The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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Michael Pollan‘s superb book tells the stories of four meals and the processes through which they came to exist. At one extreme is a meal of McDonald’s cheeseburgers, eaten in a moving car; at the other, a cooked wild boar he hunted, accompanied by things grown or gathered. Pollan also considers two types of pastoral food systems: one on a mass scale intended to serve the consumer market for organic foods and a truly pastoral farm centred around grass feeding, healthy animal interactions, and sustainability. His descriptions of the four, and comparisons between them, provide lots of interesting new information, and fodder for political and ethical consideration.

Among these, the industrial food chain and the grass-fed pastoral are the most interesting. Each is a demonstration of human ingenuity, with the former representing the sheer efficiency that can be achieved through aggressive specialization and disregard for animal welfare and environmental effects and the latter demonstrating how people, animals, and plants can interact in a much more ethical and sustainable way, albeit only on a relatively small scale. The account of Polyface Farm – the small-scale pastoral operation run by Joel Salatin – is genuinely touching at times, as well as startling in contrast to the industrial cattle feeding and killing operations Pollan describes. While the book heaps praise on the operation, it also recognizes the limitations inherent: we cannot live in cities like New York and get our food from such establishments, nor can the big stores most people shop at manage to deal with thousands of such small suppliers. Unless you are willing to go back to a pre-urban phase for humanity, the industrial organic chain may be the best that is possible.

Pollan’s book is packed with fascinating information on everything from the chemistry of producing processed foods from corn to some unusual theories he learned from mushroom gatherers. Regardless of your present position on food, reading it will make you better informed and leave you with a lot to contemplate.

Arguably, the book is at its weakest when it comes to ethics. Pollan rightly heaps criticism on factory farms, but seems to pre-judge the overall rightness of eating meat. Some of his arguments against vegetarianism and veganism – such as that more animals are killed in fields growing vegetables than in slaughterhouses – are simply silly. No sensible system of ethics considers it equivalent to kill a grasshopper and to kill a pig. I also think that he places too much emphasis on the relevance of whether an animal anticipates death or not. I don’t see how the inability of animals to “see is coming” makes their deaths qualitatively different from those of human beings.

That said, his arguments are generally coherent and certainly bear consideration. He never explicitly spells out the wrongness of eating industrial meat, though it is clear that his implicit argument is based around the conditions under which the animals live, rather than the fact of killing them. This is a sensible position and he is right to contrast Polyface farm with industrial farms on the basis of how they allow or do not allow animals to express their “characteristic forms of life.” Rather than press his argument to a conclusion, he abandons his consideration in a bout of fantasy: talking about how much better the treatment and slaughter of animals would be if farms and slaughterhouses had glass walls.

I highly recommend this book to almost everyone. Modern life is very effective at concealing the nature and origin of what we are eating. This book helps to pull back the veil to some extent. It is also a reflection of the ever-increasing politicization of food. What you choose to eat is an important signal of your ethical and political views, to be judged accordingly by others. Whatever position you end up taking, it will be better informed and illustrated if you take the time to consider Pollan’s thoughts and experiences.

For my part, the book has convinced me that I should strictly limit or abandon the consumption of eggs. His description of egg operations is especially chilling and supports his assertion that: “What you see when you look is the cruelty – and the blindness to cruelty – required to produce eggs that can be sold for seventy-nine cents a dozen.” Other resolutions stemming from reading this book include to try eating more types of mushrooms, improve my cooking generally, and remember that under no circumstances should one accept an invitation to collect abalone in California.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

31 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. “Even if the author weren’t a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and therefore by definition a liberal foodie intellectual, you could guess how this scheme will play out: the McDonald’s meal will be found wanting in terms of nutrition and eco-sustainability; the Whole Foods meal will be decent but tainted with a whiff of corporate compromise; the Virginia farm meal will be rapturously flavorful and uplifting; and the hunter-gatherer meal will be a gutsy feast of wild boar and morels, with a side of guilt and some squirmy philosophizing on what it means to take a pig’s life.

    But for Pollan, the final outcome is less important than the meal’s journey from the soil to the plate. His supermeticulous reporting is the book’s strength — you’re not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from. In fact, the first quarter of the book is devoted to a shocking, page-turning exposé of the secret life of that most seemingly innocent and benign of American crops, corn.”

  2. “[U]nder no circumstances should one accept an invitation to collect abalone in California.”

    Why not?

  3. It’s not apparent to me that eating meat can be wrong because “killing animals is wrong”, and then say that some animals are more animals than others. Because then where it looked like you had a matter of principle, you in fact just have another matter of degree. So it’s not “killing animals is wrong”, but “killing everything above a certain complexity” is wrong.

    You could draw a line and call it a matter of principle about which you could be mistaken. Denett (philosopher) does this, he draws the line at lobsters. Anything smarter than a lobster he won’t eat. It seems pretty arbitrary where you draw this line, pretty certain you’d get it wrong.

    Or, you could say it is a matter of degree without being a matter of principle, but then you can’t distinguish between good and wrong actions, just actions that are more good or more wrong. Although, I guess as a utilitarian you’d like that.

    So, I guess it’s just because I through and through reject the notion that you can define the rightness of an action entirely in terms of the goodness of its consequences. Mostly because it looks arbitrary what you pick as ‘the good’.

  4. Re: abalone,

    It’s not for any ethical reason. Pollan makes abalone gathering sound incredibly hazardous, painful, and unpleasant.

