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

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

by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma poses the question of “What should we have for dinner?” Since humans are omnivorous, the answer is deeply complex when we consider the quasi-infinite choices available to us. To resolve the question, Pollan takes us on an investigative journey through America's four main food chains: Industrial, Organic Industrial, Pastoral Organic, and Hunter-Gatherer-Gardener.

Pollan explores how our food choices support the different food chains and the effects on the welfare of animals, the environment, and our health. It also reveals the political, economic, and moral implications for all of us. The choices we make in the foods we eat today determines both our health and the health of the environment that sustains life on earth and that of future generations. 

Summary Notes

The Omnivores Dilemma

“The lack of a steadying culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer.”

What we eat should be a simple choice, yet we are overwhelmed by the infinite food choices in the supermarket and fast-food restaurants. Clever marketing and the mystery of processed food ingredients and the origins of foods make us vulnerable to a poor diet. 

Without a strong culinary tradition, Americans are easily swept away by the new trends in the food pyramid, the new books on diet and nutrition, and always left confused by constant divergent information. 

Italians and French who continue their culinary traditions are healthier and happier than Americans because strong culinary traditions store the experiences and accumulated wisdom of countless human tasters. Traditional culture codifies the rules of wise eating in a sage structure of taboo, ritual, recipes, and manners. For example, the Japanese eat raw fish in sushi with wasabi (wasabi kills any pathogens in the raw fish), and Hispanics eat beans with corn or rice (beans are complemented by grains to form a perfect protein). 

Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of cuisine or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, the government’s food pyramids, and diet books. We also trust science to determine what culture formerly achieved with greater success.

To better answer the questions of what to eat, it is also important to go to the origins, to follow the food chains that sustain us from the earth to the plate. With the lens of ecology and anthropology, four food chains emerged: Industrial, Organic Industrial, Pastoral Organic, and Hunter-Gatherer-Gardener.

Actions to take

The Industrial Food Chain - Corn

“You have to wonder why we Americans don’t worship this plant as fervently as the Aztecs; like they once did, we make an extraordinary sacrifice to it.”

Out of the four food chains, the Industrial Food Chain is the biggest and longest. The monoculture of Zea mays, known as corn, is their hallmark. A reductionist approach to food—that food is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients—is the central premise of the industrial food chain.

However, their technology, which seeks to maximize efficiency by planting vast monocultures, contradicts nature's way of doing things. It oversimplifies nature's deep wisdom, which always practices diversity. Planting corn on the same ground repeatedly attracts insects and diseases. 

To keep plants “healthy,” the industry routinely sprays them with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides mainly produced from petroleum plants' residues and leftover chemicals from wars (poisonous). The excesses of these toxic synthetic fertilizers and pesticides travel from the farm to the waterways, contaminating them to the Gulf of Mexico, forming a death zone as big as New Jersey. 

The industry also has found ways to control plants’ attributes by genetically engineering or modifying them, creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) cause negative health concerns when animals and we ingest them. However, because corn produced this way is cheap, great quantities go to the feedlots of industrially raised cattle, chicken, pigs, and even fish farms, making them sick. It also finds its way into processed food produced for human consumption.

Food scientists break down corn on a myriad of compounds. Maltodextrin, monosodium glutamate, glucose, xanthan gum, modified starches, and ethanol are just a few. One particular corn product, high fructose corn syrup, is found widely in numerous foods in the supermarket. 

This sugar is associated with many health disorders, amongst others, obesity and type II diabetes. Another dangerous corn derivative is monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is associated with various forms of toxicity. Learning and behavioral problems in children and depression are some of the problems attributed to corn derivatives and other synthetic chemicals commonly used in industrial food chain products. 

Besides the ecological and health impacts, the monoculture has had harmful economic and political consequences for farmers too. When the government encouraged farmers to opt for monoculture, advising them to plant their fields “fencerow to fencerow,” “adapt or die,” and “get big or get out,” many small farmers were displaced.

Actions to take

The Industrial Food Chain – Animals

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they're likely to eat.”

