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The Omnivore's Dilemma

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The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Author Michael Pollan
Language English
Publisher The Penguin Press
Publication date
2006
ISBN
OCLC 62290639
394.1/2 22
LC Class GT2850 .P65 2006
Preceded by The Botany of Desire
Followed by In Defense of Food

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a nonfiction book by American way of eating.

Food chains analyzed

Corn is the most heavily subsidized U.S. crop. “There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them contain corn,” he reports. Corn has successfully changed the U.S. diet and animals diet. This can be seen when Pollan monitors the development of a calf from a pasture in South Dakota through its stay on a Kansas feedlot to its dreadful end. The animals evolved to eat grass, but more than half of a feedlot cow’s food comes from corn. The other half contains other products such as meat. “Feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces, and discarded bits of feed) are accepted cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish, and pig meal,” Pollan explains. He goes on to say “since the bovine meat and bonemeal that cows used to eat is now being fed to chickens, pigs, and fish, infectious prions could find their way back to cattle when they’re fed the protein of the animals that have been eating them.” Of all the terrible stuff feedlot cows eat, the most damaging is corn, which tends to damage their livers. Corn-fed cows become sick as a matter of course, a fact accepted by the industry as a cost of doing business. “Between 15 and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers,” Pollan writes. Pollan traces the various food chains that “link us … to the fertility of the earth and the energy of the sun.” In essays culminating in the “four meals” of the title, he shines a bright light on such obscure and important sites of U.S. food production as Iowa cornfields and Kansas feedlots; he investigates conditions on the big “organic” farms that supply Whole Foods with its dizzying and high-priced bounty; he explores the potential — and difficulties — of re-creating local and sustainable food networks by visiting an innovative Virginia farm; and he takes to the woods, at times packing a gun, in search of his own “hunter-gatherer” fare.

In probably the most important section of Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes what might be called the industrial-organic complex: the large-scale farms and food-processing outfits that largely satisfy surging demand for organic food. The author uses Whole Foods as a proxy for the industrial-organic ethos. He writes: “‘Organic’ on the label conjures up a rich narrative … supplying the hero (American family farmer), the villain (agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as supermarket pastoral.” For Pollan, the marketing geniuses at Whole Foods peddle an irresistible commodity: self-satisfaction. He quotes a marketing consultant waxing creepily about how the store offers consumers the opportunity to “engage in authentic experiences” and “return to a utopian past with positive aspects of modernity intact.”

Yet the virtues on sale often prove spectral, Pollan shows. The “free-range” chicken on offer, it turns out, hails from a confinement operation with a tiny yard, largely unused by the short-lived birds. And after giving gigantic organic vegetable outfits a long and sympathetic hearing, he subjects them to a devastating energy analysis. Pollan finds that while a one-pound box of California-produced organic lettuce contains 80 food calories, it requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to process and ship to the East Coast. He adds that the figure would be only “about 4 percent higher if the salad were grown conventionally.” It’s hard to dispute Pollan’s assessment of large-scale organic agriculture: it’s “floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.”

In contrast to the marketing geniuses who now dominate organic food, Pollan presents Joel Salatin, a loquacious farmer who runs a successful midsized, multispecies meat farm in Virginia. While large-scale organic operations function essentially in a global economy — leaning heavily on off-farm inputs, growing for markets thousands of miles away, relying on disenfranchised immigrant labor — Salatin insists on selling his goods close by and relying on his family and a few interns to supplement his labor.

Pollan’s account of his week with Salatin captures the paradoxes of life on a bustling, successful, integrated farm: the incessant backbreaking work, the brutally early mornings, the addictive beauty of a dewy field at dawn, the fresh, alive flavor of food you can’t get anywhere else. He presents Salatin’s style as a way forward, but not a panacea: “My guess is that there aren’t too many farmers today who are up for either the physical or the mental challenge of this sort of farming, not when industrializing promises to simplify the job.”

Personal

The final section finds Pollan attempting to prepare a meal using only ingredients he has hunted, gathered, or grown himself. He recruits assistance from local foodies, who teach him to hunt feral pigs, gather wild mushrooms and search for abalone. He also makes a salad of greens from his own garden, bakes sourdough bread using wild yeast, and prepares a dessert from cherries picked in his neighborhood.

