Lisa Vegan's Reviews > The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
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Dec 09, 07

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bookshelves: reviewed, groups-buddies, non-fiction, philosophy, aaalt
Recommended for: omnivores & anyone interested in the state of agriculture in the U.S.
Read in December, 2007

I was resistant to reading this book because I’m not an omnivore, and also I thought that Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire was brilliant and I suspected I would not feel as fond of this one, which is certainly true. He does write well, but I didn’t find that this book had the eloquence or elegance of the other.

The sub-title of this book could read: It’s Really Ok To Eat Dead Animals, Really It Is. Which I realize for most people it is. But eating flesh foods and other foods made from animals such as dairy and eggs is simply what the vast majority of this book’s readers and the population as a whole do; it’s not an unique argument.

But, I loved the fungi chapter and the corn section. The chapter on mushrooms I’m sure I enjoyed so much because a close friend of mine has told stories of her rural Indiana upbringing and of the very small morel patch they have on their property. So it was really fun for me to read about the foraging/hunting of the mushrooms, including local morels. (The author lives about 30 minutes drive from me and I recognized many of the locations in the book.) The corn section (about the deliberate infusion of corn products into just about every processed food) made me determined to cut way down on the processed foods that I often eat: the one real way this book changed me, not an insignificant one.

A good part of this (apparently beloved) book seemed to me to be the author’s belabored argument that it’s perfectly fine to eat animals. His treatise looked like his attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance (his term although I was already thinking of it like that) so that he could continue to eat in peace as an omnivore, along with about 97% of the U.S. population; being omnivorous is the dominant paradigm. Anyway, his waxing poetic over the glories of killing and eating animals did not sway me. It’s interesting that Pollan continually rebuts his own arguments, but I wasn’t convinced his questioning was as honest as he wanted it to appear, as it seemed to me he already knew the answers he wanted to arrive at about being omnivorous. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he would agree with me about that.

Some of his facts and figures were off. When he talks about tens of millions of animals killed for food in the U.S. for instance; actually, the latest figures I’ve read are 11 billion every year, not including fish. Even the call to eat locally, which I usually subscribe to, is not to be so simplified. One contradictory example I can think of (this issue is not addressed in the book) is the consuming of products (chocolate, coffee, dried fruit, nuts) from the distant rainforest, which, in my opinion, is much preferable to continuing to cut down rainforest trees, and which the natives will allow if they can’t make their living from the rainforest in other ways.

I know my philosophy is shared by a relative few, but the fast food meals, the description which was intended to highlight the large amounts of corn products in all the foods, while I found that surprising and unfortunate, it was the cow and chicken parts of the meal that disturbed me the most. And, as far as the “idyllic” Polyface Farm, I truly wonder what they could do 100% plant products grown.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 73) (73 new)


Bobby Nice review. Looking forward to reading this book and comparing thoughts.


Lisa Vegan Thanks Bobby, Of course, I went back and read my review and found at least one grammatical error, etc. But I'm going to leave it as is.

I'll be very interested to know what you think of the book. It's gotten terrific reviews and ratings (overall) here at Goodreads.


Ginny Messina Great review, Lisa. I think I liked this book a little bit more than you did just because I was glad to see someone writing for a mainstream audience about the fact that food choices involve more than taste and health, and that there are ethical issues to consider. I also was very happy that he exposed the organic industry for what it is—-factory farming without pesticides. A lot of people believe they are doing all they can by eating organic foods, when in fact, eating vegetarian and eating locally are probably far better choices.

A few people I know who read this book thought it made a strong case for vegetarian diet. But in the end, I really didn't know what Pollan was thinking about this at all. How he could participate in those debates with Peter Singer and come away thinking it is okay to eat animal foods is something I don't understand. It seems like he ended up saying "well, yes, eating meat is wrong, but I'm going to do it any way." At least that's honest, though, and at the very least, the book doesn't allow people to get away with denying that animals suffer on factory farms. He could have made an even stronger case for that, of course.

And did he really say "tens of thousands of animals are killed per year?" I didn't notice that (although I noticed plenty of other mistakes). I wonder if he did that on purpose or if he just got the numbers wrong. The USDA states the numbers as more than "ten thousand million per year" for land animals. A nice way to downplay the 10 billion number!



message 4: by Lisa (last edited Dec 11, 2007 12:55PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Ginny,

Checked my review because thought may have made a huge error (other than the grammatical one I caught and left in), but I did actually say Pollan said "tens of millions" not "tens of thousands" animals. Still many, many fewer than the actual 11 billion farmed animals per year.

