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My wife Maria has done a wonderful review of one of my favorite Michael Pollan’s books, and while it’s a tad off topic, it’s a topic that should be on everybodys mind since it deals with what we put in our bodies. Without our health it really doesn’t matter how much money we pull out of the markets, we won’t be able to enjoy it. It’s funny because 10 years ago I never would have given it a thought to read a book like this or even care about the topic. It’s funny how our interests and concerns shift over time.

Michael Pollan attempts to answer the question: “What should we have for dinner?”

Using investigative journalism and prepared to ask the right and often difficult questions, journalism professor at UC Berkeley, Michael Pollan, examines the ethical, political, and ecological factors that are intertwined in industrial, large-scale organic, local sustainable organic, and hunted/gathered (foraged for) food chains. Pollan’s unique approach to answering the question, “What should we have for dinner?” is to explore those very different food production systems by following the food from its origins to the table.

As consumers, we have quick and ready access to a cornucopia of food products; however, Pollan makes the distinction between real food and food consumed for nutrients listed on the label. Further, he refers to much of the food in the supermarket as EFLS (edible food-like substances), items that society has learned to recognize as food but have in fact been meticulously manufactured in food science laboratories to smell, taste, and look like real food.

In the abundant landscape of the supermarket, the omnivore’s dilemma is what we choose to eat and how we choose to let that food be produced.

Pollan begins with a thorough look at the current industrial food chain, which he asserts is a zero-sum gain endeavour dependent on subtracting from the world in a way that can never be corrected. In order to produce, manufacture, and distribute food along the industrial food chain, nature is diminished and never replenished. Pollan’s investigations take him from corn fields to grain elevators, feedlots, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), process plants, and slaughterhouses.

Pollan discovers that most of mainstream industrial and conventional food found in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants consists of ingredients from only a handful of crops that are planted and harvested in large-scale agribusinesses. This monoculture diet means that very many of the calories we consume come from only a small number of plants being broken down and turned into what appears to be incredible diversity.

Where agriculture began as a solar enterprise, it now depends on the fossil fuel economy not only to cultivate crops but also to transport and distribute them widely. In the military-like operation of the industrial food chain, more and more food is travelling further and further, with the average item of food in the supermarket travelling 2000 kilometres or more.

While exploring the industrial food chain, Pollan soon realizes that he keeps ending up in the same place: a monoculture farm field in the American mid-west where the crop consists only of corn, an important building block of the fast-food nation.

Corn as food is very different from the industrial raw material or food product it has become. Twelve billion bushels of corn annually is transformed into all manner of processed food, establishing corn as the dominant crop species in North America. Corn is distilled and refined into high-fructose corn syrup, which is a common ingredient in most of the EFLS found at the supermarket. Corn is the ingredient found on most processed food labels, provided you know its myriad chemical names; thus almost all processed foods are merely intricate manifestations of corn.

Corn or its by-products are force-fed to ruminants, animals who are naturally grass eaters. In order for these animals to be able to digest the corn, they are required to take massive amounts of antibiotics on top of the growth hormones they are fed to speed up the process of getting meat to table. This practice, along with other details Pollan uncovers while visiting the CAFOs and feedlots, is appalling.

In order to fully understand the production of meat, Pollan purchases a steer (know as #534), and follows its journey from soon after birth to the slaughterhouse, including a visit that describes #534 standing in up to a foot of muddy feces.

I ate very little meat when reading through this part of the book, but even more importantly and because my husband and I were reading the book somewhat simultaneously, we stopped buying “regular” meat for our household. We now only purchase meat from grass-fed, non-medicated animals. If said meat is not available, then we simply choose not to eat any.

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After the disappointing truths Pollan uncovers investigating the industrial food chain, he goes looking for alternatives and turns to organic food, the fastest-growing segment in the supermarket, eventually finding himself in Whole Foods, a “natural and organic” grocery store. Here he observes the industrial organic industry’s clever marketing device of including stories on food labels and brochures, which he believes elevates these products above the realm of mere higher-quality or certified organic; these foods appeal to the aesthetic, emotional, and political sensibilities of consumers willing to pay more for a good story.

