Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan’s investigation of food production in America begins with a simple question. What’s for dinner? The conceit is equally easy to follow. Pollan eats and describes four meals, but not before he tracks the ingredients from their start as solar energy through the soil, plants, and animals to his plate. Each meal describes a different food system: industrial (McDonald’s cheeseburger), organic industrial (Whole Foods’ organic free-range chicken), local organic (pastured chicken), and hunter-gathering (wild boar). Each of these paths is anything but simple, with production processes caught up in a tangle of social and environmental effects complex enough to put you off your dinner.
In the industrial food system, beef is not just beef, and corn is not just corn. In fact, according to Pollan, it would be more accurate to say most everything is corn. From the feed that nourishes livestock to the gloss that makes grocery store vegetables shine, corn is finding its way into almost everything we eat. The US government subsidises corn, and its colonisation of agricultural land and animal nutrition has detrimental effects across the board. On the environment, animal welfare, the life and livelihoods of farmers and other food production employees, and the public’s health. There are costs to cheap food that get lost in what he calls ‘blind man’s accounting’.
To get a handle on the implications of this meal, Pollan bought a steer and followed it from birth to slaughter. Here he is in the feedlot where the animal spent five of his twelve months of life:
I stood alongside 534 as he lowered his big head into the stream of fresh grain. How absurd, I thought, the two of us standing hock-deep in manure in this godforsaken place, overlooking a manure lagoon in the middle of nowhere somewhere in Kansas. Godforsaken perhaps, and yet not apart, I realised, as I thought of the other places connected to this place by the river of commodity corn.
Those connections are sobering: ‘Follow the corn from this bunk back to the fields where it grows and I’d find myself back in the middle of that 125,000-mile-square monoculture, under a steady rain of pesticide and fertilizer. Keep going, and I could follow the nitrogen runoff from that fertilizer all the way down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, adding its poison to an eight-thousand-square-mile zone so starved of oxygen nothing but algae can live on it. And then go farther still, follow the fertilizer (and the diesel fuel and the petrochemical pesticides) needed to grow the corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.’
Pollan’s second meal, the organic one purchased at Whole Foods, lacks the pesticides and fertilizer of the first, but it is, he claims, ‘drenched in oil’ due to lengthy supply chains.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. For his third meal, he spends five days as a participant observer on Polyface Farms. On Joe Salatin’s intensive, locally serving, ‘beyond organic’ farm, Pollan sees hopes. Salatin and his customers exemplify farming and eating that prioritises relationships – between farmer and land, agriculture and wilderness, consumer and farmer, eater and eaten.
Pollan admits that his final, foraged meal is an unrealistic method to feed a nation, but he uses the opportunity to dive into the anthropology and bio-psychology of eating. His conclusion?
All of which is to say that a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore.
The book offers hope without directives. An impulse to be more conscious without specific instructions. Eat better seems to be the message, but it isn’t too over the top. Before I finished the final section, I had signed up for a box of vegetables from an Irish farmer, but I didn’t feel like the organic police were going to come get me for eating my packaged biscuits.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is very much an American book, but its message translates fairly well to the Irish food system. Cattle here may be grass-fed, but they are an outsize source of greenhouse gas emissions in this country. Nine-tenths of Ireland’s agricultural land is devoted to the raising of animals, providing 640% of the country’s beef needs. That means a lot of long supply chain exports. (And imports of food that’s not grown on that land). As for emissions, one-third of Ireland’s come from agriculture, 55% of which comes from enteric fermentation, the complex process by which ruminants digest grass.
As long as fruit and vegetables from elsewhere are cheaper and other countries are willing to pay for Irish animal products, agricultural land will likely continue to be given over to animals. As things stand, eating more local food (not to mention more organic food) takes a deliberate choice to prioritise short supply chains and agricultural diversity over money in your wallet. It also takes effort to seek those foods out in the shops, at farmers markets, or through farm delivery programmes. Pollan’s work doesn’t offer any easy solutions, but, in a way, I think that’s the point.