Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I didn't expect to learn much from Michael Pollan's new book, _The Omnivore's Dilemma_ - since I write and talk regularly about the problems of industrial agriculture, local food production and sustainability, I thought that while I'd probably enjoy his writing (I took a great deal of pleasure in his prior books on gardening), his book would be enlightening to a rather different audience than myself. But, in fact, I did learn a great deal. Pollan's gift is to entertainingly present complexities, without being weighed down by his own excellent scholarship - it is a gift, to know that much about something and to know which bits of evidence will compell and which will merely bore. He's an enormously erudite guy, without being even slightly dull. Several people I know who are far less engaged by food issues than I say they found it compelling and readable.

I will add up front, that one of the two things that most irritated me about this book was that in the mid-1980s, Margaret Visser, a brilliant food writer, wrote a very similar book, _Much Depends on Dinner_. Neither the book nor the author were particularly obscure - the book won several awards, and Visser went on to write another one about table manners (great book, btw, and highly recommended), and the books were published by Pollan's own publisher. And yet, Pollan's book does not cite or acknowledge the book, even though many of the chapters (those on chicken and corn especially) were very similar in their approach and analysis. Someone, either Pollan in his research (which, I think, was otherwise good), or his editor missed something - because the concept of eating a meal and being outraged by the history of its context is not his. Visser's book, particularly the chapter on rice, which I read in high school, was my biggest early influence in thinking about food, so it rankles me (even though these things happen in books) that Pollan ignored her.

But returning to the main point, I did learn a great deal from Pollan - I found out, among other things, exactly what Xanthan gum is (hadn't you always wondered, even if you knew it couldn't be good?), made a connection I'd never perceived before between the widespread alcoholism in America in the 19th century and the widespread obesity of today (both due to the need to use up agricultural excesses of corn) and heard as concise and compelling an account of the complexities of farm subsidies as I've heard before. I hadn't thought, for example that anyone could give me any more reasons not to eat at McDonalds, but Pollan added a couple.

The first section of the book traces a meal at McDonalds back to its basic ingredient - corn. From the corn that feeds the chickens to the xanthan gum in the milkshake to the sweetener in the ketchup and oil in which the fries are cooked, McDonalds is mostly corn. Since Fast Food Nation and the other exposes, I don't think there's anyone who cares who doesn't know how gross fast food is, and Pollan admirably stays away from the yuckiness factor (not that there isn't reason to go there, but it has been rather overdone of late). Instead, he goes to the aesthetic one, accusing Americans who eat fast food of having become like koalas, capable of absorbing only corn, to terrible cost. In some sense, as someone who likes to eat, his description of our reliance upon (and the costs thereof) corn is more grotesque than any expose of slaughterhouses could be.

He then describes the history of two organic meals, one of them bought on a trip to whole foods, and an industrially produced organic meal, the other local, sustainable and produced to a large degree from Joel Salatin's Polyface farm, where he acted as reporter/farm hand for a week. It may be here that Pollan's book is most valuable, because it makes a distinction that your average Mom who buys at Whole foods has never made - that industrial organic food is more industrial than organic. This book has been roundly hyped on NPR and in the New York Times, and has the potential to change a lot of minds - and despite my later critiques, I will be enormously grateful if Pollan can simply convince people to look beyond the word organic and think about the costs of their food to the environment and the people who grow it. This is a potentially influential book, and Pollan does not make the mistake that many, many food writers make, of reading the word "organic" to mean sustainable.

While acknowledges that large scale, organic, industrial food is better than nothing, he doesn't cut it a lot of slack for its drenching in fossil fuels, use and sometimes misuse of migrant labor, and general unsustainability. Perhaps his best writing in the book is when he attempts to analyze whether it is possible to grow food sustainably and well on any scale at all, and when he concludes that you can't, someone like me, who is trying to grow food on a small scale, looks up ready to cheer. Because such a conclusion should lead inevitably to the next step - ie, to the idea that the only solution to the problem of industrial agriculture is that a lot more people have to grow food, both for sale and at home. But he never quite gets there, and that may be the great flaw of the book. Still, however, I think that the line that the distinctions Pollan does draw are deeply helpful, and could potentially change things a great deal.

