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The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) Michael Pollan

omnivores_dilemmaI picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma a year or so ago, and it sat by the bed, waiting to be read for the longest time. However, once I gave up trying to finish Herodotus, I started to enjoy reading non-fiction again, and was able to pick-up and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma without the guilt of another unfinished book looking over me.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma hits a large number of food related issue I’ve been concerned with for years. It’s an in depth look at where our food comes from, and the impact this process has upon us as individuals and as a society. In doing so, he looks at four different meals, and the path the items in those meals took to arrive as his dinner.

The section that surprised me the least was on industrial food. I’ve read Fast Food Nation, and I’ve done my research and know just how damaging industrial farming is. To look at industrial farming, Michael Pollan purchased a single cow, and followed that cow from birth to hamburger. That look following (for the most part) an individual animal through the food chain allows us to see how different industrial farming is from the idea of farming that most American’s have in their minds.

It was also interesting to consider how people (American’s specifically) feel about food. We have a strange and not very healthy relationship with food, and are always looking for shortcuts and secrets and ways to get the most of the least or vice versa. To that end I was struck by a quotation from Harvey Levenstein about American beliefs regarding food:

that taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity.

That may be the most depressing look at food I’ve ever seen. No wonder Americans have such a love hate relationship with food. “Taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten” seems truly horrifying to me. Food should taste good. Yes, it should also be healthy, but the two are not mutually exclusive. The idea of living a life where one eats scientifically rather than eating for taste is like a nightmare. Yes, sometimes–perhaps even many times–I find myself eating for sustenance and placing taste secondary, but I am coming to believe that if one wants to have a healthy relationship with food, what we eat has to be more than just sustenance.

The section that surprised me the most was part of the section on organic farming. I frequently buy organic and natural foods, for a variety of reasons. What surprised me was that the large organic companies often have industrial practices. What I read was not enough to change my eating and purchasing habits significantly, but it did further encourage me to try and eat locally whenever possible. Especially after the chapters on Polyface farms and small farming. Can small farming support the population of the US? Probably not. But there has to be some compromise between the two that gives us the best of both worlds: large scale farming without the industrial waste and cruelty.

I think this was, for me, one of the most important points of the book, and sums up what I’ve felt for years.

…people who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones they eat don’t suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless…”

Yes, that’s it precisely, and is the root of how I try to eat ethically. Except of course that my concern is not just for animal welfare, but also for the welfare of the humans who plant, grow, and process the food.

The section on foraging was both familiar and strange to me. I have friends who hunt, so I understand the basic ideas, and thought his experience with hunting was fascinating. But I know nothing about mushroom hunting, and had never realized quite how difficult and time consuming it was.

If you are unfamiliar with industrialized farming, or are just curious where the food you eat comes from, I highly recommend The Omnivores Dilemma. Michael Pollan has tried to present the different forms of agriculture showing both the strengths and weaknesses of each system, and did so in an even-handed way.
Rating: 8/10

Categories: 8/10, Food, Non-Fiction, Paper, Science & Nature


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