Pollan concludes that the fast food meal and the hunter-gatherer meal are "equally unreal and equally unsustainable."[1] He believes that if we were once again aware of the source of our food – what it was, where it came from, how it traveled to reach us, and its true cost – we would see that we "eat by the grace of nature, not industry."[1]

Reception

Economist Tyler Cowen argued, "The problems with Pollan's 'self-financed' meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets."[2] In his article, however, Tyler Cowen erroneously assumes Pollan advocates a hunter-gatherer eating culture as a model and goal. Most of Cowen's criticism aim the book's final chapter, about hunter-gatherer culture, while the book actually advocates for polyculture, taking the Polyface farm as the major model.

Washington State University, situated in an agricultural area of Washington state, chose this book to be part of its freshman reading program in 2009, but soon canceled the program. Many in the university's community, including those who run the kinds of industrial farms that The Omnivore's Dilemma discusses, were unhappy with the selection, and speculation was that the cancellation was a result of political pressure. Elson Floyd, president of WSU, claimed instead that it was a budgetary issue, and when food safety expert Bill Marler stepped up to cover the claimed shortfall, the program was reinstated, and Pollan was invited to speak on campus.[3]

Criticism

One of Pollan's major arguments about the organic farming industry is that it creates an unrealistic pastoral narrative, giving people the false idea that, by definition, organic products come from picturesque open pastures.

Pollan calls veganism a 'utopia', arguing that it would lead to a shortage of fertilizers and an increase in the need for "fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers since food would need to travel even farther and fertility – in the form of manures – would be in short supply".[1]

Honors

The New York Times named The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the ten best books of 2006,[4] and Pollan was also the recipient of a James Beard Award for the work.[5] The book has also been published in a young reader's edition[6] and is being used in cross curricular lessons by teachers interested in promoting its message.[7]

See also

References


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local function removeInitialColon(s) -- Removes the initial colon from a string, if present. return s:match('^:?(.*)') end

function p.findNamespaceId(link, removeColon) -- Finds the namespace id (namespace number) of a link or a pagename. This -- function will not work if the link is enclosed in double brackets. Colons -- are trimmed from the start of the link by default. To skip colon -- trimming, set the removeColon parameter to true. checkType('findNamespaceId', 1, link, 'string') checkType('findNamespaceId', 2, removeColon, 'boolean', true) if removeColon ~= false then link = removeInitialColon(link) end local namespace = link:match('^(.-):') if namespace then local nsTable = mw.site.namespaces[namespace] if nsTable then return nsTable.id end end return 0 end

function p.formatPages(...) -- Formats a list of pages using formatLink and returns it as an array. Nil -- values are not allowed. local pages = {...} local ret = {} for i, page in ipairs(pages) do ret[i] = p._formatLink(page) end return ret end

function p.formatPageTables(...) -- Takes a list of page/display tables and returns it as a list of -- formatted links. Nil values are not allowed. local pages = {...} local links = {} for i, t in ipairs(pages) do checkType('formatPageTables', i, t, 'table') local link = t[1] local display = t[2] links[i] = p._formatLink(link, display) end return links end

function p.makeWikitextError(msg, helpLink, addTrackingCategory) -- Formats an error message to be returned to wikitext. If -- addTrackingCategory is not false after being returned from -- Module:Yesno, and if we are not on a talk page, a tracking category -- is added. checkType('makeWikitextError', 1, msg, 'string') checkType('makeWikitextError', 2, helpLink, 'string', true) yesno = require('Module:Yesno') local title = mw.title.getCurrentTitle() -- Make the help link text. local helpText if helpLink then helpText = ' (help)' else helpText = end -- Make the category text. local category if not title.isTalkPage and yesno(addTrackingCategory) ~= false then category = 'Hatnote templates with errors' category = string.format( '%s:%s', mw.site.namespaces[14].name, category ) else category = end return string.format( '%s', msg, helpText, category ) end


