Books: Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Amanda just reviewed Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and also recently wrote a post on the same topic while under the influence of the book. I agree with her 100%, so go and read both posts.
I have read the book a couple of months ago and never found time to write a review of my own. I also remember that I finished the book on a Thursday afternoon – an important piece of information as it is on Thursday afternoons that there is a Farmers’ Market here in Southern Village, barely a block from me. The first thing I did when I closed the book was to walk up to the Farmers’ Market, buy some locally grown food and talk to the farmers about all the issues raised in the book and, lo and behold, they all agree with Pollan on everything I asked them about.
They were also a little taken aback that I tried to talk to them. But, I grew up in the Balkans. A big part of going to the Farmer’s Market is to chat with the farmers, banter, joke, complain about the government, haggle over prices, and make sure a kilo of cheese is reserved for you for next week – it is a very friendly and talkative affair. Great fun! Here, there is much more of a class divide. The farmers set the prices. The elegantly dressed city-slickers pick and pay. And all of that is done pretty silently, with a minimal exchange of words. No eye-contact. Nobody is haggling! At the Farmers’ Market nobody is haggling!?*@#%$^&! Travesty and Heresy!
In his book, Michael Pollan initially set out to make three – industrial, organic and personal – types of meals, but once he learned more, he realized he had to do four: industrial, industrial-organic, local-sustainable, and personal.
So, although the book officially has three parts, it really has four. Each of the four parts also reads differently and has a different style and tone:
The first part (industrial) is full of facts, stats, governmental documents, etc. – it reads like Molly Ivins’ Bushwacked or Chris Mooney’s Republican War On Science, although I heard he played loose with some stuff, i.e., cited as true some studies that are very contentious within the scientific community.
While I am a biologist, focusing on animals made me “plant blind” and I learned more about biology of corn from this book than I ever knew before.
The key event, according to Pollan, is the change, during Nixon administration, in the way farmers are paid for corn – everything else flows from that single event: the monoculture, the oil, the feedlots, the fertilizers and pesticides, environmental destruction, obesity and McDonalds.
The second part (industrial organic) is a little bit less of an onslaught of information and he gets a little looser and slower, a bit more personal. He looks at the way organic food production changed since the 1960s hippy farms to today’s giant organic producers who are, more and more, playing by the rules of Big Agra.
While the food they produce is still better than the Industrial and the practices are still more energy and environmentally friendly than Industrial, it only looks good because it is compared to the Big Industrial which is totally atrocious. This part of the book resulted in a big back-and-forth debate between Pollan and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, resulting in some changes in the way Whole Foods operates. You can find the relevant links on Pollan’s website.
The third part (local-sustainable) is totally fascinating – it is a mix of a travellogue and analysis – he keeps jumping back and forth between his dialogues with his host – Joel Salatin of the Polyface Farms – and the data. This is really the most riveting part of the book and the key element of it. This is also a part of the book that covers most new ground, not stuff found in Fast Food Nation or other well-known books. It also exposes, even better than the first part, the perniciousness of the way our agricultural system is set up, the way Big Agribusiness controls legislation and regulation, and eliminates small farmers from the competition.
Joel Salatin is a Virginia farmer who has perfected amazing agricultural practices on his farm – practically nothing has to be bought by the farm and nothing gets thrown away. Everything has its use and re-use. Everything makes sense when patiently explained to the reader. I actually bought Salatin’s book Holy Cows and Hog Heaven and read it immediately after Pollan’s.
Interestingly, although the guy is a conservative, libertarian, Christian Creationist, I agree with him on almost everything. His distrust of the Government is perhaps a little bit over the top for my taste, but his Creationism is fascinating because his whole philosophy and his whole methodology of the way he runs the farm reveals a deep understanding of evolution and ecology. His farming practice is BASED on evolutionary thinking. He is, for all practical purposes, an evolutionary biologist. Yet, he says he does not believe in evolution. How is that possible? Because he has no idea what he word “evolution” means. He probably has some “chimp is your uncle” cartoon notion of evolution, while at the same time not giving his own evolutionary ideas any name at all. Someone should tell him.
The fourth part (personal) of the Pollan’s book is in a completely different mood, very introspective, sometimes even mystical. One important thing that sets this part apart is that the type of food production described in it is the only one of the four that cannot in any way be affected by legislation, politics or activism – unless one completely bans hunting, gathering, catching, picking, stealing from neighbors, planting stuff in your garden, or collecting yeast from the air!
The best part of this portion of the book is his look at animal rights and his dialogue with Peter Singer. He, being such a typical city-slicker and “Birckenstock liberal” (Come on – slaughtering a chicken, and later a pig, made him sick? Has he never watched or participated in any kind of animal slaughter in his long life yet? Never spent some time on a farm? Dissected an animal in a biology class? What a woefully unnatural and alienated existence!), started out very sympathetic to the idea, but, over a dozen pages or so, dissects the underlying logic and discovers its fatal flows and exposes it in a brilliant paragraph – the best one in the book. You’ll find it and recognize it immediately once you read it – and you will read it because Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of the most important books written in the last few years, and should be a battle cry for many political activists and a source of ideas for many candidates for political office.
In the meantime, go read Amanda’s review.

