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.