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549 of 574 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2006
When I bought this book for my dad he simply said, "A book about food?" I laughed and tried to tell him it is probably more about what is wrong with the country (government, business, foreign policy) than it is about food.

I heard Michael Pollan speak on NPR about this book and that sparked my interest. He was railing against corn as he does in the first section of the book here: For instance, I had no idea we used so much fossil fuel to get corn to grow as much as it does. The book provides plenty of other interesting facts that most people don't know (or want to) about their food.

1) We feed cattle (the cattle we eat) corn. OK. Seems fine. But I never knew cows are not able to digest corn. We give them corn so the corn farmers -who are protected by subsidies and at the same time hurt by them - can get rid of all the excess corn we produce - (more of the excess goes into high fructose corn syrup which is used in coke and many other soft drinks). This sees company owned farms injecting their cattle with antibiotics so they can digest the corn. Not just to shed farmers' excess corn but to also:

a) Get the cow fatter in a shorter amount of time because . .

b) A cow on this diet could really only survive 150 days before the acidity of the corn eats away at the rumen (a special cow digestive organ FOR GRASS, not corn).

c) Also the pharmaceutical companies get big profits because they manufacture large amounts of antibiotics for these large mammals.

All this may lead to increase in fat content and other peculiarities in the meat we eat.

2) The amount of fossil fuel we use to grow food is ridiculous and helps keeps the Saudis happy. If you buy an apple from Washington and live in New Jersey, think of how much gas went into transporting that fruit to me! Better to buy from Iowa. Better than that: buy from a farmer's market and this is one of Pollan's main suggestions:

Buy your food local and maybe you can even find out what is exactly in your hot dog.

3) CAFOS - large corporate feeding pens - where pigs (who are very smart animals) and even chickens display signs of suicidal tendencies.

4) Pollan talks about Big Organic and spends a lot of time here. "Big Organic" is seemingly an oxymoron. He shows how Big Organic companies treat their animals and farms in many similar ways to other industrial farms. However, he makes you think by talking to one organic executive who says,

"Get over it . . . the real value of putting organic on an industrial scale, is the sheer amount of acreage it puts under organic management. Behind every organic TV dinner or chicken or carton of industrial organic milk stands a certain quantity of land that will no longer be doused with chemicals, an undeniable gain of the environment and public health." - pg. 158

True, but the similarities between big companies and how supermarkets only want to deal with them is what Pollan thinks is the problem with our food.

5) Pollan focuses the most of his book on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms in rural Virginia. Salatin calls himself a "grass farmer" (no not THAT grass). You could call it "real organic" but for Pollan it is how we should be farming and what we should eat. Cows, chickens, pigs roaming freely eating grass, and tasting like they should in the end. The problem is that not every area of the USA is as fertile as southwestern Virginia . . .but I am sure Pollan would suggest that each region should specialize in its delicacies and get used to not eating things that aren't in season or animals we don't see. It would be hard for the average American to not be provided with bananas from January - December, but if we want to cut back on fossil fuels (though Pollan notes - trade is good), if we want our eggs to taste like eggs and chicken to taste like chickens and not McChickens, we need to do a better job of eating local. This sends Pollan on his final journey, to hunt for his own food and provide his helpers, with a meal totally foraged by him.

A lot of cool facts here that I never knew or took the time to care about (I never knew the mushroom was so mysterious). I would have liked him to talk more about trade, different areas' food specialties and also how preparing a meal such as his at the end seems a little too time consuming even for the outdoors enthusiast.

I think all Americans - conservatives, liberals, whatevers - can enjoy this book. Liberals for the "return to nature mentality," conservatives for the same reason: Pollan rails into Animal Rights' activists and shows how though they may have good intentions; they would rather upset the balance of nature before they kill anything.

Ominvore's Dilemma is a tremendous contribution, exposing how big corporations and old government practices continue to harm us and our country. The way we thought about food was changed with "Super Size Me" hopefully this book will change they way we want to go about obtaining our food.
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1,152 of 1,240 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2006
Since I read Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" over five years ago, I have refused to eat any fast food of any kind. Both morally and nutritionally, my position is that if I were to eat that food again, I would be tacitly accepting an industry that is abhorrent on so many levels. Knowing what I now know, that degree of cognitive dissonance is simply too great for me to overcome.

When my son was born two years ago, my thinking about food choices returned and has become an important part of my day-to-day consciousness.

