The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan explores the question of where our food comes from, and how the growth, processing, marketing, and distribution of food affects our health, animal welfare, and the environment.
This book, published in 2006, was the first of several influential books critical of the post-World War II industrialization of food production by our government and big business. As explained in an Afterword added in 2016, the book helped to raise awareness of healthier alternatives and boost an incipient “food movement” that has continued to change what we eat and how it’s produced.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma refers to the age-old human dilemma of deciding what to eat. Because we’re omnivores, and biologically designed to eat plants, animals and fungi, we have wide-ranging options compared to “specialized eaters” like koala bears or monarch butterflies that can eat only one thing. In the early days of human evolution, deciding what to eat was a dilemma because some options could sicken or kill us. As a species we learned what to eat through various tools such as memory, recognition, taste, culture, and tradition.
Around the end of World War II, our food system began to change radically. Today we’re again confused and anxious about our food choices due to ignorance about where our food comes from — plus an array of new health concerns. We’re confronting a modern-day Omnivore’s Dilemma about what we should eat.
One hundred years ago, we knew where our food came from — typically a small farm growing a diversity of crops and animals and selling its products locally. This was a traditional, pastoral food chain connected with the land and functioning in accordance with nature.
Nowadays it’s been replaced with an industrialized food chain or system built on factory-based rules of efficiency, mass production, mechanization, and distribution. Consumers no longer know for sure where their food comes from, beyond the huge supermarkets where they bought it.
Most people accepted this until we began experiencing a multitude of problems: an increase in food contamination scares, environmental issues, and health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. This helped spur the growth of an organic movement promoting sustainable, pesticide-free, locally grown food.
Adding to our food uncertainty are diet fads, marketing gimmicks, ever-changing dietary guidelines, research, and media reports. Because the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, we haven’t developed a national food tradition and culture like other countries to help guide our eating habits. So the Omnivore’s Dilemma confronts us again.
To answer the question of what we should eat, Pollan explores four food chains or systems of growing, processing, and distributing food: Industrial, Industrial Organic, True Organic, and Hunter-Gatherer. He created a meal from each food chain, after tracing each to its origins, starting with the one that dominates our food choices today — the Industrial food chain.
The industrial food chain starts with corn, grown on massive industrial farms in the Midwest. The farms are monocultures, meaning they only grow one thing — corn. Thanks to U.S. farm policies driven by the interests of big business, along with the continuing development of higher yield varieties of corn, farmers produce ever greater quantities of corn and we have a constant oversupply. This continually drives down prices for farmers.
The industrialization of food production has several ramifications. The industrial food chain depends on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which lead to pollution and health problems. Because industrial farming is highly mechanized, it doesn’t require many people to grow and harvest corn. Towns in the Midwest are dwindling in population because of farm job losses and bankruptcies.
For the rest of the country,** corn is a key...
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What should we have for dinner?
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan explores how modern-day humans answer the age-old question, “What should we eat,” by tracing four types of food chains (or food production systems), from a food’s origin to its final destination, the dinner table.
Although this is a seemingly simple question, answering it turns out to be complicated. The book examines why it’s complicated and who benefits, often to the public’s detriment.
Humans evolved as omnivores. This is reflected in the design of our teeth (we can eat both plants and meat), our brain capacity for observation and memory, and adaptations such as hunting and cooking.
Being an omnivore is an advantage that has enabled humans to survive in many different environments. But it presents a challenge. Because we can eat almost anything, we must continually make choices.
In the early days of human evolution, eating the wrong thing might kill you or make you sick, so the decision was crucial and fraught with anxiety. Besides deciding what was safe, humans also needed to determine which foods provided the most energy.
In contrast, animals that are...
The supermarket is the pinnacle of our industrial food chain.
It is a man-made environment of many species of plants and animals, organized in familiar categories. You’d think it would be easy to sort out, but the processing, packaging, and labeling obscure the origins and ingredients of many items.
Each item links back to a plant in a specific patch of soil. With produce you can sometimes see on the label where it was grown. With meat it’s more difficult to determine origin: where the animal was born, fattened, and processed; what it ate, and what drugs it received. Among processed foods, it’s hard to trace items such as non-dairy creamer back to...
