Title: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Author: Michael Pollan
Genre: Non-Fiction, Cookbooks, Education
Publisher: Penguin (August 28, 2007)
Age Range: Appropriate for all ages. (There is a shorter version for 10+ year-olds.)
Pages: 450 pages (paperback)
Buy at: Amazon | Audible| Barnes and Noble | Book Depository | Google Play | iBooks
One of the New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of the Year
Winner of the James Beard Award
Wow, it has definitely been a while since I have posted a book review on my blog and this book has been on my mind for a while. (I received this book as a Secret Santa gift.) Though this book was written over a decade ago, the ideas are still as applicable as ever and they explain the discussion around going vegan or vegetarian. The premise of this book is that what we choose to eat has a larger impact socially, environmentally, and of course on our health.
DISCLAIMER: The following is a brief summary and then a review. Skip to the review if you want to avoid the didactics.
This is the first topic that Pollan covers in his novel and it is frightening to see how much one produce pervades our society. America has a surplus of corn which is only growing because of faulty governmental regulations. To use up our bountiful corn, scientists have found ways to split corn into parts that can be used in our food. A prime example is high fructose corn syrup which is used as a cheaper substitute for sugar. Ranchers have also found ways to implement corn into livestock feed, specifically cows, which has led to a cascade of issues. Cows are natural ruminants with one of the most advanced stomach systems to digest the cellulose in grass. When fed corn, the pH of a cow’s stomach becomes acidic, eating away at their stomach walls which leads to bacteria in a cow’s bloodstream. As a result, cows fed with corn also need to be pumped with antibiotics otherwise they may be infected with a load of nasty stuff including E-coli. Pollan goes on to say that many of the current health issues connecting heart disease to meat, is really a connection between health issues and corn-fed beef. YAY! If that isn’t bad enough, Pollan tells us that the fast-food chain is one of the biggest purchasers of corn-fed beef and they work to obscure the origins of the ingredients in their food. Realistically, if every consumer saw the living conditions of animals in Concentrated Feed Lot Operations (CAFO’s) nobody would want to eat McDonald’s anymore.
This book took a surprising turn in examining the organic industry. Organic has become one of the fastest growing sectors of the food industry in response to public concerns over pesticides and GMO’s. However, Pollan notes how organic is becoming industrialized just like non-organic produce and when considering the negative externalities, it doesn’t look too much better. Organic is being bought up quickly by the larger food companies like General Mills because they sense profit in the public’s hunger for more sustainable food. As a result, labels such as “free-range” and “organic” become murky in the market as the FDA attempts to establish proper definitions. A chicken operation with a tiny square available for them to wander around could be defined as “free range” while the public may believe that “free-range” chickens careen freely on green pastures. And while machines may not be squirting pesticides all over crops, migrant workers, whose rights are often abused, toil all day to nurture organic produce. Depressing right? So what exactly are we supposed to do?
Pollan believes buying locally will save the food industry. He follows Joel Salatin who runs Polyface Farms, a unique operation that depends upon the ecological niches of their animals. A summary of how their farm functions would not do it proper justice, but in short, Joel’s farm has a revolutionary way of directing animals to ecologically restore the land and preserve the integrity of their livestock. Interestingly, Joel only sells produce locally and refuses to partner with larger food corporations, he says doing so would go against the balance preserved at Polyface Farms. Buying locally preserves the transparency between the consumer and the source of their food. Meeting with your local farmer holds them accountable for their ethical practices in raising their livestock and preserving the environment. Buying locally also reduces your carbon footprint because you know your oranges came locally and not 2,000 miles away. Hurray! So go hit up those Farmer’s Markets on Sundays!
Crazy Hunter Gatherer
Pollan ends his novel with a personal narrative where he makes a meal almost entirely sourced from his own hunting and gathering expeditions. It’s a fun portion of the book that is more experimental than educational and Pollan concludes that this type of prehistoric food sourcing is enjoyable, but not sustainable in modern times.
After reading this book, I have decided to reduce my beef and pork consumption. This is extremely difficult because Asian cuisine is primarily centered around meat. (Think dumplings and meat pastries.) I allow myself to eat beef when my mom explicitly tells me the cow was grass fed. When I go out to eat I try to stay conscious of where my food is coming from. I believe my decision to make changes in my diet is what Pollan hoped for. He isn’t asking for a radical change, but he wants us to strongly consider ways we can make changes in our lifestyles for our health and the health of the planet.
This book isn’t just for vegans or vegetarians, I recommend this book for ANYONE who is looking to examine the ethics, origins, and effects of their diet. This book is definitely a thought provoker and sheds a shining light on the darkest corners of our food industry.
Though at times I felt bogged down by Pollan’s long descriptions, he kept my interest by using a tone of excitement and horror in detailing his personal investigations. Pollan went great lengths to examine the full spectrum of how food reaches our tables and you finish the book feeling satisfied he left no stone unturned. In my record, this book is a 9.5/10 and a lasting favorite read.