When I first read about "Omnivore" online, I found the premise compelling. What exactly am I eating? Where does it come from? Why should I care? Exactly the kind of book that I'd been looking for, especially as I try to improve my own health and try to give my little guy the best start in life.

I bought the book as soon as it came out and found it to be highly enjoyable, yet almost mind-numbingly disenchanting. We all know about corn and cows and chickens and how the government subsidizes their production (mainly through corn subsidies). But Pollan has given me a completely new view of corn, its processed derivatives, and secondarily, has made me rethink my view of the farmers growing this stuff and the industries who buying it. There is so much wrong with this picture.

Corn, in the wrong hands, can be used for some terrible things, among them high fructose corn syrup (a major player in the obesity epidemic) and as feed for cows (who get sick when they eat it, requiring anti-biotics!). I can't compartmentalize anymore, just because meat tastes good. As Pollan clearly outlines, there is a very selfish reason why the beef industry doesn't want us to see inside a slaughter house. Many of us would never eat it again if we saw how disgusting and cruel the process typically is.

In the section on the ethics of eating animals, Pollan compellingly summarizes animal ethicist Peter Singer's case against eating animals, making a strong argument for vegetarianism. Then he tries to argue for a more moderate (read: carnivorous) world view, and I have to admit, I wasn't convinced. I am a lifelong meat eater, but am seriously thinking about switching to a vegetarian diet. I can no longer reconcile the slaughter of animals with my own appreciation of them. And beyond slaughter, there are plenty of health benefits to eating a plant-based diet.

Here's my bottom line: If you aren't prepared to question your views on food, or are afraid of what you might learn, then you really need to avoid this book. This has all made my head spin and my heart ache over the past month. Faced with the facts, I actually feel as though I am mourning the loss of my old diet. But I am terribly ambivalent about becoming a vegetarian, not at all happy to be making such a drastic (yet healthy) change. I am embarrassed about it, and worried about how I will deal with a meatless lifestyle in the years ahead. I am glad Pollan opened my eyes to this, but secretly wish I weren't so curious about these issues. The truth hurts.
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511 of 587 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2006
Michael Pollan's beautifully written, eye-opening new book already has me thinking about everything I put into my mouth. Clearly, this is an important, even a ground-breaking book. The Omnivore's Dilemma is much more than just an indictment of industrial food systems, or our treatment of animals, though. That's what other reviewers are concentrating on, and they're right. What I took away from this book, though, was just how thoughtless we have become about what we feed ourselves. More than anything else, Pollan's book is a plea for us to stop and think for a moment about our whole process of eating. Just as we get the political leaders we deserve, we also get the food we deserve. Pay attention!
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 2006
I read Mr. Pollan's Botany of Desire and enjoyed it. I have just finished Omnivore's Dilemma and very much enjoyed it. My graduate and undergraduate work was in seed science and sustainable production systems. I am currently in graduate school for Plant Breeding and Genetics. I have worked in production agriculture for the last 15 years. I am also an avowed foodie. I hunt game, I pick and grow mushrooms and I grow heirloom vegetables. I think Mr. Pollan has pulled together a lot of things that many of us in the industry know intuitively. I think the writing style is spot on. It is informative, but not overly technical. Some of the reviews by others in the field have picked apart the research or some of the technical facts and I could do so as well, but stepping back and looking at the whole is what is appropriate here. The writing style is not only informative, but also engaging and amusing.

I think that anyone who reads this book will have to take a moment and ask themselves how they can change a production system that is fundamentally flawed. I remind all of those people they have that power and they make that choice every day in how they shop. Vote with your dollars, that will bring about change the quickest. And, change some of your expectations. No more peaches and asparagus in December. Accept the fact that grass fed beef will vary in flavor based on where it is raised and when it is brought to market. With wine we often speak of terroir; the flavor of the vineyard and how the grapes are grown being expressed in the wine. But, the same can be true for many other agricultural products where the flavor of the site and the variety and how it is grown can also be very distinctive.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2006
Here is an example on why you read books. To read a newspaper article or watch a TV news broadcast about animal rights or healthy eating is to get besieged by politics and heated debate, but to find little thought or consideration. Pollan takes the opposite tack, approaching what we eat and where it comes from in as open and thoughtful a manner as possible.