Today most of our food comes from corn-based industrial farms. But in the early 1900s, most farms started out as diverse operations, with corn, fruits/vegetables, oats, hay, chickens, and pigs. One in four Americans lived on a farm.
Beginning in the fifties and sixties the availability and cheap price of corn made it more profitable to fatten livestock on feedlots, and chickens in giant factories. So chickens and cattle moved from farms to industrial areas, creating space for farmers to plant more corn, which made it even cheaper.
By the 1980s, diversified farms had basically disappeared in Iowa and a single crop or monoculture — corn — dominated.
Growing just corn required much less labor than diversified farming, thanks to fertilizer, pesticides, mechanization, and other practices. Monoculture farms got bigger but required fewer people to operate.
Here’s how farming works today. George Naylor is a typical farmer, raising corn and soybeans in Greene County, Iowa. Naylor rotates the two crops. (Soybeans have become the second crop supporting the industrial food system; like corn, they’re fed to livestock and are a component of a...
Most of the corn harvested is used as a commodity and turned into processed foods. Only a small fraction of it is eaten as actual corn. Here’s what happens to the corn after it’s harvested.
The first stop after harvest for an industrial corn crop is the grain elevator, invented for collecting and storing mass quantities of corn prior to loading it onto railroad cars for distribution. These clustered, concrete towers are the tallest structures in farm country. They’re filled with corn by conveyor belt and drained by a spout into railroad cars.
Most corn is sold as a commodity. It is a different variety — known as No. 2 field corn — from what the corn that we humans eat. It is traded and sold all over the world.
Farmers once sold their corn in burlap sacks bearing their names. They had to be concerned about quality, because buyers knew where their corn came from. With the invention of the grain elevator for storage and railroad cars for transport, corn was no longer packaged in burlap sacks with a farmer’s name. Corn from all sources was mixed, breaking the link between producer and consumer.
In 1865 the Chicago Board of Trade come up with a...
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If the corn flowing from midwestern elevators doesn’t end up feeding cattle, it likely goes to a “wet” mill, which is the first stage for processing it into numerous food products. (They’re called wet mills to distinguish them from traditional mills that just grind corn into dry meal.)
We eat less than a bushel of corn per person per year in its original form. Yet we each consume a ton of corn annually, mostly through ingredients in processed products, such as breakfast cereals, condiments, or snacks.
“Wet” mills turn corn into components that companies like General Mills, McDonalds, and Coca-Cola use in processed foods. The wet milling process reduces corn to simple molecules, mostly sugars, forming corn syrup, the first domestic substitute for cane sugar. It was further refined into high-fructose corn syrup in the 1970s, which is now the predominant processed product made from corn and is the main ingredient in soda.
The mill takes apart the corn kernel:
We are what we eat, which for Americans is mostly processed corn.
This can actually be quantified. A scientist can tell which type of plant — corn, wheat, soy — created a given carbon atom in a human bone, and can therefore determine the composition of a person’s diet by their remains. Carbon atoms created by corn are different, and their presence indicates how much corn was in a person’s diet.
Americans eat more wheat than corn outright — 114 pounds wheat flour a year, versus 11 pounds of corn flour. But Americans, compared to Mexicans, have diets much higher in corn, because of all the processed corn we eat in various forms. (Mexicans eat grass-fed as opposed to corn-fed beef, and use cane sugar instead of corn syrup as a sweetener.)
Our consumption of so much corn in unhealthy forms, especially high-fructose corn syrup, has helped create an epidemic of obesity in the U.S.
There are striking parallels between our obesity problem and the epidemic of alcoholism in 19th century America. The latter was also driven by excess corn, which was turned into cheap corn whiskey.
In the early 19 century American farmers, especially in the fertile...
Consumers have two alternatives to the corn-based industrial food chain — Big Organic and traditional organic. Big Organic is a scaled up version of the traditional small organic farm. It’s scaled up to supply large quantities of food to big companies like Whole Foods, Walmart, and supermarket chains with organic sections.