But you make good points about his at least writing a book addressing the issues.

Haven't been into The Omnivore's Dilemma Book Group today. Have you posted in there about this? You make very good points, and I really enjoyed your review as well.

I do think Pollan tried to craft an explanation for his meat eating that made it "not wrong" though, convoluted as it was, given all the contradictory things he was saying as he tried to work things out for himself.


Ginny Messina Oops--sorry Lisa. I meant to say tens of millions--which is still a far cry from thousands of millions! I'll check into the Omnivore's Dilemma book group, too.


message 6: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Lisa, was not the point of the "idyllic" Polyface chapter that there was a whole ecosystem at work, sun supporting plant-->supporting animal-->supporting animal-->supporting nature?

I am an ex-vegetarian that realized how ridiculous my own vegetarianism was, rooted as it was in consumption of factory-farmed ovo-lacto products, corn-based complex food products, factory-farmed soy that rapes the land as much as anything, and yes, some vegetables and fruits and grains.

I do think the case has been laid out well by Pollan that working with a constrained-culture or monoculture (100% plants) and just 'leaving the animals alone' doesn't work. Instead, as Pollan suggests, we can work respectfully with them, and as with all predators, help to maintain a gracious and thankful balance in their population and recognize that we have a relationship.

Pollan's arguing that we need to be closer to our food to understand that, and, perhaps, being closer results in vegetarianism. And that's OK, too. But these animals would likely die without human interaction -- domestication is not just a switch we can flip off -- and that's a point in the vegetarian case that I can't really reconcile.

There are perfectly viable societies (I'm thinking Native Americans in particular) that have been killed by what was thought a "civilizing" approach. For vegetarians (and I was once a preachy one), and for omnivores, we all need to realize a personal choice is just that. As long as there is a respectful relationship with the food we eat, and with the nature that produces it, we're likely to continue to enjoy its benefits and nourishment.


message 7: by Mikal (new)

Mikal His Holiness The Dalai Lama , eats meat. He, of course, would never be involved in the killing of the animal. But, as his doctor(s) have suggested for the benefit of his health, that in turn benefits so many sentient beings, he needs the nutrients. His consumption is minimal, and we know he gives thanks and prayers, as many spiritually minded have.
Let us all be mindful in our consumption of ANYTHING we consume on this planet. Support organic farming , support organic and HUMANE (and GO LOCAL!) "meat" farming. Just remember our dietary needs for protein are PALM OF YOUR HAND small per day, and there are plenty of vegetarian sources.


Tara Let's face the facts, the majority of people in our country do not want to face the reality of the nasty business of consuming animals. Your review is so well stated, Lisa. I am about to read this book, as well as Food Matters, and am anxious to read and compare. I've heard so much about this book though so it won't surprise me much, and I'm afraid I'll become too annoyed with the 'omnivorous' tone....Though that might be helpful in attracting more mainstream readers, it does not agree with my vegetarian attitude ;) It's high time people came to grips with what's on their plate, literally. Anyhow, kudos for your review.

I'm sorry but I must question Mikal from the last review - how can ANY killing be considered humane? the ultimate oxymoron.


Lisa Vegan Thanks Tara. Different subject but I loved Pollan's The Botany of Desire. As far as "what to eat" books, there are so very many that are better than this. The guy can write though.


message 10: by Tara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tara I will definitely check it out. If you have any other 'must reads' I'd love to hear. I'd love to suggest one for our book club.


message 11: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Tara, What types of books does your book club read?


message 12: by Tara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tara There are 7 in the group, and we each take turns choosing...choices are all over the place, from fictional novels like White Teeth, the Bike Thief, and REvolutionary Road, to memoirs (the glass castle). It's funny, one of our members, Kate, just emailed that she might pick Food Matters which I added to my to-read list ;) Sometimes we choose classics too.


message 13: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Oh gosh. Your group reads a wider variety than any of mine. I should probably get recommendations from you. You can always check my shelves: bookclub AND bookclubs-secondary. But I'll think about it. Feel free to give some suggestions here for me also. My group currently has 9 members and we read mostly fiction. There's another "sister" group that reads nothing but vegetarian/animal rights books so we never read those in my section.