Pollan sets out to corn fields and natural farms, goes hunting and foraging, all in the name of coming to terms with where food really comes from in modern America and what the ramifications are for the eaters, the eaten, the economy and the environment. The results are far more than I expected them to be.

It is Pollan's open-mindedness and his insistence that he personally experience the entire process of getting the food to his plate from its very beginning stages before making any judgements that makes this book so good. He brings a reasonable approach to the discussion that makes for a great book, but probably wouldn't sell newpapers or draw TV viewers.

The conclusions Pollan draws from his experiences tend to eschew the ideas of radicals on either side of the food argument and instead focus on coming to terms with what we eat by truly appreciating where it comes from and what it consists of. He constantly refers back to a time when we were comfortable looking at the process by which our food got to our plates and still being comfortable eating it. Reading this book, you can't help but come away thinking that our inability to do that today has partly to do with the path the food takes to our plates today, a little to do with our becoming strangely uncomfortable with our true nature, and something to do with what we choose to put in our bodies.

All in all, this is a great book that will leave you thinking differently about eating and probably eating differently because of it.

Highly recommended.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
I bought both his books, and now regret buying the Botany of Desire--that book is more of a whimsical discussion of the relation between four plants and humans, while this one is a deeper learning experience that is focused on sustainability. There are a number of gems that I noted down.

In something of a play on words and meaning, the author opens by noting that we have a national eating disorder because we lack a culture that places eating in a proper frame of reference where time spent preparing and enjoying food is valued, and then seques into how damaging to the environment, and to ourselves, are monocultures. At many points through the book the author documents how industrialized foods are less nutricious, more harmful to the human body, and more wasteful of the earth's resources, than organic foods.

The book is especially dramatic and deeply documented with reference to the bastardization of corn from something delicious for humans, to something that is not edible by humans but used to create a machine line for manufactured foods that can be transported great distances. The whole story of corn as the foundation for abusing cows, chickens, and other animals is extremely well told here, and shocking. It stunned me, for example, to read about Iowa as an agricultural "desert," whose farms cannot support families, only inedible corn destined for beef factories.

As the author notes, the mutation of corn pushed the animals off the local farms and into a factory farm system. The author does not emphasize animal cruelty but that comes across clearly. Animals are grown in confined spaces, and drugs combined with forced feeding take an animal from 80 lbs to 1,100 lbs in 14 months, at which point they are killed.

Side notes on how beaks are cut off chickens to keep them from hurting another another in conditions that make gulags look like country clubs, are reguarly put forward, and very troubling.

The manner in which our mutant agriculture leads to obesity can be illustrated by the author's showing that corn fed beef is "marbled" with fat, and cleverly sold as a feature rather than the flaw that it is.

Processed food wastes energy. Later on in the book the author stresses that grass farming is the fastest way to harness the free renewable power of the sun.

On pages 130-131 he constrasts the two competing systems:

He constrasts industrial vs. pastoral; annual vs. perennial; monoculture vs. polyculture; fossil energy vs. solar energy; global market vs. local market; specialized vs. diversified; mechanical vs. biological; imported fertility vs. local fertility; and myriad inputs including fertilizer and chemicals, vs. chicken feed.

I learn that industrialized organic farming is just as fuel and corn consumptive as industrialized chemical farming.

The author affirms the productivity of local farms, while pointing out that it is the transaction and scaling costs that kill the family famr.

He paints an attractive picture of natural farms as not needing machines, chemicals, fertilizers, and so on, because they manage natural complexity is a way that produces balance, nutrition, productivity, and profit. Localized food is natural.

Chefs get a great deal of credit for helping localized farms survive, as they give testimony with their buying, of how much better the localized product are from the one size fits all drugged up factory foods.

I recommend The Ecology of Commerce or Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution in addition to this book, and also Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy the latter on our chlorine-based industry. I do not recommend the The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World unless you are interested in the spirit of the plant rather than the stabilization of the planet.

See also Diet for a Small Planet and Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2007
I have to say, this is one fantastic book. Amazing. One of those rare books that forces your eyes wide open to an issue that you'd only dimly been aware of. It's one of those books everyone in the country should read, one that should be of cataclysmic proportions and Change Everything.

I won't destroy the effect of the book by trying to re-state the information in the book and doing a bad job. Let's just say that everyone who eats food should read it.