Like traditional organic, Big Organic operations avoid pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. But they’ve also adopted some practices of the industrial system including mass production, processing, and long-distance distribution. Traditional organic operations oppose processing and long-distance shipping, which use energy, especially fossil fuels. They aim to sell their foods locally or regionally, while they are freshest.
Both of these organic systems sell food that is safer and more nutritious than industrially grown versions, but Big Organic is less sustainable than traditional organic, since much of the energy it uses is non-renewable.
Organic agriculture has its roots in the sixties, when “agrarian reformers” sought to grow “uncontaminated food.” This led to the commune movement, and then to the...
Big Organic farms look a lot like industrial farms, with vast acreage devoted to a single crop (a monoculture) such as broccoli, lettuce, or corn. In California, some of the biggest organic operations are actually owned and run by conventional megafarms.
Big Organic proponents argue that the scale of a farm has no bearing on its adherence to organic principles. Big farms are necessary because organic production can’t be a significant alternative to the industrial food chain unless it’s practiced on a large scale.
Greenways Organic is a 2,000-acre organic produce operation incorporated into a 24,000-acre conventional farm. It practices both conventional and organic farming.
On the conventional side it uses chemical fertilizer; in the organic operation it uses organic compost (horse and chicken manure). The conventional farm uses chemical...
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While traditional organic farmers sell their food directly to local customers and answer their questions first hand, Big Organic-supplied supermarkets like Whole Foods take a different approach to customer communication.
Products sold at Whole Foods carry labels with pastoral descriptions intended to make you feel good about buying the food. For instance, the labeling on the “range-fed” steak describes it as coming from a steer “living in beautiful places.”
Such descriptive labels are showing up more frequently in supermarkets, but Whole Foods goes the farthest. Milk is described as coming from cows enjoying lives “free from unnecessary fear and distress.” An organic chicken identified as “Rosie” comes from Petaluma Poultry, which claims its “farming methods strive to create harmonious relationships in nature…”
Supermarket “stories” invite shoppers to fill in most of the details and imagine they’re participating in a pastoral tradition of farms like those described in stories for children. But Whole Foods depends on industrial methods to get the volume and variety of foods its consumers expect. It uses the grocery industry’s...
In contrast to the huge organic producers that supply Whole Foods, Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is a small farm operating on organic principles of sustainability, diversity, and simplicity (no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or antibiotics; and local marketing).
Owned and operated by Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm provides an alternative to the industrial food chain, by farming according to the logic of nature rather than by industrial principles. According to the author, this is what a true organic farm looks like.
The farm raises chickens, beef, pigs, turkeys, and rabbits, as well as tomatoes, sweet corn and berries, on 100 acres of pasture, abutted by another 450 acres of forest.
The foundation of the farm’s food chain is grass of various types, in the way corn is the foundation of the industrial food chain starting on an Iowa farm. Animals and crops are rotated through the various pastures and benefit in a symbiotic way.
Pastures are grazed twice by beef cattle, followed by hens that eat bugs in the manure and spread the manure around (acting as a cleanup crew). Chickens also add their own fertilizer (nitrogen). Finally the pastures are cut...
The industrial food chain is long: A typical food item travels 1,500 miles. By contrast, Polyface’s grass-based food chain is short. For example, most of its chickens are eaten a half-dozen miles from the farm — or at most, a half-day’s drive.
The farm doesn’t ship long-distance or sell to supermarkets, or wholesale its food. It sells its products via five methods: direct sales at the farm store, farmers’ markets, urban buying clubs, local stores, or direct delivery to restaurants.
Polyface couldn’t function without this local food economy. Salatin calls his sales methods relationship marketing — direct interaction between farmer and customer.
In terms of marketing, the main differences between local and industrial food are price and availability of information on quality.
With on-farm sales, the farmer, rather than middlemen, receives most of the consumer’s dollar. Local food is honestly priced (its price reflects the true cost of production), meaning it costs more but you’re not paying additionally for pollution and health costs, or through a government subsidy.
The only information available on industrialized products is price, although there’s a barcode,...
