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Michael Pollan

Emma Tekstra > Book Review  > Michael Pollan
The Omnivore's Dilemma
– Michael Pollan

I consider myself a foodie. I relish trying new foods and seeking out unusual restaurants, particularly those that cook whole foods in interesting ways. But I am a neophyte compared to the wonderfully brilliant Michael Pollan. A writer, journalist, university professor and keen observer of the human condition I am awe-inspired by his approach and insight.

I’m a little late to the party only recently picking up the masterpiece The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. First published in 2006 it has a tenth anniversary edition available with a new afterword given Mr. Pollan’s extensive repertoire since its first publication, including documentaries and several other best-selling books. The common thread being the inescapable connection humans have to the natural world.   


The book is almost three books in one. The first part delves into the food chain of industrial corn. Starting with a history of its hybridization to increase yields and its subsequent commoditization such that corn finds its way into 70 per cent of the American food supply. From a farm in Iowa growing the stuff, to the grain elevator where it gets mixed with output from scores of other farmers, to the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) that utilize much of it, the descriptions are vivid and eye-opening. The explanation of what has to be done to a naturally grass-eating cow to enable it to exist on corn is gut-wrenching. It’s no wonder that eating corn-fed meat is so bad for our health. “And yet the further you follow it, the more likely you are to begin wondering if that rational logic might not also be completely mad”.

The processing plant gets its due analysis with the vast array of products produced from the corn not least of which is the ubiquitous High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and its various relations not to mention the other alcohols, acids, emulsifiers and stabilizers derived. All in the name of finding new and novel ways to get humans to consume the vast mountain of biomass that is commodity corn. There‘s only so much ethanol we can feed to our cars.

Part one wraps up with Mr. Pollan sampling a McDonald’s meal with his family. The evaluation includes the observation that of the sixty menu items listed on the nutritional handout he was given, forty-five contained HFCS even the salad his wife chose! The discussion of the “cornification of our food system” and corn’s triumph over man and beast is amusing, without a hint of politics or sentiment. Your visit to a supermarket or restaurant may never be the same again.

The discussion of the "cornification of our food system" and corn's triumph over man and beast is amusing, without a hint of politics or sentiment.

Part two brightens the picture immeasurably with a focus on sustainable farming told through Mr. Pollan’s own eyes as he spent an enviable week living and working on Polyface Farm in Virginia. One section is called “The Genius of the Place” which makes it sound like human’s came up with the ideas but in fact Polyface simply lets nature do all the work. In a single season this farm produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 12,000 broiler chickens, 800 stewing hens, 50 beeves (25,000 pounds of beef), 250 hogs (50,000 pounds of pork), 800 turkeys and 500 rabbits. All without any outside inputs of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The secret is in the grass. The owner calls himself simply a grass farmer. The natural world has been designed to capture the energy of the sun in plants which convert to protein as animals eat it which then in turn can feed us humans. All the while replenishing the soil with the natural manure practiced in rotational farming. The explanation of how it all works sounds magical but is simply the natural order of things.

Part two also provides an in-depth look at “industrial organic” which are the vast farms that supply the likes of Wholefoods grocery store. A definite improvement on conventional food but not quite what you might be envisioning from the marketing pictures on the labels. The reductionist science explained as the reasoning behind the “N-P-K mentality” – that all a plant needs to grow is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium – has its parallels in the human medicine and health realm. “There no longer seemed any need to worry about such quaint things as earthworms and humus”. The problem is treating industrial farms as machines rather than living breathing organisms.

The problem is treating industrial farms as machines rather than living breathing organisms.

The second meal described is then an industrial organic meal at home with everything bought from Mr. Pollen’s closest Wholefoods. But many items had travelled thousands of miles to be on his dinner plate which leads to an interesting discussion of whether organic food is better for us, for the farmers, for the environment, for our health, and beyond.

The third meal heads back to Polyface farm and the sustainable food Mr. Pollan helped cultivate during his time there. Here the discussion gets into the low impact, low-capital, self-sustaining model with little need for commercial inputs such as machinery, fertilizers or chemicals of any kind including pharmaceuticals. No wonder the virtues of this type of farming are down-played by a government with commercial interests. “In nature health is the default”. When treating the farm as a biological system it can’t help but produce health. Our bodies are the same way.

The third and final part of the book leads up to that fourth meal in the title: one that consists of food items that have been hunted, gathered or foraged by Mr. Pollan himself. Here were some of the most colorful and vibrant sections to me as the events put humans directly in nature and demonstrated the great design of this world to sustain the human species (although Mr. Pollan doesn’t see it that way – more on this in a moment). Here the discussion of the book’s title takes off with the fundamental dilemma of not being a koala (only able to eat eucalyptus) or a Monarch butterfly (only milkweed) but the ability to eat anything which doesn’t kill us presents us with the existential crisis three times a day of what should we eat.

The hunting expedition to secure wild boar was enlightening. But my favorite section here was undoubtedly the chapter on mushrooms – the gathering of the fungi. I have a personal fascination with mushrooms myself. They are an incredible organism that are quite mysterious. We actually know very little about them. Mr. Pollan does an excellent job of describing their wonders and how they contribute to life on earth without ever making the connection that was evident to me throughout the book – divine inspiration. The final meal description made my mouth water and ignited a longing to follow in his footsteps at learning to forage mushrooms and grow my own food.

The one term used again and again throughout the book is “co-evolution”. Grasses and cows “co-evolved” to form the symbiotic relationship they have. Same with chanterelle mushrooms and oak trees (you’ll have to read the book to understand this relationship) or morels and pine trees. The term is tossed around liberally as if it makes total sense but sadly Mr. Pollan never explores the far-fetched nature of this conceit. A random mutation in an animal suddenly created the complex organ of a rumen (the 4-stomach system in a cow or sheep that enables it to digest grass and convert it into the muscle and fat of its own growth) while a grass such as clover, foxtail, bluegrass, or timothy randomly mutated out of …. what?.. at the same time.

Reading this book with a God’s-eye view of the world is probably a totally different experience than Mr. Pollan expected.

Reading this book with a God’s-eye view of the world is probably a totally different experience than Mr. Pollan expected. The closest the book gets to the reality of God’s world is a deep discussion on whether or not humans should eat animals at all. Mr. Pollan gives both sides of the argument starting with the animal-rights activists which are gaining ground more than a decade after he penned the discussion. The “equality” of humans apparently needs to be extended to animals these days. The arguments are interesting and Mr. Pollan attempts to suggest that humans are “a fundamentally different kind of creature” and wonders where the line should be drawn with seafood and mollusks. I furiously scribbled in the margin how plants also feel pain, can be shown to work together, and that mushrooms are positively animate. I would love to sit down with Mr. Pollan and explain to him the enlightenment of knowing fundamentally that God created every creature in our world and that plants and animals as food are clearly explained in His instruction book (we call the Bible). This foundational knowledge answers the omnivore’s dilemma and provides the connection for much of his observations. 

A truly fantastic book I encourage you to savor.

Here’s a couple of useful links to Mr. Pollan’s other works and to the wonderful Polyface Farm as well as the international  movement of Slow Food.

Emma Tekstra
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