The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I can happily recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, although it did strike me as longer than it needed to be. The book, about our food economy, features reporting, analysis, and some self-indulgent introspection. I enjoyed the reporting, in which he details trips into the heart of America’s industrial food-making machine. I was surprised, for example, to learn that corn is not good cow food. It fattens them up nicely, but their gut, having been built for grass, is distressed and gassy as a result. “Corn-fed beef” sounds so rich; I had always pictured cows somehow luxuriating in their corn-based diet. Instead, they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own waste with a painful case of the frothy burps.

I found Pollan’s analysis less satisfying and more left-leaning than it needed to be. The facts he reports about our food economy, if taken at face value, are devastating enough, but he puts a political gloss on it that is sometimes irritating. For instance, he describes global capitalistic markets as an evil influence on food economies and the environment. By contrast, he describes a few enlightened organic farmers who are having small successes battling this malign force. But hey, it’s all capitalism. Markets learn and markets change. When organic practices become more widespread, as I’m sure they must over the long term, it will be because of a change in global markets. Ironically, it is precisely books like Mr. Pollan’s that educate readers, which is to say the market, about the true costs incurred by government-subsidized corn and confined animal feeding operations. Pollan also displays the annoying habit common among idealists of attacking the moral flaw in otherwise sound improvements to the status quo. Thus modern “industrial organic” practices aren’t free from sin. They may not use pesticides, but the labor-intensive practices of organic farming still require liberal amounts of petrochemicals to run machinery and transport the product. They still employ poor and easily exploited immigrants. Well, of course they do. But surely half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. Make the gains you can this year, and we’ll improve on them next year.

But overall, it’s a worthwhile and eye-opening read. It was worth it just for the part about Joel Salatin’s eccentric and endearing Polyface Farm. And it’s already changed some of my purchasing habits.