In the final section, Pollan eats a meal that he has hunted, or gathered, or grown himself. In doing this, he spends a lot of time coming to terms with hunting and meat eating (he kills his own chicken for dinner at Polyface farm, and also purchases a steer destined for McDonalds, although its final end is as much of a mystery as such things could possibly ever be). Here is where, I expected, Pollan will figure out how we might reasonably eat, humanely and sustainably. But in fact, the last chapter could be described as "Yuppie Jewish guy goes hunting for the first time" - and not just any kind of hunting, but hunting for wild boar in the California mountains with a bunch of European chefs bent on recreating the food of their homelands for Chez Panisse. Pollan may be violating the traditions of his Jewish upbringing (Jews don't hunt, not just because they are often urbanites, but because the laws of kashruth forbid it, and the sense of it as unfitting has lingered long past the observation of the law in other respects for many Jews), but he never actually leaves his class behind. And that is one of the deeper problems of the book - the meal he seeks to make is not a deer burger and homemade potato fries, but wine-braised leg of boar with boar liver pate and cherry something or other (admittedly, it sounded terrific).

Intermittently throughout the book, Pollan attempts to deal with the problem of elitism - whether or not sustainable food is yuppie food. And there's a legitimate case to be made that there is. Pollan, of course, points out the illogic both of what we spend on food (less than anyone in the world) and the externalities that are not figured into the cost of the McDonalds meal, but he never gets down and dirty with the question of class. He quotes Joel Salatin on the subject that regulation adds more to his cost than organic production, notes the costs of meals and that Salatin's customers are mixed in economic situation, but he never fully addresses who it is who mostly eats fast food and who it is who mostly eats organic, and the all-important whys of that question.

When Pollan finally gets down to the ultimate local meal, the chapter is mostly about his angst over killing animals and meat eating (although it was fun to watch Pollan duke it out intellectually with Peter Singer), but it all gets played out over a meal with class overtones so profound and powerful that you cannot escape them. Going boar hunting with a sicilian chef doesn't seem to have much relevance to going deer hunting with a bunch of blue collar guys who live next door, nor is the meal he plans to produce something that anyone could make and eat very often. Speaking as someone who does not hunt (that kosher thing) but whose father did, and who believes that human predation is a perfectly normal thing, and preferrable, say, to having lyme disease from an excess of white-tailed deer (oh, it isn't that easy, of course, but I'll write more on vegetarianism and meat eating another time), I think Pollan ends up using the meal he decided to make as a way of choosing to avoid the logical conclusion of his writing, and the book is the poorer for it. The closing chapter is not about how we could eat, but about the impossibility of producing our own food, and, to a large degree, about the impossibility of even eating sustainably. And I think to a large degree that's because he chose a meal that is unreproducable for millions - as opposed to the simple, ordinary chicken and corn or french fries of his organic and conventional prior meals.

His conclusions, drawn from his experiences on Salatin's farm and of hunting and gathering (and presumably of eating at McDonalds) are implicitly that sustainable eating is never going to happen on any great scale. At the end of his section on Salatin's farm, he likens Salatin to Luther, creating his own new denominations of people for whom food quality and healthfulness matters, small niches of (elitist) people who care about their food in the great wilderness. But implying this suggests that most other people (I wonder who - the ones who eat at McDonalds more and are mostly of a different class?) don't actually care deeply about their food's taste, health and environmental cost.