As a rationalist, I've always been sympathetic to the "Organic foods" movement but uncomfortable with all the pseudo-mystical thinking that's often associated with it. It made sense to me in principle that growing food the way evolution intended made sense, but I found the arguments I often encountered to often be mostly feel-good, unspecific talk about Cycles of Nature and Gaia and Earth Mother and so on. They weren't fact-y enough for me. This book definitely is. It doesn't have one pseudoscientific vibe to it. Conservatives can read it just as comfortably as the most crunchy-granola hippie.

Pollan should have won a Pulitzer Prize for this book. It's magnificently researched and written. It has plenty of hard fact, but instead of being boring, his clear, simple writing brings them to life and gives them meaning. He makes his cases carefully, using evidence and fact, and gradually builds to conclusions that I'm forced to admit are inescapable. It's one of those few fantastic books that takes a subject that's usually dull and dry and makes it not just interesting but, at least for me, *gripping*. It not only educated me about a whole hell of a lot of things I didn't know, but it walked me though, step by logical step, the reasons why the way our current food production system is seriously broken and horrible for us the consumers, for the farmers, for the plants and animals involved, and for the planet. I had heard this time and time again from various people, but I always took it with a big grain of salt because the people saying these things also often said ridiculous things about other topics, and I thought their virulence might be largely fed by generic anti-capitalist bias.

While I was never exactly an opponent of natural foods or a fan of factory farming, my feelings were nonspecific because I hadn't really looked into it very much, and I had a real skepticism of all the wild accusations made by the more radical people in some movements. But now, I'm convinced. Michael Pollan has presented me with actual objective facts, presented clearly and logically, in an unbiased way, and convinced me through the sheer power of his reasoning. My mind wasn't changed 180 degrees, but it was definitely changed 90 degrees. In some cases the logic is so clear it had me practically slapping my forehead in shock at how stupid people can be. It's been quite a long time since I've been so captivated by the crystal clear beauty of the elegant logic in a perfectly crafted argument.

One thing I like best is that Pollan is largely unbiased himself. Yes, the book does come to conclusions that are very much against some practices and for very much for others, but he makes the arguments so clear and strong that you can only end up agreeing with him. He doesn't, for example, come out with a glowing, uncritical, credulous affirmation of "organic" food, as I had expected. While generally positive, he acknowledges serious problems with the system.

I can't recommend this book any more strongly. If it's completely ignored by government and industry - and I'm sure it will be - it's a crime. This may be the most important book in decades.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2006
Pollan is an excellent storyteller and brings what would be a very dull topic to life. Yes, while it is somewhat repetitive, I think it helps to drive home certain points. Like the fact that industrial farming forces food to be shipped all over the country every single day. The amount of petroleum that is used in and for food production is staggering. I am a true believer in eating local whenever possible. I guess the best thing we can all do is grow our own gardens and compost everything we are able. For city dwellers, that's where using local markets comes in.

I happen to live in Virginia, near Polyface Farm. And Joel Salatin is in fact a remarkable farmer. Pollan's description of his farm and practices was right on target. As for using Joel's model to revolutionize the food industry, both Salatin and Pollan have said that we can't expect to change all the feedlots into grass farms. But we can be aware that many of us have a choice to support our local agriculture through markets, CSA's, and direct marketing opportunities. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia may not be the corn basket of America, but it is the largest cattle and poultry area in the state. And besides Joel there are organic and conventional farms and dairies that provide products to the local area as well as to the industrial factory.

I am happy to have that choice in this area, and have taken steps not only to grow and compost on my own property, and to share that bounty with friends and neighbors, but also to frequent farmers markets, local butchers who provide local meats, and even Joel's farm for his wonderful eggs and other products.

And as for the reviewers who still criticize this book because of their vegetarian and vegan viewpoints, I believe in reducing dependency on animal proteins for both health and environmental reasons. But I don't believe that every person is meant or even able to sustain a vegetarian or vegan diet. Just as some people's bodies don't function well with animal proteins or milk, there are many others who cannot function properly without it.

It's not right to judge someone for eating meat just as it's not right to judge another for not. I think Pollan is to be applauded for deciding that he should at least try a vegetarian diet and study the arguments for and against before making up his mind. Many would not go that far. So for him to decide that he could, in good conscious eat meat, who is anyone to say that he shouldn't? At least he's tracked where his food comes from, has done the killing himself, and has seriously considered his options.

