What I Read: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

OmnivoresDilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a book I really struggled to gather my thoughts neatly after reading. I finished reading it two months ago, and I have felt so conflicted about its contents that I almost didn’t write this review.

Overall, I agree about the general direction of the book. The American agricultural system is very messed up and urgently needs reform, and the impact of driving up crop yields and profits has adversely affected bio-diversity and animal welfare. No-one can argue with that, and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan sets out a narrative of four meals created from the products of four very different ways of producing food- industrial, organic-industrial, organic-pastoral and hunter-gatherer.

I found this way of structuring the book to be initially interesting, but sometimes the story-telling overtook the very obvious needs for facts and clarity. For example, he starts a phase of vegetarian eating after agreeing to go hunting and almost looks for any argument to choose hunted meat over not eating meat. I know it’s a pain not being able to share the same meals but I felt he dismissed many of the good arguments for vegetarianism in favour of hunting for meat. I also fail to understand how he promotes organic farming, one of its main tenets being sustainability, and also suggests possibly animal hunting as well. The only way hunting or gathering wild plants is sustainable is by low numbers, and it’s pretty obvious a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for many is impossible, let alone worrying about its effects on nature.

Even while any argument about the hunter-gatherer issue may be pedantic, I think there is a glaring problem with his narrative of four meals. His first meal, made from the products of industrial agriculture, is from a fast food chain. Fair enough, fast food is one of the biggest dietary problems out there, but surely for the sake of unbiased investigation, Pollan could have cooked a home-cooked meal made from meat and vegetables.

This isn’t just a case of point out the obvious. It is a serious issue where Pollan ignored how many people worldwide eat- homecooked food made from non-organic vegetables and meat. Not everyone who eats from an industrialised food chain is slowly killing themselves with Big Macs and fries, they’re trying their best to provide healthy meals with what little money and time they have. There is an astounding lack of analysis of economic privilege in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one which conveniently ignores the issues of why people continue to buy from the industrial food chain.

In many ways, I have so much privilege when it comes to my food choices. Irish cows are by-and-large grass-fed, free range eggs and chickens are readily available in supermarkets, and food labelling always indicates point of origin of our food. I also am well-educated about food from growing up on a dairy farm, taking cooking classes and being interested in animal welfare. However I lack the economic privilege of being able to often make ethical purchases such as buying locally, free-range or organic, which means I still consume the products of the industrial food chain and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

I guess it is at that point where Michael Pollan and I part. I love the ideas he puts forward in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and I want to be able to support farmers and producers who cultivate the land and sell ethically and environmentally sound products, but a lack of analysis about the economics of food consumerism means those ideas will always seem impractical to me.

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11 thoughts on “What I Read: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

  1. I loved Pollan’s “In defense of food,” and learned so much. I thought his analysis and research were fantastic. So am disappointed to read that you didn’t feel the same about this one. I agree that there are good economic reasons to follow an industrial diet while making one’s own food at home.and that such a diet can be healthy. A little knowledge can help muchly. Maybe if we factor in the cost of NOT farming sustainably, the economic outlook for that approach becomes more favorable – but agree it’s hard to look to the future when the present is hard to feed on the dollars we have. Sigh. No easy answers.

    • Definitely no easy answers! I might read In Defence of Food though as my next non-fiction book as I am interested in seeing if there are sustainable and workable ways to improve agriculture and food.

    • Oh great post and I’ll definitely look into reading it now after your review. I think I generally agree with his tenets about how the Western diet needs to change both for health and environmental reasons

  2. Interesting piece, thank you. Food and agriculture is as or more important as/than oil, energy, science & R&D,banking & finance, etc, yet we don’t talk about it nearly as much, and even when we do, the debate is less coherent. I read a book 3/4 years back by a British scientist and policy maker with the awful name of Colin Tudge, (I think it was actually called “Food”) Anyway, he made a good case for an omnivore diet with an eye to traditional farming methods. But if we all try and eat (without being fundamentalist about it) local, seasonal and ethical, we won’t go far wrong. The current system is destroying the planet and us all, and doing revolting damage. Great piece anyway. keep up the good work. – Arran.

    • Thanks Arran, I agree as well that local, seasonal and ethically produced should be the benchmark consumers should be using when buying food.

      I’ll check out Colin Tudge’s book- is it Feeding People is Easy by any chance?

      • Hi, yes, I think it might have been that one or else “So Shall We Reap” it was at least 4 years ago so although I recall the general thesis, I’m having terrible trouble with the title. I just looked up a list of his books and even looking at them can’t remember! But yes, it was either Feeding People is Easy or So Shall we Reap. 🙂

  3. Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed my life–it steered me away from fast food and soda for good. However, you make a very interesting point about the socio-economics of food–I’d never thought about it that way, so thank you. You’re right, many people in the world can’t afford to make the same choices that Pollan did in writing his book. Still, I credit him for influencing so many people to eat healthier (including me!).

  4. That’s a really interesting perspective, and one I hadn’t considered when I read his book a few years ago. Granted, I was really new to the whole idea of food politics, and this book was like my introduction to a lot of the issues surrounding it. (I was doing a research project on corn ethanol at the time, so the combination of the two had me freaking out about how corn is in everything for a few years afterward.)

    And now fast-forward a few years and I’m still having a hard time extricating myself from the industrial food chain. Like you said, I don’t eat fast food but I also don’t eat everything organic and local from small farmers down the street. You could make the argument that this is just laziness on my behalf, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that about people who are trying to feed their families while working full time jobs.

    Anyway, great post.

    • Thanks Caitlin. I think even on a practical basis, it would be really difficult to buy all your groceries locally from farmer’s market. My local market and butchers closes at the same time I leave work and getting all my groceries on a Saturday isn’t always possible.

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