message 14: by Tara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tara Very cool! Some of my favorites that we've read this year are The Book Thief, Rebecca (older classic goth/mystery), and The Glass Castle (memoir). I'll definitely check your lists for ideas. Thanks!


message 15: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan I loved The Book Thief and Rebecca. The Glass Castle is on my to-read list.


message 16: by Tara (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tara The Glass Castle was one of my favorites! Also loved Jamaica Inn by Du Maurier (Rebecca author). Read on my own after falling in love with her writing. Enjoy! I've gotten a few great ideas from your lists, thanks ;)


message 17: by Jacqueline (new) - added it

Jacqueline Quackenbush Just as a little bit of an FYI: Regardless of what you choose to eat, you are, as a member of the human species, an omnivore.


message 18: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Jacqueline, That is true. Human beings are omnivores, as are dogs and certain other animals. Cats and certain other animals are carnivores. Cows and certain other animals are herbivores.


message 19: by Rachel (last edited Nov 16, 2009 11:52AM) (new)

Rachel Excellent review, Lisa!

Yes, it's true, vegans are really omnivores that choose not to eat meat, rather than being true herbivores such as horses or cows. Interesting that in "Eating Animals," Nicolette from Niman Ranch said she's seen cows challenging the herbivore label by gnawing on animal bones in the pasture. I wonder if they were trying to eat some fungus or other plant food that had grown on the bones, or were they trying to actually eat the bones?

Here's an interesting talk on the subjects discussed in the Omnivore's Dilemma. Interesting and thoughtful comments posted as well.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/mar...



message 20: by Lisa (last edited Nov 16, 2009 12:13PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Yes, true. Humans can eat a variety of things and we are omnivores, as are dogs. Cats are carnivores and horses and cows are herbivores (except when they're fed incorrectly by humans) but Pollan's personal arguments for behaving as he reported were not convincing for me, and I suspect not even to himself at some level.

I'll check out that link, Rachel. Thanks.


message 21: by Jonatron (new) - added it

Jonatron Lisa wrote: "but Pollan's personal arguments for behaving as he reported were not convincing for me, and I suspect not even to himself at some level"

Maybe that's why it has the word "dilemma" in the title? :)


message 22: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Perhaps, Jonathan. But he's sure good at justifying his behavior = eating animals and their products and otherwise using them.


message 23: by Jonatron (new) - added it

Jonatron Lisa wrote: "Perhaps, Jonathan. But he's sure good at justifying his behavior = eating animals and their products and otherwise using them."

Who isn't? The only way to completely avoid "using animals" is to commit suicide. Every diet is a compromise between ease/convenience/health and minimizing suffering of animals. (Granted, many people give very little weight to the latter.) But even among vegetarian diets, there are different degrees. A typical American vegan diet incurs more suffering than a Jainist diet. The American vegan justifies their behavior, too, by comparing themselves to the average American instead.


message 24: by Lisa (last edited Nov 26, 2010 11:55AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Jonathan, I have a feeling you're here just to argue, which I have no interest in doing. I've read many books and being vegan does reduce a lot of suffering, in my opinion. There aren't that many Jains out there, and yes, they are extra careful to not harm insects or eat insects during harvesting, etc. I think it's fair to compare whatever we're doing to a typical person because they have the greatest number, the standard. If you're interested, there are tons of books & other materials that have actual facts & statistics.


message 25: by Ryan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ryan I've been disappointed by some of the vegetarian and vegan reviews I've read of this book, but I think your arguments are fair. Good review.


message 26: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Thanks, Ryan. I do try to be fair, and I did like parts of this book, and I did love The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World.


message 27: by Ryan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ryan Lisa wrote: "Thanks, Ryan. I do try to be fair, and I did like parts of this book, and I did love The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World."

I'm afraid I really enjoyed Omnivore, enough that I will read more of Pollan's work. I'll check out Botany of Desire next based on your endorsement of it.


message 28: by Kathryn (new) - added it

Kathryn An excellent review, Lisa! And not at all "ranting" IMO ;-) I think you presented an insightful and balanced exploration of the book, while clearly identifying your own philosophy and the "bias" you are bringing to the book in consequence. I think this makes for a very fair review.


