In The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan looks at how our food is grown, processed and eaten. He focuses on the rise of corn as the keystone crop in t...moreIn The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan looks at how our food is grown, processed and eaten. He focuses on the rise of corn as the keystone crop in the American food system, and why this is not a good thing. He also looks at how the animals we eat are treated from birth to their final trip into a slaughterhouse, the growth of the organic food movement and how it has transformed into an industry, a highly successful sustainable farm (Polyface Farm) and wraps up with a final section on hunting and foraging. The organizing theme - and subtitle - are four meals the author has, each of which reflects a different food system; A meal from McDonald's, one made from organic food, one from Polyface Farms and a final meal that has to made from whatever he can hunt and forage for in California.
The book is well written and while the author's positions are pretty clear - particularly how much he dislikes the fossil fuel intensive, corn-centric, inhumane conventional agriculture industry - this really is not an advocacy piece. There is no point where he writes "this is how you should live." Instead, he shows the alternates that are out there, points out their failings and, in the end, comes to a conclusion that hard core opponents of conventional agriculture won't find satisfying, that there is no instant answer to the food issue in America.
There are many take-aways from the book. One if that government agricultural policy, particularly supports for the corn industry have heavily distorted what is grown, how is grown and processed and how it is priced. So much corn is being produced that it is used in one form or another in almost all processed food and many that aren't, like most of our non-organic meat, as well as other, non-food products (e.g., ethanol fuel). This would not have happened if various government policies - many well-intentioned - had not been implemented. This then created expectations from Americans for inexpensive, readily available food. This vast bio-machine - corn to cow to consumer - will be very difficult to change. Another is that the disconnect between how food is produced and how Americans consume it, has led to inhumane (and unhealthy for consumers) conditions in the meat packing industry. Many people don't even think about what is in their food or where it comes from, something the author (and I) think is odd, given that we a) need to at to survive and b) it is one thing that we should want full control over.
The book's thrust, however, is not about offering solutions; it is about laying out how food is produced today and how the production systems evolved. It is only through this kind of basic information - and a desire on the part of the consumer to want to know what goes into what they put in there mouths - that the problems in the food system can be addressed. Worth reading.
Note: If you think this sounds interesting, but are not a reader, check out Food Inc.. Many of the themes of the book are addressed in this film; which is not surprising, since the author is in the film and was a consultant to the filmmakers. The movie doesn't get into the issue of hunting and foraging - the last third of the book, but, quite frankly, this was also the least interesting part of the book since it has little applicability to how a nation of 330 million people can feed itself (not to mention a world of 7.5 billion people). (less)
If I could give this 3.5 stars I would. It is pretty good. I like the author's style, very engaging and informative, reflecting his years in print med...moreIf I could give this 3.5 stars I would. It is pretty good. I like the author's style, very engaging and informative, reflecting his years in print media. I also found his stories of both corruption and courage to be fascinating. Finally, as a Detroit native who witnessed some of the events that led to the current state of the city, there was a personal angle that I have to acknowledge.
However, the book does have a few failings, the most glaring the failure to fully realize either the title ("an autopsy") or one of the premises, that Detroit's fate is potentially that of America. On the first point, "autopsy" to me implies a more systematic exploration of the trends and decisions that led to the present day. While the author does include some background on the city's history, more time is spent writing about family events and anecdotal tales of corruption and people trying their best to get by. A better title would have been "Detroit: a viewing" or "Detroit: a wake."
As for the second, more serious thematic failing, the author doesn't do a good job of synching up the problems in Detroit with those of the country. The most obvious one - the economic shifts of the last 40 years and the decline in manufacturing employment - is touched on; but is also one that has been gone over so many times that it seems like rote repetition. The more provocative one - trying to tie the corruption in the city government to a larger lose of confidence in the America system - is not well-developed and, in fact, the author offers counter-indications of this. I'm thinking specifically of the funeral of a fireman, in which the Detroit firemen show up in their shabby gear and the men from surrounding suburbs and other cities show up in new gear. This would seem to indicate "the system" is working elsewhere, just not Detroit. I think the case could be made that Detroit is a "canary in the coal mine" for America; I just don't think the author makes it.
Anyway, even with those criticisms, I still enjoyed the book...if one can actually be said to enjoy a book that is a record of the death rattle of a city.(less)