After purchasing a free-range chicken named Rosie with an image of a lovely little farmhouse on the packaging, Pollan decides to visit the farm where Rosie was raised. Rather than the quaint farmhouse, he finds several 100-yard-long buildings with strips of lawn between them lined up one after another, each with 20 000 or more chickens inside. When Pollan queries the farmhand about the chickens having free range, the farmhand points out doors that lead to the little strips of lawn between buildings. Pollan inquires further and is told that because the chickens are not medicated, they do not actually have access to the outside for the first 5 weeks of their lives. By the time the door is opened, they are so unaccustomed to going outside that they rarely do.

These supposed free range chickens are processed at 7 weeks. Further exploration of large-scale organic food production leads to organic feedlots and organic factory farms, where the food is processed as much as anything else and practices resemble and repeat many of the mistakes of the industrial food chain. In many instances, organic food now follows regional distribution channels and travels further than conventional food, despite the consumers’ image of locally grown, sustainable food.

Realizing that many methods of industrial agriculture have been adopted by organic producers, Pollan decides to search for a more sustainable approach to agriculture. Pollan hears about and subsequently contacts Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, an alternative-method farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley “in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.”

Salatin is well known as a critic of what he calls “big organic” and fierce in his condemnation of Whole Foods and the organic empire. He presents an inspired view that insists our relationship with nature need not be zero sum. His farm supports an intricate symbiotic system where every animal contributes some service in an ecosystem in which grass is the keystone species. Pollan soon visits Polyface and is so impressed that he decides to spend a week there as a farmhand.

To bring his investigations full circle, Pollan concludes the book by describing the origins of a meal for which he hunted and gathered each component. Here’s what he has to say:

“Perhaps the perfect meal is one that’s been fully paid for, that leaves no debt outstanding. This is almost impossible ever to do, which is why I said there was nothing very realistic or applicable about this meal. But as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again…This is not the way I want to eat every day…But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a manner of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.” (pg. 409-411)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an important and engaging read, and Michael Pollan’s vivid narrative is well structured and mindful. The book highlights the folly of a globalized food economy in which dollars alone matter–maximizing profit on the part of the producer, and minimizing cost on the part of the consumer.

Michael Pollan’s book is having a profound effect on the purchasing habits of our household. Where we were often convenience eaters, we are becoming more conscious eaters, making choices that are more healthful for ourselves as well as for our planet.

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6 Responses to “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of 4 Meals”

  1. Gunda Chapman Says:

    Thanks Jeff for posting this. If only it were required reading in every high school…

  2. Abdul Rahim Says:

    I hope Michael Pollan come out a documentary movie about his book, very educational one. For info, Montana practice more organic farming than other States.

  3. Mike Says:

    Hi Jeff,

    First of all I wanted to praise you for a such a good call that you have made last Friday about the stocks going up.

    Secondly, I want to thank you for posting this write up about this book. I actually agree with the author, but find this book kind of useless. I read this book before, and basically the main idea of the author is that the food is bad, and actually what we eat is not a food at all. So, what solutions this guy presents to the readers? Go and grow food yourself? Buy a “non medicated” chicken for $15 per pound? He might be right in his view that what we eat couldn’t be considered a food 50 years ago, but it is called food now. He wants us to eat something what our grand-grandparents called food, but he forgets that we live right now 30% longer life than our ancestors. Not only we live a lot longer, we enjoy food a lot more. Most of the governments want to move right now retirement age gradually to the age of 70 – people don’t die! So, imagine them eating all this shit and still being alive. In addition to that we are talking about ecosystem here – industry itself, jobs created by the industry, time involved to get food etc. It is easy to take one thingy out of this ecosystem
    and start criticizing it. Everything is different now, not only food, but for instance furniture you buy – it is made of some kind of pressed shit – not wood at all. What is his solution? Can you afford to buy non-medicated chicken for $20? If you can, go for it, but most of the people can’t.

  4. Michael Pollan’s Rules of Thumb | zentrader.ca | stock market blog Says:

    […] I wanted, and I wanted to break up into sections to allow time to digest all the material. Here is part one for those of you that are new to my blog and you may be wondering how this fits into trading. From […]

  5. Terra Says:

    You made me want to read this book.

  6. zentrader Says:

    You’ll enjoy it Terra. It changed our entire outlook on food.

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