9 responses to “Books: Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. Thanks for this post. (I too never got around to a blog review of the book.) It seems unanimnous that the Polyface Farms section is the best of the book, and I follow suit on that. (We’re gonna visit the farm in a few weeks, as it’s just down the road from us.) For my own sake, I found the last part, on the personal meal, the least compelling and least developed.
    What I still want to push Pollan on are the exact class issues you note above, about the culture of the farmer’s market. There’s a lot more to discuss about access to market’s, distribution of food options, who could benefit from less industrialized food chains, and what broader cultural elements are at play with these different food produciton/consumption options. It’s the “elitism” question that always comes up. Pollan’s not naive about it, but I wish the book — or maybe the next — would delve more deeply into the cultural and political issues that are working against the future possibilities Amanda’s review so nicely highlighted as being a great feature of the O.D.

  2. I hope he does write about it! Observing the people at the local Farmer’s Market (and comparing it with the familiar experience from Europe) just after finishing the book really made it clear that there is a difference in culture, not just in legislation.

  3. Not to flog too badly, Bora – but please feel free to visit my blog and read my stuff under the keyword ‘distributionism’. I have been a proponent of locally-sustainable living (and a huge foe of the American government’s annihilation of agriculture!) for quite some time.I would love to get your feedback on my discussion of artisans, agriculture, the creation of a ‘living wage’ economy, etc.

  4. This is an obvious – and important – issue on which liberals and libertarians agree and can work together.

  5. Respectfully, one of your last points (that if you grow or hunt food yourself, legislation can’t affect it) is wrong.
    Aside from the difficulty of finding open-pollinated crop foods if they’re made illegal, laws can have a tremendous effect on the foods we grow ourselves. In Iraq, the laws previously did not permit crops to be patented, but some of the five-hundred-year-old vegetable crops with unusual traits had been patented by foreign countries elsewhere. When Iraq’s new constitution was written, one of its provisions forced farmers to honor patents on food crops, and so they no longer had permission to plant and harvest the seeds passed down in their families for generations. They had to buy hybrid seeds from – guess which corporation. Go on, guess.

  6. But that affects the Part III, not the Part IV (what you grow in flower-pots on your balcony).

  7. If you’ll be prosecuted for growing a crop in flowerpots on your balcony, it most certainly matters.
    For a mostly unrelated example, does anyone here think that legislation has no effect on whether people choose to grow marijuana plants in flowerpots on their balconies? I’d say that the legal system has a great deal to do with the general absence of that crop.
    Granted, I don’t think it likely that growing your own food will become illegal any time soon, but the law certainly has the potential to interfere. Consider the problems with transgenic crops contaminating rural stocks in Mexico, for example. Whether the Mexican government permits engineered corn to be planted near traditional varieties and wild populations of teosinte or not makes a great deal of difference to what the local people can grow and eat.

  8. Oh, I see what you’r talking about. The book is about teh US food industry and says zero about problems in other countries. I do not see hunting outlawed in the US any time, so it is not a concern.
    How would any activist group in the USA change that? And what would be the change? What kind of legislation? What could we do to either force everyone (or ban everyone) to hunt and forage instead of buying food in the supermarket?
    The big point of the last part (as Amanda notes) is that it shows that a hunter/gatherer path is so difficult and costly these days that going back to it (for everyone, or for anyone on a aregular basis) is impossible. Pollan took two months of hard work and expense to fix a single meal in that fashion. And he is not poor. Imagine 300 million people trying to feed themselves by hunting and foraging (plus some dill from a flower-pot for flavoring)? Impossible – and tha is the point of Part IV.
    The private small farm and the difficulties it has with current regulation, is the subject of Part III.

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