This one's been on my "must read" list for a while, and I wasn't disappointed. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollen (Penguin, 2007) is a great read, rewarding, engaging, and more than a little unsettling, for anyone interested in food and food policy.
The book starts out reminiscent of Fast Food Nation and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, both of which I enjoyed ... but it had me wondering, for about the first half, if Pollan was going to cover any new ground. He begins with a visit to an Iowa corn/ soybean farm whose proprietor resignedly admits that he's growing food for "the military-industrial complex." This leads to a fascinating, funny, and somewhat frightening digression on the evolution, history, and contemporary dominance of corn in American agriculture and foodways. Pollan argues that current (since a Nixon-era shift in how corn price supports were administered) U.S. agricultural policy encourages farmers to grow and sell as much corn as they possibly can, no matter the impact on the environment, farm communities, and the diets and health of the public. This benefits no one except the giant agribusiness conglomerates that buy, process, and resell (at tremendous markup) various corn products. (Yes, here's where I was having flashbacks to Fast Food Nation and thinking I never wanted to eat a Chicken McNugget again.) He offers a similar treatment of CAFO-based beef production, which is marginally less graphic than in FFN but no less disturbing.
Contrast this with the near-idyllic Polyface Farms, growers and purveyors of sustainable meats, eggs, and produce, where Pollan spent a week working and observing. This farm family is depicted with just the right touch; they're human, complete with some quirks, but never rustic or ridiculous. And frankly, I was fascinated (so much so that my family got a little grossed out hearing me read out certain passages) by some of the discussion of how multiple species used the same land sequentially, to the benefit of land, animal, and farmer: cow manure seeded with corn that ferments over the course of a winter, to the delight of the hungry, corn-sniffing pigs who happily aerate the resulting compost; laying hens gorging themselves on the grubs in cow pies, which provides both extra protein for their eggs and extra nitrogen for the pasture. (Yep, here's the part where I fondly recalled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -- one of my favorite reads in recent memory.)
I especially enjoyed Pollan's take on the common belief that sustainable, local food is too expensive for the common man, and thus only for granola-flavored yuppies (um, like yours truly). He points out that for most of us, this is largely a matter of priorities and social values; after all, haven't people at all socioeconomic levels managed to find room in their budgets for cell phones? Why are we fairly quick to accept paying more for quality when it comes to some things (cars, clothing), but still convinced that when it comes to food, chicken is chicken and eggs are eggs, and price should be our most important criterion?
Where the book really shines, though, is when Pollan looks at many of the deeper questions around our relationship to food. He asks more than he answers, which for a topic this complex and emotional, only makes sense. I found his discussion of the ethics of eating meat particularly nuanced, and loved the chapters about meat and then mushroom-hunting with passionate slow food advocates.
I'm still trying to figure out how to respond to this book in my own life; no brilliant plans yet, sadly. I highly recommend it, though -- there's definitely a lot of food for thought here.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.