The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

#49 in my 2007 book challenge was Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The blessing of the omnivore is that she can eat a great many things in nature. The curse of the omnivore is that when it comes to figuring out which of these things are safe to eat, she’s pretty much on her own.

Pollan’s thoughtful, thorough, and provoking book is one of the best I’ve read all year. In fluid prose that is neither needlessly academically esoteric, or dumbed down for the masses, Pollan examines four food systems, the meals they produce, and their hidden costs and suffering. The four are agricultural industrial, organic industrial, organic sustainable, and hunted/gathered. In the end, it’s not hard to determine where Pollan’s bias lies after all his research and experience. What makes this book so compelling, though, is that he takes effort and time to explore and explain all the alternative views. The cruelty and problems of industrial farming are clearly delineated, but Pollan’s book situates them in time and place to make them understandable, though nonetheless disturbing.

I was surprised and concerned to learn how prevalent corn byproducts are in the North American diet. Another point I especially liked was that eaters must either be ignorant of where their food comes from and how it’s processed, or choose from smaller, more challenging method of eating, like vegetarianism, or a focus on locally farmed and sourced organic food.

To visit a modern Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: Animals are treated as machines–”production units”–incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else. Egg operations are the worst,

Pollan quotes Levi-Strauss about the ideal that food should be both good to think and good to eat. According to Pollan, this means that the eater knows how and where her food is produced, and feels good about. There’s another interpretation of the Levi-Strauss, phrase, though, that lends itself less well to Pollan’s text. As Pollan does, though, I find it a useful phrase that will help to guide my food choices. I’m no longer willfully ignorant of the provenance of much of my food. Already I do most of my family’s shopping at our local grocery cooperative. But after the book, I’ve resolved to seek out even more local, organic food, eschew products with high-fructose corn syrup, and cut back on the non-local, non-seasonal organic items that have hidden costs (e.g., petroleum used in transportation) in addition to their high prices.

This book has changed the way I think about food, and will change the way I shop and eat.

2 Responses to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan”

  1. Ruth Says:

    I want to read this one, too. This is a great review. Thanks for your comment on my blog.

  2. Carol in Oregon Says:

    Because this (audio) book is on my shelf waiting to be listened to, as soon as I finish The Thirteenth Tale, I was interested in your review. I suspect, however, that I’m going to have to switch to print on page. It sounds like a book to be pondered.

    Thanks for your review.