Fattening and processing animals is a huge enterprise in the industrial food chain. In this chain, the logic of nature and human industry clash. The industry seeks to boost productivity by raising animals in close captivity and feeding them the cheapest food. The places where these animals are kept are no longer called American farms but are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), designed on the 17 century Cartesian principles: animals are treated as machines—product units—incapable of feeling pain. 

Beef cattle are kept fenced outdoors, standing ankle-deep in their own waste, eating a diet of mainly genetically modified corn (GMO) instead of grass which is what nature intended for them. Because of the unnatural feeding and living conditions, these animals are given antibiotics, anti-parasitics, and other medications to keep them alive. 

The conditions that cattle, milk cows, broiler chickens, egg-producing chickens, and pigs are subjected to in American factory farms or CAFOs are considered by activists as “stupendous crimes” in “death camps.” It raises moral issues when animals are denied their natural instincts to walk, fly, stretch, groom, etc. Yield and profit are the only variables that matter. 

The word “suffering” is exchanged for "stress," making it an economic problem instead of a moral one. From an economic perspective, cost-effective solutions to this problem involve procedures such as clipping the beaks of chickens to avoid them attacking each other or docking the tails of pigs, so they don’t bite each other or engineering the "stress gene" out of the animals. This kind of reasoning illustrates the cultural contradictions of capitalism, where economic supremacy erodes the moral foundations of society.

Animal meat, when processed, is heavily flavored, aromatized, and colored with synthetic chemicals to make it pleasing to the public. Other chemicals are also necessary to prolong the life of these food products. These chemicals are what make industrially processed foods possible. 

However, these additives are unhealthy. For example, the Chicken McNugget has 38 ingredients,13 from corn byproducts, and the rest mainly synthetic chemical ingredients. TBHQ, a form of butane (i.e., a lighter fluid derived from petroleum), is sprayed in nuggets or boxes to help preserve freshness. A single gram can cause nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse. Ingesting 5 grams of TBHQ can kill. 

How and what we eat determines the use of the world—and what is to become of it. The convenience of eating industrially, in ignorance, poses significant health and environmental dangers.

Actions to take

The Organic Industrial Food Chain

"Organic's rejection of agricultural chemicals was also a rejection of the war machine, since the same corporations—Dow, Monsanto—that manufactured pesticides also made napalm and Agent Orange, the herbicide with which the U.S. military was waging war against nature in Southeast Asia. "

The Organic Industrial Food Chain is an organic alternative to the mainstream food industry and farming. In its origins, it sprung from a “back to the earth” small movement concerned about the quality of the food produced on industrial farms. They started small farms and called themselves organic, local, and biological. They appear to be preindustrial but are, in fact, postindustrial.

When the movement brought about the demand for clean food and started to have consistent success, a new market began to blossom. Health food stores opened in towns and cities. At that point, some of the original farms were swallowed by industrial food corporations who wanted to take advantage of the new market. Some farms became industrialized by themselves. 

The Organic Industrial was built upon the conventional industrial farming experience. It operates on huge farms where the vegetables are grown in monocultures. They use industrial farm machinery based on petroleum fuel. They are still prejudicial for the soil as monocultures deplete it. 

However, they constitute a big improvement over industrial, as their use of natural fertilizers and pesticides doesn’t pollute the earth. In addition, the animals, though they are not raised in their natural habitats, are raised with more space and care. No antibiotics or other substances are permitted. It’s not surprising that research shows health-enhancing properties in organic produce and animals. 

The Organic Industrial opened a larger market to people who wanted convenience married to healthy food, a clear conscience, and moral peace. The small health food stores quickly competed with large supermarkets. Many didn’t survive the competition. 

The Organic Industrial is still widely separated from the sources. Buying industrial organic in a supermarket can signify that your product came as far away as Argentina or China. For this reason, health supermarkets rely on “storytelling of nature” marketing strategies, which “connect” the store’s products with the idyllic natural environment their customers want to feed themselves. Today you can find conventional supermarkets offering organic industrial, many with their own brand names. 

