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

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
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Feb 03, 2008

it was amazing
Recommended to Anita by: Book review on Salon.com
Recommended for: people who care about their health, animals, farmers, the environment, and humanity
Read in February, 2008

Michael Pollan is a journalist, and an omnivore, curious about where the food he puts in his mouth comes from. In the book he follows four meals from the very beginning of the food chain to his plate. What he finds is that the food we put in our mouths turns out to be a big decision- a moral, political, and environmental one.

Part One- CORN
The discussion begins with CORN. Part one of this book is shocking. I knew corn was the main crop grown in America and that farmers growing it are in big trouble, requiring government subsidies just to stay afloat, but Michael Pollan unravels how it got to that point.

After leaving the farm, most of the corn finds its way to the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) where it is fed to cows, pigs, chicken, turkey, and now even fish. This is problematic due to the fact that cows aren't built to eat corn. They eat grass. This unnatural diet leads to various health problems for the cow that must be countered with a cocktail of antibiotics and hormones, creating more health problems for us.

He follows the corn from the field to the supermarket, where it now infiltrates virtually every processed food on the shelf. I had no idea that corn is broken down and recombined into hundreds of different forms, most notably oils, high fructose corn syrup, and xantham gum (never knew what the hell that was). Just take a look at the food label of any processed food and your probably eating some scientific form of that kernel of corn.

He followed the corn all the way to his meal at McDonald's. Between Pollan, his wife, and his son they packed in 4,510 calories for lunch. The items that contained the highest proportion of corn turned out to be the soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and french fries (23%). And we thought we were eating such a varied diet. As Pollan points out, we are simply industrialized eaters surviving on corn.

Part 2- GRASS
Part two focuses on the organic movement. Everyone thinks they're making a wonderful decision to eat organic and in one sense they are, saving the soil from all of the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (although some crazy stuff is still allowed under US organic laws). There are the obvious health benefits of not ingesting those things. The dark side is that the bag of Earthbound Farms baby lettuce mix you just bought traveled 3,000 miles in refrigerated trucks using untold amounts of energy. Organic started out as a local movement, but as demands increased, it was forced to industrialize. Supermarkets don't want to deal with several smaller local organic farmers. They want one large buyer to stock all their produce needs. Big Organic is now a 350 million dollar business.

Meet Rosie, the organic free range chicken:
The lesson taken away from Rosie is beware of food labels that state things like "free range" or "cage-free." These are really meaningless statements placed on packaging in an attempt to lessen the guilt of consumers that have informed themselves about the horrors of industrial factory farming. Michael Pollan tracked down Rosie and it turns out that she isn't out wandering in a field of grass. She's in a long indoor structure confined with twenty thousand birds for the first five weeks of her life. When they open the doors at either end after the first five weeks, the birds habits have been set in place, they feel no need to take a chance out in the unknown (which turns out to be a small fenced in patch of grass that could never support all of the birds inside). As Pollan puts it "free range turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens as a two-week vacation option."

Pollan then visits Polyface Farm just outside of Charlottesville, VA where Joel Salatin raises cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and even rabbits in harmony with the animals natural instincts. It is the true definition of symbiosis, where each species depends on the others and all depend on the grass. Salatin manages all of this using rotational grazing techniques. The cows come through first, then the chickens. The animals are moved on a daily basis to prevent overgrazing and to allow the proper spreading of the animals' droppings which in turn nourish the soil and grasses. He slaughters the chickens on site, in the open air where any of his costumers can watch and see where their food really comes from. Compare this to the CAFOs where the killing stations are off limits to all observers. What's going on behind those walls? Polyface cows and pigs have to be sent off-site due to USDA regulations. People drive from all over to buy his "clean food" and restaurants in Charlottesville proudly read "Polyface Farm chickens" on their menus. They give a variety of reasons when asked why they come all the way to buy Salatin's food:
"I just don't trust the meat in the supermarket anymore."
"You're not going to find fresher chickens anywhere."
"I drive 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family."
"It actually tastes like chicken."
"Oh those beautiful eggs! The difference is night and day- the color, the richness, the fat content."
It is the alliance between the producer and the consumer. The consumers can look the farmer in the eyes and see that the food is produced "with care and without chemicals." They are also keeping the moeny in the community by supporting local farmers.

Part 3- The Forest
His final meal is from ingredients derived from Pollan's owe efforts through hunting and gathering. He realizes this is an unrealistic option in terms of our daily eating, but he wants to undergo this experiment to bring him closer to the food he eats. After hunting wild boar, gathering mushrooms from the forest, collecting cherries from a tree in the neighborhood, he discovers what is for him, "the perfect meal." Why perfect? His meal would not have been possible without the number of people that helped him in his hunting and gathering endeavours. It was an open food chain. He knew where all the ingredients came from and their were no hidden costs. "A meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true costs of the things we take for granted."

The bottom line:
What are we eating?
Where did it come from?
How did it make it to our table?
What is the true cost? (politically, environmentally, ethically, and in terms of the public health)
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01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-10)




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Hilary I bought this book a couple of weeks ago, and it is next on my reading list - I've been looking forward to it for a while. I'm also very interested in his newest, "In Defense of Food".