Jillian Awesome review--I felt the same way (as you can see from my review if you read it). I'm a vegan and one of the "relative few."


message 30: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Jillian wrote: "Awesome review--I felt the same way (as you can see from my review if you read it). I'm a vegan and one of the "relative few.""

Jillian, I just saw your 2/10 post. I'm off to search for your review, but in case I don't find it (your profile is set to private so I have to search on the book's page) please post a link to it. Thanks.


Jillian Hi Lisa! Here you go:

I enjoy books about the politics behind food, the environment, etc. and this was no exception. I was surprised at the end that the author didn't go vegan (or at least vegetarian). I chock that up to knowing more about where food comes from than the environmental impact that livestock have on the planet.

Even if the author didn't convert his lifestyle, I would have upped my rating to a four (the book dragged too much to be a five), if the author had fully addressed environmental issue...moreI enjoy books about the politics behind food, the environment, etc. and this was no exception. I was surprised at the end that the author didn't go vegan (or at least vegetarian). I chock that up to knowing more about where food comes from than the environmental impact that livestock have on the planet.

Even if the author didn't convert his lifestyle, I would have upped my rating to a four (the book dragged too much to be a five), if the author had fully addressed environmental issues. To neglect them to the extent that Pollan did seemed irresponsible, or a conscious decision to ignore them.


message 32: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Jillian wrote: "if the author had fully addressed environmental issues. To neglect them to the extent that Pollan did seemed irresponsible, or a conscious decision to ignore them. "

Agreed. Thanks, Jillian. I did look for your review but there are pages of them. This is a popular book, more popular than I'd like. There are better books out there. I loved his Botany of Desire book but he's driving me crazy these days.


Jillian Agree!


Hannah "Vegetarianism is no solution... the first [answer] is to admit that deciding to live is deciding to kill...Sir Jagadis Bose measured the pain reactions of plants to cutting and pulling..." Read 'Murder in the Kitchen' by Alan Watts.


message 35: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Hannah, Veganism is the solution for me. Animals suffer horribly and I want no part of it. As some wise vegan once said, paraphrasing: put a toddler in a crib with an apple and a bunny and see which one they'll eat and which one they'll play with. ;-)


message 36: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Not even getting into the environmental consequences of animal agriculture!


Hannah Micro-organisms live on that apple too. That apple was once alive. Valuing one life over another (bunny > apple) is refusing to view ourselves as a community


message 38: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Hannah, There is no getting around it. When people eat animals and their products they're also eating all the plants those animals ate during their lifetimes, in other words more plants than if they ate just plant foods directly. I'm never going to see your side. This is something I've given a great amount of thought to for decades. I'm afraid we're just going to have to agree to disagree.


message 39: by Doug (new) - rated it 4 stars

Doug Lisa,

As always, I loved your review. I also agree with you about Omnivore's dilemma. I became a Vegetarian for emotional reasons. About 25 years ago, I tried raising all the food I was going to consume - which included animals. I found that I couldn't eat the animal right after I killed the animal...I then decided that it was best not to raise and kill animals. Of course, since then I have read a lot and become a bit of an activist (primarily about GMO's), but for me it has always remained emontional - If I am not willing to kill an animal, how can I be willing to eat it?


message 40: by Kathryn (last edited Jan 11, 2012 11:45AM) (new) - added it

Kathryn Lisa wrote: "When people eat animals and their products they're also eating all the plants those animals ate during their lifetimes, in other words more plants than if the..."

So well said, Lisa!

I do realize that I leave a footprint with whatever I eat, I also believe that a vegan diet is better for the environment and more compassionate to all creatures (the main reason I chose to become vegan).

Yes, it is troubling to regard one species as "better than" (or more entitled to life) than another. On the other hand, most people do that to a great extent simply by the type of animals they are willing to eat vs. the ones that they choose to have as pets. This is one reason why I choose to no longer eat any animal. And, as Lisa said, there is less overall damage done by eating only plants vs. animals that have also eaten plants.