By way of contrast with industrial and organic eating, Pollan set out to create a meal entirely from foraged ingredients: those he had hunted, grown, and gathered himself. He planned to gather wild mushrooms, exemplifying the rewards and risks of eating from the wild, and to go hunting.
Today most of our hunting, gathering, and food-growing is a hobby or form of recreation. But there are lessons to be learned from exploring these activities.
Foraging (both hunting and gathering) is the food chain that natural selection designed us for. As we switched from food found in nature to food produced by agriculture, we’ve developed new traits, for instance greater adult tolerance for lactose. But we still...
Americans are confused when it comes to how we treat animals. We vacillate between sentiment and cruelty. We treat dogs as family members, yet consign pigs, which are just as intelligent as dogs, to suffer on factory farms.
We handle our confusion and doubts about eating animals by distancing ourselves from how animals are raised and processed for food.
Most people would rather not know what it takes to get meat on their dinner plates. The meat industry understands that the more people know about the slaughter of animals for food, the less meat they’re likely to eat. So the industry keeps its practices under wraps and behind factory walls, and the public doesn’t ask many questions.
In the past, our cultural traditions and rituals involving the slaughter of animals resolved any moral dilemmas around killing and eating them, thus allowing people to eat meat without agonizing about it. We mostly lack such traditions today.
Today most people remain deliberately ignorant of how we process animals for food, and they continue eating meat. As an...
Columbus and the Spanish explorers brought pigs to the new world, and the animals ended up flourishing in the wild. Wild boar in many states are now considered a pest and destroyer of forests, farmland, and vineyards. They can also be vicious to other animals.
Since wild pigs are a nuisance and damage the environment — and are known to taste particularly good — Pollan decided to go pig hunting in northern California. He initially had anxiety about hunting a pig, but ended up enjoying it.
As he stalked the woods, his attention to signs and sounds became acute, and shut out everything else. He developed “hunter’s eye,” which is a sharp focus on any movement that filters out distractions.
He had these insights from the experience.
People garden and gather mushrooms to feel self-reliant, as though we still have the skills to provide for ourselves.
Gardening and mushroom hunting, however, are very different ways of being in nature. The gardener divides the world into two parts: cultivated and uncultivated, domestic and wild.In a garden, plants present their fruits (to ensure propagation). In mushroom hunting, the species you’re looking for is hard to find; it literally hides in nature.
Mushrooms are wild and pursue an agenda different from yours; some of them can kill you. That’s why looking for mushrooms is called hunting rather than gathering or harvesting.
We actually know little about fungi, the third kingdom of life. Books and articles about mushrooms pose as many questions as answers. We don’t know even basic things. We don’t know what rules govern their creation and growth.
Here’s are some of the things we do know:
Pollan’s hunter-gatherer food chain meal was the “perfect” meal because it fully answered the question of where the food came from. It met the following criteria:
The ingredients for the meal, which required considerable preparation, were:
Ten years after publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, determining where our food comes from is still a daunting question, but some aspects of our food systems are changing in ways that are helping us to understand what we are eating and make better choices.
Since The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published in 2006, additional writers and books have stirred the public’s curiosity about where their food comes from. They include Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser and Food Politics, Marion Nestle.
The public’s attitude toward food and farming shows signs of shifting. Food safety problems have drawn attention, including mad cow disease and E. coli contamination in hamburger. Also,...
The Omnivore’s Dilemma refers to the evolutionary conundrum: How do we decide what’s safe and healthy to eat?
What is your biggest concern or anxiety about deciding what you should eat? How can you lessen that concern?
Many of our foods are highly processed and contain synthetic ingredients. One of the most common and harmful to your health is the sweetener high-fructose corn syrup, which contributes to obesity and Type II diabetes.
Look at the labels of some products currently in your home. How many contain high-fructose corn syrup? What could you replace them with?
Our government’s long-standing agriculture policy of encouraging overproduction of corn has led to many problems, including farm bankruptcies, toxic waste, cruelty to animals, and unhealthy food options.
How have industrial food production practices affected you or your community? Is there anything you would like to see changed?