And his final set of conclusions are deeply disappointing to me, personally. Because he creates the ground work for a fairly simple conclusion - industrial scale food production, whether organic or non, is a failure, a disaster for those who care about ethics or the environment. In a way, it doesn't matter whether what you care about is the suffering of animals (industrial slaughter) or the suffering of humans (malnutrition), the extermination of songbirds (pesticides) or rising cancer rates (pesticides) or the extermination of everyone due to global warming, the conclusion that Pollan expertly and gracefully leads us to - ie, that many more people need to take a role in their own food systems, both by buying locally, encouraging the creation of millions of new small farms instead of an expanding industrial system, and by growing some of their own (or hunting it, or foraging), is finally left off, in the interest of implying that the problem is irresolvable. This, I think, is rather a cheap ending, and an unfair one to the person who has sorted through the complexities of his arguments and analysis and comes out wanting to know what to do next.

Pollan tells us at the very end, referring to his home produced meal and the one from McDonalds, "...these meals are equally unreal and equally unsustainable." But the fact that the home produced meal is unsustainable and unreproducable is his choice - because a dinner of potatoes and eggs with salad, equally local, equally gathered, is sustainable and available to anyone with a bit of backyard if they want it. By implying that self-provisioning is a fantasy in this modern world, Pollan essentially suggests we leave the farming to the farmers - but there simply aren't enough farmers to have a small, local, organic farm everywhere. If we're to reduce our footprint more than anyone can by hopping over to whole foods in the SUV and picking up a box of whole wheat mac and cheese and some organic apples from China, people are going to have to take some responsibility for feeding themselves. No, they don't have to go hunt wild boar. But they might have to grow a garden, or make possible a nearby farm. They might have to encourage their children to grow up to be farmers. And they might have to imagine a world in which feeding oneself is not either a work of magic or a work of industry, but simply the ordinary job that ordinary people have been doing for thousands of years.



Gina said...

Excellent review! I haven't read the book yet (it's on the summer reading list), but I much appreciated reading your wonderful insight and analysis of Pollan's "dilemma". Thanks!

Hank said...

Thank you, Sharon! Beautifully written. I praised Pollan's book on the COMFOOD list serve and Pat Meadows in Pennsylvania referred me to your critique. I am almost finished with Pollan's book. At the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group we are working actively on the problem you identify: How to we ensure that everyday people have full access to fresh, natural, affordable food? There are many answers, as you say. We will soon post our own Food Bill policy initiatives on our website. I hope you will give us the benefit of your critique.

Very best wishes,
Hank Herrera
Managing Director

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Hank -

Thank you so much for the compliments. I'd be fascinated to see what
NYSAWG comes up with. If you could send me a link at my email ( or, I'd be grateful!

Thanks again!


Brian Fuchs said...

Your review is great. I had similar feelings about the ending, having invested so much interest in the book's first 2 parts. It felt empty as a conclusion. And what of us Alaskans with extremely short growing seasons (it is almost April and the ground is still covered in snow & ice). Local farming isn't as practical for us. I felt like I wanted some sort of call to arms by the end of the book. Perhaps, since it wasn't there, that call should come from other sources.

It looks like a few more books are about to be released on this subject too. I recently obtained an ARC for Plenty by Alisa Smith & JB Mackinnon. It releases next month and looks like an interesting read. It might be worth checking out. I will likely review it soon, but my review will most likely be quite short.

Alexander said...

Great review Hank. The Omnivore's Dilemma is an excellent discussion of our eating habits, but I found even more interesting was Raj Patel's new book Stuffed and Starved that shows how our western eating habits are the end step in a global food chain responsible for slave labour, corporate profiteering, and the U.S. government's stronghold on world politics. Absolutely fascinating and terrifying how the politics of health and food will be ultimately responsible for an unsustainable economy fueled by the dilapidation of the very basic qualities of life. Patel writes as an informed, intelligent, activist who has travelled the globe ceaselessly to find the source of our "omnivore's dilemma". Not to take the comment board off topic, I just thought Patel's work is a great place to look even further into the geo-political nature of what is being discussed. Check out:

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