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function p.formatLink(frame) local args = getArgs(frame) local link = args[1] local display = args[2] if not link then return p.makeWikitextError( 'no link specified', 'Template:Format hatnote link#Errors', args.category ) end return p._formatLink(link, display) end

function p._formatLink(link, display) -- Find whether we need to use the colon trick or not. We need to use the -- colon trick for categories and files, as otherwise category links -- categorise the page and file links display the file. checkType('_formatLink', 1, link, 'string') checkType('_formatLink', 2, display, 'string', true) link = removeInitialColon(link) local namespace = p.findNamespaceId(link, false) local colon if namespace == 6 or namespace == 14 then colon = ':' else colon = end -- Find whether a faux display value has been added with the | magic -- word. if not display then local prePipe, postPipe = link:match('^(.-)|(.*)$') link = prePipe or link display = postPipe end -- Find the display value. if not display then local page, section = link:match('^(.-)#(.*)$') if page then display = page .. ' § ' .. section end end -- Assemble the link. if display then return string.format('%s', colon, link, display) else return string.format('%s%s', colon, link) end end


-- Hatnote -- -- Produces standard hatnote text. Implements the template.


function p.hatnote(frame) local args = getArgs(frame) local s = args[1] local options = {} if not s then return p.makeWikitextError( 'no text specified', 'Template:Hatnote#Errors', args.category ) end options.extraclasses = args.extraclasses options.selfref = args.selfref return p._hatnote(s, options) end

function p._hatnote(s, options) checkType('_hatnote', 1, s, 'string') checkType('_hatnote', 2, options, 'table', true) local classes = {'hatnote'} local extraclasses = options.extraclasses local selfref = options.selfref if type(extraclasses) == 'string' then classes[#classes + 1] = extraclasses end if selfref then classes[#classes + 1] = 'selfref' end return string.format( '
%s
', table.concat(classes, ' '), s )

end

return p-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- -- Module:Hatnote -- -- -- -- This module produces hatnote links and links to related articles. It -- -- implements the and meta-templates and includes -- -- helper functions for other Lua hatnote modules. --


local libraryUtil = require('libraryUtil') local checkType = libraryUtil.checkType local mArguments -- lazily initialise Module:Arguments local yesno -- lazily initialise Module:Yesno

local p = {}


-- Helper functions


local function getArgs(frame) -- Fetches the arguments from the parent frame. Whitespace is trimmed and -- blanks are removed. mArguments = require('Module:Arguments') return mArguments.getArgs(frame, {parentOnly = true}) end

local function removeInitialColon(s) -- Removes the initial colon from a string, if present. return s:match('^:?(.*)') end

function p.findNamespaceId(link, removeColon) -- Finds the namespace id (namespace number) of a link or a pagename. This -- function will not work if the link is enclosed in double brackets. Colons -- are trimmed from the start of the link by default. To skip colon -- trimming, set the removeColon parameter to true. checkType('findNamespaceId', 1, link, 'string') checkType('findNamespaceId', 2, removeColon, 'boolean', true) if removeColon ~= false then link = removeInitialColon(link) end local namespace = link:match('^(.-):') if namespace then local nsTable = mw.site.namespaces[namespace] if nsTable then return nsTable.id end end return 0 end

function p.formatPages(...) -- Formats a list of pages using formatLink and returns it as an array. Nil -- values are not allowed. local pages = {...} local ret = {} for i, page in ipairs(pages) do ret[i] = p._formatLink(page) end return ret end

function p.formatPageTables(...) -- Takes a list of page/display tables and returns it as a list of -- formatted links. Nil values are not allowed. local pages = {...} local links = {} for i, t in ipairs(pages) do checkType('formatPageTables', i, t, 'table') local link = t[1] local display = t[2] links[i] = p._formatLink(link, display) end return links end

function p.makeWikitextError(msg, helpLink, addTrackingCategory) -- Formats an error message to be returned to wikitext. If -- addTrackingCategory is not false after being returned from -- Module:Yesno, and if we are not on a talk page, a tracking category -- is added. checkType('makeWikitextError', 1, msg, 'string') checkType('makeWikitextError', 2, helpLink, 'string', true) yesno = require('Module:Yesno') local title = mw.title.getCurrentTitle() -- Make the help link text. local helpText if helpLink then helpText = ' (help)' else helpText = end -- Make the category text. local category if not title.isTalkPage and yesno(addTrackingCategory) ~= false then category = 'Hatnote templates with errors' category = string.format( '%s:%s', mw.site.namespaces[14].name, category ) else category = end return string.format( '%s', msg, helpText, category ) end


