The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Book Review)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan takes a deep dive into our food system and won’t let you out without some scars, lots of corn, and a new understanding of how our food is made. Pollan is very neutral and this allows for you, the reader, to form your own opinions.

In the book, we get to take a journey of three different meals. The first is an industrial meal (think big corn fields, McDonald’s), the second is an organic meal (and we get to see two different visions of organic at play), and a meal gathered and hunted by Pollan.

The conclusions from the first meal will probably not surprise you. Animals locked in small cages, places that were not accessible and a subsidy system for corn of epic proportions. The animal suffering is something I can’t stand for and therefore I try and keep most of my meals plant-based (i.e. I’m vegetarian and try and consume a low number of other products that cause unnecessary suffering). The subsidising of the corn industry seems like something that is left over from the second world war and hopelessly outdated (and very expensive). There are massive grain silos and lots get thrown away each year (and farmers are in a bind in which they need to produce more and more). From an evolutionary perspective, it does seem that corn did pretty well though.

Big organic is a term I wasn’t yet that familiar with. After reading about how everything works and thinking back to Econ 101 classes, it does make sense. Organic started from a good place, fewer pesticides, more biodiversity. But both the terms (the meaning of organic) and the practice (larger and larger farms) have put a stain on the idea (at least for me). I also remember being quite sceptical of organic (especially for greens) since already a few years ago and this didn’t help.

What did help was to learn about the Salatin farm. The book follows Pollan for a week on a truly organic farm (in the way you now conceptualize it in your head). We learn that Salatin is a grass farmer (everything else starts with grass and also helps grass flourish). There is full transparency and buyers can come and see their chickens being killed right on the spot. What I also took away from this part of the book is that a piece of animal is not a standardized product. A piece of chicken from Salatin or an egg from them is a completely different product as one raised on corn with a million of its siblings.

One action I can take is to find out where I can buy food from local sources (or less local, but produced on a small scale with care) to eat better products. But I also think that the transaction costs for an action like this are higher and that I buy too little produce per week to have this be handy/economical at the moment.

Lastly, we follow Pollan on hunting and gathering trips. Here he feels more connected with nature and we see some animal instincts rise to the top. I liked that this part was included but it felt less compelling than his days at Salatin.

Ahh, the Omnivores Dilemma. Pollan states that we either look away from how our food is made, or we will not eat it anymore. In the book he tries and break that dilemma and show us how the cookie crumbles and he has done a great job here.

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