
first and foremost, that we desperately need to re-establish
the link between ourselves and the food we eat. They address
the criticism that food delivered through organic or small farm
food production costs too much. Truth is, Pollan says, "the
amount of our income we spend on food is only 9 per cent --
half what it was in the late '50s." Why, he asks, are cell
phones and iPods more essential than our health and the health
of the environment?
is, we've bought into the notion that progress means access
to cheap chicken and strawberries year-round. Eat locally, they
argue. Know where your food comes from. "If we're really
going to move toward a different food system, we have to be
a different kind of eater," Pollan says. "We have
to reinvent ourselves as eaters in order to reinvent the food
chain. It's all
Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
The Penguin Press, 450 pages, $38
Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
Rodale Books, 328 pages, $34.95