2006, Books, Non-Fiction

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan

I found this book to be extremely frustrating and I almost gave up on it multiple times. The first four sections I really struggled with but I’m glad I stuck with it to the final section, which was far and away the best part of the book and reason to read it. It’s the kind of book that I think I would have loved when it came out. But, in the interim, I’ve seen multiple documentaries on America’s food system and I’ve also learned a lot about economics. I don’t know how Pollan’s views have changed in the intervening 17 years but, for much of this book, he seems hopelessly naïve.

I agree with Pollan that factory farming poses tough moral issues and is probably just flat out bad. I don’t think there’s much science to support that it’s particularly unhealthy for us – most of the time – but I agree that, in a better world, we wouldn’t treat animals this way and we wouldn’t want to treat animals this way. But I don’t think for a second that much of what he wants to change is particularly achievable, especially in the US and in any other country used to cheap food. People know about factory farms now. I don’t know what percentage of people know, but a lot more than did in 2006. And not a whole lot has changed, has it? Would glass-walled slaughterhouses change our behaviour? Maybe. Does anybody actually want that, though?

I agree with Pollan that the rules around what is labelled “organic” should be different (or maybe just phased out altogether). But I think the point here is much more that advertising needs to be honest, to let consumers decide. If it was a choice between “factory-farmed” and “pasture-raised” or something like that, maybe consumers really would choose “pasture-raised” over “factory-farmed.” But I think it’s quite naïve to think that changing the definition of organic back to what it used to mean will cause a revolution in consumer decisions that eliminates or significantly reduces factory farming.

People like cheap food. And though food may be relatively cheaper now than it was in the past, the people living today are used to cheap food now, not the expensive food of their ancestors. It strikes me that weaning the world off of cheap food is basically a nonstarter.

But, for me, the silliest part of the book is the locavore section. Both in how incredibly unrealistic the idea is and with the person Pollan chooses to celebrate as the hero of locavorism. At one point, Pollan claims Polyface farms has 300 or 400 customers (I don’t remember which) and the farm is 500 acres. If that’s true, that math makes locavorism impossible for the world. There are less than 5 billion acres of farmland in the world and more than 8 billion people.

Then there is Joel Salatin. There are some things Pollan quotes him as saying, to Pollan’s credit, that raised my eyebrows. And, sure enough, a quick Google of this dude shows that he is not the locavore saint that Pollan mostly paints him as. (I had actually encountered Salatin before, in Food Inc. but it’s been ages since I’ve seen that movie so I had forgotten about him.) Based on some of the things he says in the book, you can guess, for example, what he had to say about Covid. I’m glad farm’s like Polyface exist, don’t get me wrong.

But I don’t for a second think they’re a viable solution to factory farming; certainly we cannot base our entire food system on something like this, it’s absurd. Pollan’s inability to see that is the most frustrating part of the book. (It’s also notable that so much of what is supposedly much better for the environment seems to involve individuals driving around to get family-sized amounts of meat. EVs would improve this, for sure, but it’s interesting that Pollan doesn’t factor in the energy costs of delivery/pick-up when it comes to locavorism but is hugely concerned about them when discussing factory farms and industrial organic farms.)

Which makes the final section all the more refreshing because he immediately acknowledges what he is doing is not a viable solution. If only he had realized that for locavorism, I would have liked this book a lot more. The final section is the reason to read the book: it is an honest and entertaining description of what it’s like to try to forage and hunt a meal in the 21st century US of A. It’s so much closer to what I was looking for from this book that it almost overcame my issues with the previous section. (My one nitpick here is he does not mention anything about the source of the flour and dairy he uses.) I almost wish the last section was excerpted on its own so people can just read that. But I get it, the contrast in the four meals is the point.

I still think this book is worth reading, even though it is somewhat out of date and I found so much of it frustrating. I am also interested in learning whether or not his views have evolved in the interim.


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