Doug, your perspective is so interesting to me! My husband is still somewhat of an omnivore, and supportive of small farming/raising food though I think if he had to kill the animals he eats, he would not be able to do it. Thankfully, he is also supportive of me being vegan and eats all the vegan food I cook ;-)


message 41: by Doug (new) - rated it 4 stars

Doug Kathryn, Thank you. I appreciate your thoughts on why you decided to become Vegan.
My middle daughter, Hannah, is an organic farmer and we have been part of a community supported garden for the past 20 years or so ( which is where Hannah developed her passion for farming). The CSG we belong to, is plant only. We try to eat Local foods and avoiding (as much as possible) prepackaged goods as much as possible - hopefully, that helps to reduce our environmental footprint.


message 42: by Lisa (last edited Jan 11, 2012 02:29PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Doug, Hi! So nice to be in touch with you again; it feels as though it's been awhile. Thanks for commenting. Yes, Michael Pollan seemed to find it easy to consume the animals he killed. I could have never done it, not as an omnivore or lacto-ovo vegetarian or now. I admire your involvement with community supported agriculture. It's a great movement. ETA: GMOs is another important issue!

Kathryn, Thanks for commenting. Yes, in every culture the people who consume animal products (most of them) do very carefully pick and choose which animals they eat. We wouldn't be comfortable eating dogs or cats but in other cultures it's the accepted norm. Ditto insects. Blech! My cultural indoctrination at work; even when I ate as an omnivore I'd have probably chosen to starve then eat some animals, but I'd probably eat any plant that wasn't poisonous or harmful in some other way.


message 43: by Nettie (new)

Nettie I really liked your review Lisa.

To pick up on points that both you and Doug made: I could not kill an animal myself or even watch an animal being killed, so consuming such products would be going against my nature and values. Sadly, for farmed animals, the slaughter is merely the culmination of a lifetime of suffering. There is nothing worse than prolonged suffering. Even those people who can kill animals can't stomach what goes on in factory farms and slaugherhouses today.

The way I feel is that if I can' bear to look at it, I don't want to participate in it by consuming it and therefore paying others to do those things. The author Jonathan Safran Foer said, "One of the greatest opportunities to live our values - or betray them - lies in the food we put on our plates."


message 44: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Thanks for posting, Nettie! Such good points. Yep, if I was a farmed animal, for my way of thinking, the actual slaughter or at least death would likely come as a relief. I'm very sensitive to lifetimes of suffering.

I think I told you I remember having a long conversation with Alex Hershaft of http://farmusa.org/ and how his being a Holocaust survivor led him to try to reduce any suffering he caused; hence; his veganism and work for animal rights. I understand that way (of many) of developing empathy for others.

And I love that Jonathan Safran Foer quote. Now, that was a good book, even though he's not vegan, yet anyway. (Eating Animals)


message 45: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Kathryn wrote: "Thankfully, he is also supportive of me being vegan and eats all the vegan food I cook ;-) "

Well, I read your blog, Kathryn, and I'd eat all the food you cook too!
;-) It all looks so delicious. You choose wonderful foods to make. Yum!


message 46: by Nettie (new)

Nettie Yes, and in regards to the suffering: Hundreds of millions of animals a year don't even live long enough to go to slaughter.They suffer to death before then. It's unspeakable and I won't be a part of it.


message 47: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa Vegan Nettie, Not to even mention the male chicks. Our whole society needs a massive overhaul. I'm so grateful for all my supportive friends, especially those who understand what appalls me. It helps a little bit to deal with reality, and it's so comforting to know others who feel the way I feel. I also treasure and love my friends who are not on the same page as me, but even with the those I'm closest with, there's always a tiny bit of a wedge there. I try to not have that be because then I feel sad about that. But having so many people aiming to reduce suffering as much as possible helps give me hope.


message 48: by Kathryn (new) - added it

Kathryn Lisa wrote: "Kathryn wrote: "Thankfully, he is also supportive of me being vegan and eats all the vegan food I cook ;-) "

Well, I read your blog, Kathryn, and I'd eat all the food you cook too!
;-) It all lo..."


Awww, thank you! :-)


message 49: by Kathryn (new) - added it

Kathryn Lisa wrote: "Nettie, Not to even mention the male chicks. Our whole society needs a massive overhaul. I'm so grateful for all my supportive friends, especially those who understand what appalls me. It helps a l..."

So true, Lisa! I am so grateful to you, and other vegans I have met online, who have been so supportive and it's just wonderful to know others feel as I do.


message 50: by Doug (new) - rated it 4 stars

Doug Lisa,

I agree on GMO's and we have been quite active in that as well. My wife has a friend from college, Jeffrey Smith, who wrote "Genetic Roulette" and "Seeds of Deception". He is quite a wonderful person and has been very effective in the movement against GMO's.


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