Monday, December 17, 2007

Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is a compelling, rich study of how America gets its food that blends a John McPhee like personal journey with probing and difficult philosophical questions about how we should eat.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is what should we have for dinner. In the past, the choices were limited, but today they are close to unlimited. Pollan charges that we should understand from whence our food comes. To do that, he traces the food sources of four meals, a fast food dinner, an organic meal from a national chain, a locals-only meal and finally a meal personally hunted and gathered.

The key to fast food, and by extension much of the grocery, is corn. His exploration of the role of corn in the modern diet is good enough to warrant buying the book. He describes how policy developed to support low corn prices and the deleterious effect on cow and human health that results. He also explains why farmers are stuck with the system.

In the organic chapters, Pollan questions the extent to which Big Organic is really better than what Whole Foods would term conventional growing. He argues it is better, especially due to great reduction in chemicals, but argues that the overall environmental impact is similar. Virginia's Poly Face Farms is the hero of the tale. Through rigorous rotations, the Salatin family produces a wide range of meats for locals and does so in one of the most environmentally friendly ways possible.

Pollan is very much part of the story, buying a cow to follow it through the nation's beef supply and working on the Salatin's farm to understand how they differ. He briefly becomes a vegetarian to understand that approach. In order to complete his study of food, Pollans goes on mushroom hunts, forages for fruit, grows vegetables and then goes hunting for wild boar. Although initially skeptical, he comes to understand the hunting mystiques but believes it must be felt to be understood.

His eventual pro-hunting stance is part of the complex food view he constructs which argues for eating as locally and as environmentally friendly as possible. He ends up opposing animal rights as being fixated on the rights of individual animals without thought to ecology. He vigorously and convincingly argues against the industrialization of agriculture which primarily helps the companies involved to the great detriment of health and the environment.

This is an excellent read and you will find yourself wanting to pass on your copy. At the airport this weekend, a man saw my copy and approached me to comment that he had just started and wondered what I thought about the book. It is that kind of book.

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