-- Format link -- -- Makes a wikilink from the given link and display values. Links are escaped -- with colons if necessary, and links to sections are detected and displayed -- with " § " as a separator rather than the standard MediaWiki "#". Used in -- the template.


function p.formatLink(frame) local args = getArgs(frame) local link = args[1] local display = args[2] if not link then return p.makeWikitextError( 'no link specified', 'Template:Format hatnote link#Errors', args.category ) end return p._formatLink(link, display) end

function p._formatLink(link, display) -- Find whether we need to use the colon trick or not. We need to use the -- colon trick for categories and files, as otherwise category links -- categorise the page and file links display the file. checkType('_formatLink', 1, link, 'string') checkType('_formatLink', 2, display, 'string', true) link = removeInitialColon(link) local namespace = p.findNamespaceId(link, false) local colon if namespace == 6 or namespace == 14 then colon = ':' else colon = end -- Find whether a faux display value has been added with the | magic -- word. if not display then local prePipe, postPipe = link:match('^(.-)|(.*)$') link = prePipe or link display = postPipe end -- Find the display value. if not display then local page, section = link:match('^(.-)#(.*)$') if page then display = page .. ' § ' .. section end end -- Assemble the link. if display then return string.format('%s', colon, link, display) else return string.format('%s%s', colon, link) end end


-- Hatnote -- -- Produces standard hatnote text. Implements the template.


function p.hatnote(frame) local args = getArgs(frame) local s = args[1] local options = {} if not s then return p.makeWikitextError( 'no text specified', 'Template:Hatnote#Errors', args.category ) end options.extraclasses = args.extraclasses options.selfref = args.selfref return p._hatnote(s, options) end

function p._hatnote(s, options) checkType('_hatnote', 1, s, 'string') checkType('_hatnote', 2, options, 'table', true) local classes = {'hatnote'} local extraclasses = options.extraclasses local selfref = options.selfref if type(extraclasses) == 'string' then classes[#classes + 1] = extraclasses end if selfref then classes[#classes + 1] = 'selfref' end return string.format( '
%s
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end

return p
  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^
  3. ^ College Discourse Over Food Safety, Courtesy of Bainbridge Lawyer
  4. ^ "The 10 Best Books of 2006", The New York Times, December 12, 2006
  5. ^
  6. ^ http://www.amazon.com/Omnivores-Dilemma-Kids-Secrets-Behind/dp/0803735006
  7. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbXy195Nl-c&list=UUn-PWO1lmPnPoOdz1j14nXQ&index=4&feature=plcp

External links

Official

  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma, from Michael Pollan website.

Essays

  • "Unhappy Meals", by Michael Pollan, The New York Times, January 28, 2007
  • "An Animal's Place", essay by Michael Pollan, re-printed from The New York Times, January 2003. This essay was the spark of the idea for the book.

Interviews

  • "How Food Finds its Way to Your Plate", interview by Talk of the Nation, NPR, November 24, 2006.
  • "Dinner: An Author Considers the Source", interview by "Fresh Air", NPR, April 11, 2006.
  • "Michael Pollan: The Truthdig Interview", interview by Blair Golson of Truthdig, April 11, 2006.
  • "No Bar Code", excerpt from The Omnivore's Dilemma from Mother Jones, May 2005.
  • "Modern Meat", interview by Frontline, PBS, 2005.

Reviews

  • Salon.com – 'We are what we eat: The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan on how Wall Street has driven America's obesity epidemic, the misleading labels in Whole Foods, and why we should spend more money on food' (book review), Ira Boudway, Salon.com
  • WashingtonPost.com – 'You Are What You Eat: A journalist traces the meal on his plate back through the food chain' (The Omnivore’s Dilemma book review), Bunny Crumpacker, Washington Post (April 9, 2006)
  • San Francisco Chronicle – 'Anatomy of a Meal: UC Berkeley's Michael Pollan Examines What We Eat, and How to Decide What We Should Eat', Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle (April 9, 2006)
  • New York Times Review
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