“What’s for dinner?” seemed like a simple question—until journalist and supermarket detective Michael Pollan delved behind the scenes. From fast food and big organic to small farms and old-fashioned hunting and gathering, this young readers’ adaptation of Pollan’s famous food-chain exploration encourages kids to consider the personal and global health implications of their food choices.
In a smart, compelling format with updated facts, plenty of photos, graphs, and visuals, as well as a new afterword and backmatter, The Omnivore’s Dilemma serves up a bold message to the generation that needs it most: It’s time to take charge of our national eating habits—and it starts with you.
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The first 200 pages of this book were fascinating, particularly the section on corn. The sheer number of additives that are synthesized from corn is amazing and has had me reading the labels of everything in the grocery store since I read the book. The section on the rise of industrial organic was equally enlightening and I appreciate how Pollen disabuses us of the notions that organic somehow equals humane.
The second half of the book was less interesting. His section on the Polyface Farm in Virginia, as smell entirely grass fed farm, was long and repetitive. I thought that section could have used a lot of streamlining, and was really more of a personal memoir of Pollen's experience on the farm rather than especially informative. The last section was almost entirely personal memoir, and took a turn towards self-indulgence.
Regardless, I liked the book overall and give it an average of 4 stars - 5 for the first half and 3 for the second half.more
Beginning with a critical and dire look at industrial corn, Pollan then moves through the somewhat oxymoronic industrial organic, to a more pastoral "original" organic system, and finally to a meal gathered and prepared (almost) exclusively on his own. The overall message is an optimistic call to move forward into a food system in which eaters are conscious of where their food originates and in which people make eating decisions (work through the omnivore's dilemma) based on that information.
Omnivore's Dilemma is an engaging and informative read that I would recommend to anyone.more
Now, the book itself.
Pollan compares three systems of food gathering.
The first 'system' of food production is the industrial. Is it still perhaps the least understood and the most demonized. It has its roots in the 1970s, under Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, Earl 'Rusty' Butz. After an embarrassing agricultural crisis involving price fixing from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Butz announced a new policy of expanding government subsides to a new system - the more one farmed, the more subsides they would receive to cover increase costs. It made farmers consolidate and expand, in the hope of driving up production.
It worked well. Too well. There was so much surplus corn that few knew what to do with it all. In the 1980s, however, there was a new means of implementation, a sweetener which was cheaper than cane sugar, and thus added into nearly every food - High-Fructose Corn Syrup. Sweeteners and sugars became a staple of nearly every food product sold, from HFCS to 'Xanthan gum'.
Furthermore, there is the story of industrialized animal farming, which has drawn much ire. That has become so popular that I will not draw upon too much detail unless prodded.
The second system is that of 'organic' farming, which sounds tempting because it eschews some of the more mechanistic tendencies of regular factory farming, and has become popular, especially among the coastal 'yuppie' crowd within the past few years. It conjures up pleasant images of American Gothic. Some farms actually are like this - small, family-owned, with local interest in mind. Some even have integrated peacefully with large discount retailers like Walmart and Tesco, and have made a positive change that way.
Some, however, are more unscrupulous with organic food's popularity, and instead perform the bare minimum of necessary tasks, and slap the 'organic' label on and charge higher prices. Another caveat.
The third system is the 'hunter-gatherer', or pre-agricultural system of food. Pollan's description here alternates between charming and bumbling, as he putzes around chopping up his prize, steals berries from likely his neighbor's trees, and picks up mushrooms. As a raised Midwesterner, where hunting and fishing is more common - and a source of food, I appreciate this effort on his part, while acknowledging that this futzing around is very silly.
The big discussion I've personally heard is on the industrial harvesting of meat, is whether or not to go vegetarian.
Another proposal - the economic analysis of the cost of food, of every ingredient, is implausible at best. The modern systems of production are already far too complex for something like that. Although it would not be unfair to at least make broad estimates.
And I must take issue with his near-total dismissal of nutritional science, and he takes an overly reductionist view of a rather complex topic.
However, I must give Pollan credit for showing us how deep the rabbit hole of industrial food goes, and how little we know about what we eat.more
This book taught me about the various ways that energy can make its way from the sun to my body and gave voice the issues with which I am grappling in my personal Omnivore's Dilemma. I find myself bringing up this book in conversation on a daily basis. I find myself seeking out farms and researching more carefully the origins of the food I eat, especially the meat. Omnivore's Dilemma has helped me acquire the language and basic understanding I need to feel comfortable seeking such information, from retailers, chefs, and the farmers themselves. I quite enjoyed Fast Food Nation, but it never spurred me to action the way this book has already. I saw myself reflected in the pages of this book, and the image helped me see a path towards a more fulfilling and authentic relationship to my food.