  5. Tristan,

    Thankfully, the sections explicitly about the morality of meat are the least interesting ones in this otherwise highly informative book.

    Read it for the information provided, then subject it to your own analysis.

  6. So it’s not “killing animals is wrong”, but “killing everything above a certain complexity” is wrong.

    I think science and philosophy need to have a good sit down and think real hard on what it means to be more or less complex, and why complexity denotes more right to life.

  7. It’s not the killing that is wrong, though suffering is important. What is wrong is the perversion of the animals’ lives, turning them into vehicles to satisfy human desires, disregarding any interests and sensations of theirs in the process.

    The environmental unsustainability of factory farming is also wrong, though for different reasons.

  8. Related to ‘seeing it coming’, I think it’s very plausible that the main bad of death is related to cutting a life story short, frustrating on-going projects, etc. It’s therefore very plausible that torturing animals that feel pain is far worse than painlessly killing them. That would allow for the possibility of ethical meat-eating, but not perhaps under current mass farming/slaughter conditions.

  9. Ben,

    Again, I think the problem with factory farms is much less the fact and manner of animal death and much more the conditions of animal life. Lack of space, being forced to eat unnatural things, suffering body modifications like de-beaking or tail clipping, being continually immersed in their own waste – these are the most significant kinds of ethical violations ongoing. Cutting short whatever sort of plans can be developed in such conditions seems a lesser issue.

  10. Why Are We Feeding Good Fish to Pigs?

    Never. But the industrial food production says that plumping pigs as quickly as possible is best for business, and that means fat and protein, which is why 30 million tonnes of tasty fish like sardines, anchovies, and herring are reduced into fishmeal every year.

  11. Milan,

    Then I think we’re in agreement. There’s no obviously conclusive case against eating meat, per se. If one thinks that free range eggs are acceptable, though those from battery-farmed hens aren’t, then one should probably adopt a similar attitude towards meat.

  12. Care about the environment? Eat less meat


    Special to Globe and Mail Update

    January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST

    Last week, Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the United Nation’s Nobel Prize-winning scientific panel on climate change, asked the world to “please eat less meat.” Speaking at a press conference in Paris, he said meat was a very carbon-intensive commodity, a fact established by UN research showing that livestock production creates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transport combined.

  13. Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler

    A SEA change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store — something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

    It’s meat.

    The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally — like oil — meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

  14. Editorial

    Nature 451, 606 (7 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451606a; Published online 6 February 2008

    Don’t ban labels

    Providing context for sensitive declarations is the job of industry and government.

    ‘You are what you eat’ notwithstanding, it is only recently that most consumers have become interested in the technical details of their food’s composition, production and transport. With obesity and climate change now major concerns, and ‘localvore’ and ‘food miles’ entering the lexicon, shoppers are clamouring for information. And many food companies are happy to supply it, resulting in a dizzying array of multicoloured labels and claims.

    But not everyone is happy. A proposed law in Indiana is the latest attempt in the United States to ban milk labels proclaiming that the cows from whence the milk came were not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH, also called recombinant bovine somatotropin or rbST). This hormone is produced by engineered bacteria, is virtually identical to the cow’s own and can increase milk production by 10–15%.

  15. Explaining food vs. nutrition: Michael Pollan talks at Google

    By Cory Doctorow on Video

    Avi sez, “Michael Pollan gives his most practical lecture yet @ Google. Pollan’s 12 heuristics have been most helpful during my year shopping for veggies at Berkley Bowl:) I grew up buying fresh produce at atmospheric places like this in Mumbai and do fervently hope that vivacious local markets trump impersonal food-processing corporations.”

  16. “It’s a dead end to try and eliminate subsidies, because then you get all of America’s farmers, who have political power out of all proportion of their number, unified against change. Right now the incentives are to produce as much as possible, whatever the costs to the environment and our health. But you can imagine another set of assumptions, so that they’re getting incentives to sequester carbon. Or clean the water that leaves their farm, or for the quality, not the quantity, of the food they’re growing.”

    Michael Pollan, reflecting a growing consensus

  17. Pingback: In Defense of Food
  18. Op-Ed Contributor
    The Carnivore’s Dilemma

    Published: October 30, 2009

    Bolinas, Calif.

    IS eating a hamburger the global warming equivalent of driving a Hummer? This week an article in The Times of London carried a headline that blared: “Give Up Meat to Save the Planet.” Former Vice President Al Gore, who has made climate change his signature issue, has even been assailed for omnivorous eating by animal rights activists.

    It’s true that food production is an important contributor to climate change. And the claim that meat (especially beef) is closely linked to global warming has received some credible backing, including by the United Nations and University of Chicago. Both institutions have issued reports that have been widely summarized as condemning meat-eating.

    But that’s an overly simplistic conclusion to draw from the research. To a rancher like me, who raises cattle, goats and turkeys the traditional way (on grass), the studies show only that the prevailing methods of producing meat — that is, crowding animals together in factory farms, storing their waste in giant lagoons and cutting down forests to grow crops to feed them — cause substantial greenhouse gases. It could be, in fact, that a conscientious meat eater may have a more environmentally friendly diet than your average vegetarian.

  19. “Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it. Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

  20. The alternative view is sceptical of, or even downright hostile to, the modern food business. This group, influential among non-governmental organisations and some consumers, concentrates more on the food problems of richer countries, such as concerns about animal welfare and obesity. It argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?”

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