The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan


I am way behind the times in reading this book, but after some recent discussion at work decided to give it a shot. The beginning of this book was really interesting—I previously did not know anything about the corn economy, number 2 commodity corn, and the huge range of products that corn is processed to become. He makes a compelling argument that industrial farming ignores millenia of evolution and replaces symbiosis with fossil fuels and the Haber process, and the foray into the more ecologically enlightened grass farming at Joel Salatin’s farm was interesting. (I recently discovered Joel Salatin has a blog. At the same time, I confirmed my suspicion that I agree with him on very few things.)

But as the book went on, I found myself increasingly unsatisfied. Salatin refuses to mail Pollan a steak from his farm, so Pollan flies out to the farm instead—reasonable enough for a book. But as he describes families driving up to Salatin’s farm after hours-long drives to pick up a few freshly-slaughtered chickens, he preaches about the carbon impact of shipping food around the world. He presents a quote from Salatin, ‘Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?’ with little analysis of the fact that Salatin is revealing a fundamental ignorance of how the world functions. Indeed, throughout the book Pollan preaches rural ideals while financing them with his big-city wealth and network. As he revulses at just-hunted pig guts on a friend of a friend’s private ranch in Marin, it becomes clear that The Omnivore’s Dilemma is not presenting a way of eating that is approachable for the public nor one that will meaningfully help the world. Instead, it feels like Pollan is trying to find ways to justify not becoming vegetarian.

Though he does dedicate one rather scathing paragraph of the book to his temporary experience as a vegetarian (“Like any self-respecting vegetarian (and we are nothing if not self-respecting) I will now burden you with my obligatory compromises and ethical distinctions”) and a few more to some shaky and absolutist logic against being vegetarian (“The grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer’s tractor wheel crushes woodchucks in their burrows and his pesticides drop songbirds from the sky”), he quickly gives it up for fear of being the change the world needs (“What troubles me most about my vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates me from other people”).

This book is about how to feel good about eating. And while the first half of the book presents interesting analyses and makes several compelling arguments against industrial farming, in the end Pollan’s solution seems to be “be rich”.