Angel This sounds really interesting. I'm glad you wrote a detailed synopsis. I've always avoided processed/pre-made foods of any kind, and eat very little meat, but it's really enlightening knowing the details of why it's garbage. Support your local coop! Create small communities where people actually know each other (this is possible even in a big city) instead of super-networks! We should talk more about this because I think there are a lot of issues surrounding this one--the industrial revolution, our society's laziness and apathy, etc, etc. Americans tend to want to be spoon-fed information instead of doing any kind of research themselves, so they tend to just take the word of advertisers, authority figures, etc. Like how most people think oranges have the highest percentage of vitamin C because of advertisements funded by orange-growers, when really strawberries have even more. (Just a random example). Have you heard of the book China Study? Written by a vegan about the politics of food and nutrition in our country, like the food pyramid. Anyway, good stuff.


Patrick\ Excellent synopsis. It is a carnivore's moral issue. Can we choose what we eat minimizing our contribution to a weakening of the natural environment and in the process diminish the unnatural changing of our body chemistry? At the moment (and into the near future), unlikely. Thanks for this fine write-up.


Michele Well Done, Anita! Great synopsis. So good, in fact, that I was tempted to use some of your lines to describe this book in my listing. I give you credit for it. Please let me know if it's not acceptable to you, and I promise to delete it. Isn't the section on Corn so powerful? It's information that truly needs to be shared. Thanks again.


message 6: by Zippy (new)

Zippy Great review. As a vegetarian I won't be reading the book, but your synopsis was really interesting and gave me a lot of information. The corn issue is particularly interesting for me as I am a (self) certified corn addict who has become over the years allergic to anything containing corn (and it is hard to find ANYTHING pre-packaged that does not contain some kind of processed corn these days).


message 5: by Hayes (new)

Hayes Wow Anita, what a lot of work you put into that review for us. Even though you summed everything up so succinctly I'm still going to read it. Thanks.


message 4: by Kate (new)

Kate Anita, I'd like to clarify some statements you make in your review, mainly about cows eating corn being unnatural, because they are ruminants (what you mean by "not built for that", I think). Firstly, corn IS a grass, but I assume you are referring to the kernel portion of the plant. Dairy cattle in the US eat whole corn silage, therefore, they eat at LEAST 50 % forage in their diet, some from corn silage and some from hay/haycrop silage. Secondly, how would a hormone (cholesterol-based or protein, you aren't specific) have anything to do with a cows' rumen? AB that humans may use are given to cattle that are sick. Period. Anything other subclinical use of AB are in the form of ionophores, which change the cell membrane potential in certain bacteria, would most definitely kill a human swiftly, therefore are not used in human medicine. I'm not sure how a "cocktail" of AB and hormones would solve anything if a cow had low rumen pH. I can see how AB will treat a liver abscess, which may be what he/you were referring to. That does happen with beef cattle on a finishing diet, but corn and soybeans produce a volatile fatty acid profile in the rumen which favors marbling, and most Americans prefer that flavor over grass-fed beef. Farming is a business, and in business you give the consumer what they want.

If you calculate the efficiency (feed intake/milk or meat produced) of cows eating a corn/forage diet vs. an all grass diet, you might be surprised to see how inefficient the "old way" ie., grazing really is, and there is significantly less methane and CO2 produced, as well. This fact is certainly not popular among the "organic" and "sustainable" crowd, but it is a fact.

That said, I think you are simply restating what Mr. Pollan wrote, so those are his statements, I assume.

Also, if people are so worried about hormones, how do you think ANYTHING (plants included!) grows? Signalling molecules called hormones take care of that.

And is anyone really surprised that most of the organic food is shipped thousands of miles?? Buy local if you can, but remember: LOCAL GROWN DOES NOT EQUAL ORGANIC.

Also, life is not a circus with puppies and kittens running around...from firsthand experience, slaughter is not a fun thing. That is a fact of life if you choose to eat animal products. And CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) gets tossed around an awful lot just like "factory farming" (which has NO definition). CAFO's are based on the density of animal-units on one farm, and guess what? Grazing dairy cattle can still be a CAFO. So...observers aren't allowed at a PRIVATE slaughterhouse? I'm confused, so all private companies open their doors to the public regularly? What exactly do think is going on behind the closed doors, other than a kill floor?

If this book gets Americans to open their eyes about where their food comes from, then that's a good thing. I hope Americans will continue to support AMERICAN agriculture with common sense, not reactionary ideas like the organic movement, which asks us (farmers, allied industry) to return to a form of farming from 60+ years ago. If that continues, we will most certainly be purchasing much of our food from S. America (we are already on our way to doing that). Or effectively banning technology that has some of the largest scientific body of literature behind it, simply because of the words "hormone" or "GMO".

I'm sure my comment will be unpopular and I am fine with that. I think scientists in general are at fault for basically doing a poor job at educating people, especially about food. As an animal scientist, I hope someday one of US will write a book, with published, peer-reviewed data explaining why things are they way they are. I'm not saying it's perfect, but in our country, one percent of the population feeds the other 99 percent. Food for thought.


message 3: by Sandra (new) - added it

Sandra GREAT recap, thanks!


message 2: by Raiann (new)

Raiann Great synopsis, you really went over all the major ideas of the book. This is my favorite book, would definitely recommend.


message 1: by Chandra (new) - added it

Chandra Thanks for the review. It's impressive the way it was written and in precise manner.


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