The FDA stamp of organics means that food is non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO), has no synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, raises its animals free-range or cage-free, is grass-fed, humanely raised, uses no hormones or medicines, and/or feeds the animals with organic food.

Actions to take

The Pastoral Organic Food Chain

“In fact, growing meat on grass makes superb ecological sense: It is a sustainable, solar-powered food chain that produces food by transforming sunlight into protein.”

The Pastoral Organic Food Chain is the shortest and the smallest of the food chains. It comprises farms that consider themselves “beyond organic” because they are sustainable beyond what the FDA labels organic. The pastoral organic sprung from the movement initiated to opt-out of the food industry and consumerist way of life.

Their way of operation is entirely in accordance with nature. No tension exists between the pastoral imperative in maximizing efficiency and the moral imperatives of culture. On the contrary, pastoral organic serves as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the industrial market. Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, is a perfect example of Pastoral Organic. The production starts with polyculture instead of monoculture. The farm grows fields of grasses untouched by pesticides that contain a variety of greens that the animals love and are great for their health. Cattle get to the field that is ready first and stay there a couple of days. Once the cattle move to the next field, chickens come and scratch the soil and spread the manure looking for insects to feast upon. In doing this, the chickens sanitize and fertilize the field. They follow the cows and do this in every field. As the animals eat the way nature intended, they prepare the fields that will feed them continuously without depletion. 

The energy is provided by the sun, which feeds the grass, who then feeds the cattle, and then feeds the chicken, which feeds the grass. Other animals on the farm are also raised in sustainable ways. For example, the pigs are grown in areas of the forest that have been fenced. They roam free and eat what nature gives. All systems in the farm follow the logic of nature, helped by man. All animals live the life they are supposed to–happy, well-nourished, well treated, and protected. 

Domestication is evolutionary. It’s a symbiosis between species – it’s a mutualism. They survive and prosper in an alliance with humans. Humans provided the animals with food and protection in exchange for milk, eggs, and meat. 

Farming by Pastoral Organic has numerous benefits. Pastoral Organic produces healthy animals and those that are good for our health. It nourishes the soil instead of depleting it from its complex microbiology. It does not pollute the biosphere; instead, it preserves or adds to the quality of the biosphere. Farming and fertilizing the world in a pastoral way contributes to the planet’s composition of species and support its biodiversity.

Pastoral Organics creates a food chain that also builds local communities. New consumers are created in the light of transparency. Choosing intentionally with knowledge, and we do good on all fronts. The food is much more nutritious. Chefs love the produce, eggs, and meats. They also help create the food chain and educate their customers on good food.

Pastoral organic is a functional farm economy vital to our communities and important to support. They are great for the soil, animals, farmers and ranchers, customers, and the planet.

Actions to take

The Hunter, Gather and Grow It Yourself Food Chain

“One of the wonders of my do-it-yourself meal was how little it had damaged the world. The meal was fully paid for in every sense, there was no pollution or packaging left over. There were no hidden costs or waste to be disposed.”

The Hunter, Gather and Grow It Yourself Food Chain follows a neo-Paleolithic food chain from the forest to a meal prepared from ingredients hunted, gathered, and grown by oneself. It involves survival skills that one has to learn how to do – hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening.

This chain is practiced personally by people who like to hunt game and fish and by those who know a bit about the surroundings to venture into gathering foods like mushrooms. We still eat a handful of hunted and gathered food, like fish and fruits. Fruit and nut trees grown within towns and cities are mostly free for those who notice them. The interest in following this chain is to shed fresh light on how we eat now by immersing in how we ate before. 

The industrial food chain costs every one of us–in government spending, pollution, global warming, and our health. We may say that foraging and hunting for a meal are unrealistic, but we could argue that the fast-food meal is unrealistic too. It is unrealistic to depend on a food system that harms the planet. It is not realistic to call the “food system,” an industry that replaces food with an industrial product that does not nourish us and in fact makes us sick.

We eat by the grace of nature, not an industry. And what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. Every meal can indeed connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature if we choose deliberately. Every meal could be like saying grace.

Actions to take

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