I recommend this book for everyone who has ever been concerned with what they put in their bodies. Make your own choices in the end and be willing to keep evaluating those choices and stand by them.
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2006
I can't believe it happened to me. I never thought it would, my ego integrity being such that I thought I would never become so completely a different person. But it did happen. In the span of a few seconds I uttered words that were so alien, so not me it could have been stated by a complete stranger. I was not being ironic or funny. I didn't even realize what I said until I was finished saying it and then for a fleeting few moments I couldn't be sure it was really me thinking and saying this phrase, "For Gods sake, this is a health food store, why are they selling soda? And for that matter, what the hell is organic soda?"

As my wife pulled away from the end rack of said offending soda I suddenly had the most jolting moment of clarity in the middle of our local Nature's Harvest health food store. Despite every effort to the contrary, my wife's newfound allergy to wheat plus our collective endeavor to lose weight and eat better had turned me into one of those obnoxious foodie types that turn up their nose to anything found at your local supermarket. Folks, this is not me. A scant year ago three square meals consisted of a cereal bar (Cocoa Puffs or Cheerios) for breakfast, Tyson breaded chicken patties for lunch, and a plentiful serving of Taco Bell for dinner.

My indulgence of Taco Bell was legendary going all the back to high school. In fact, I lunched their so often that when I went away to college in Pittsburgh for a semester, it was rumored that the local Taco Bell I frequented went out of business because I was not their to support any longer.

So how does one go from such a complete junk food junkie to obnoxious health conscious foodie so darn quickly? The answer lies in "Botany of Desire" author and journalist for the New York Times Magazine Michael Pollan's newest masterpiece, "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." In this book Pollan takes great pains to show his readers how the average American meal develops and evolves from the farm to our plate. Many books these days concentrate solely on fast food and how horrible it is for you but Pollan not only tackles that well worn material, he goes above and beyond in displaying the entire military-industrial food chain that supplies every mainstream food outlet from Wal-Mart to the local bodega, from any major Supermarket to most American eateries.

When I bought this book I figured I'd be taught many things about Mad Cow Disease, pesticides and growth hormones, concentration camp-like conditions for farm animals, and most probably Franken-foods (genetically modified or cloned). That's all in there but it is under the most odd of headings; corn.

According to Pollan corn is THE building block of the entire non-organic, non-foraged, food chain. That's right, I said corn. I realize that at first glance, aside from barbeques and vegetable medley's, one does not see corn so completely spread far and wide as Pollan insists it is. But that is what makes his book so incredible and such a pleasurable read. Pollan visits one of the biggest agribusiness farms in America and asks all of the right questions.

What we find is not only the history of how corn dominated human society by domesticating us (rather than the assumed belief that we domesticated corn) we follow Pollan on the path of corn as it finds its way into nearly every available food on the market in stores and restaurants. From the object itself, to meals fed to animals we eat (like chicken and beef), to byproducts such as high fructose corn syrup (which I swear is in nearly everything but the air we breathe) to even the heart of food policy as written by our Congress and paid for with taxpayer dollars. By the end of this section that was entirely dedicated to corn and its nightmare offspring, the quite literally named military-industrial food chain, I found myself wandering the eateries and shopping centers of Tampa crying out that everywhere lurked dreadful and unhealthy corn a la Charlton Heston of Soylent Green fame. Morgan Spurlock already had me yelling at every McDonalds that it was "Evil!" like I was a poor mans Abe "Grandpa" Simpson, so Pollans empire of corn revelation only made my food induced hysteria oh so much worse.

Incidentally, between the aforementioned wife's allergy and subsequent discovery that even hot dogs and hamburgers had wheat in them combined with my reading of Pollan's book and his description of corn, our car rides are peppered with the both of us screaming out of the car windows at every opportunity in banshee song, "Wheat...corn...wheat...corn, everywhere is wheat and corn...oh woe is us, woe-is-us!"

But Pollan does do what most anti-agribusiness people do. He doesn't rest easy on the lazy thinking that we should all blindly start shopping at organic food stores like Whole Foods Market without asking equally intrusive and instructive questions. Pollan tackles the organic food industry with as much veracity and gusto as he did with the industrial food chain. In the section simply titled, grass, we learn more about the natural order of food ecology and just how far we've drifted from what is the natural order of eating and raising food. He also teaches the difference between organic, USDA approved organic and the even healthier but lofty local food chain. By the end of this chapter Pollan had me searching the aforementioned Nature's Harvest for foods and condiments that were produced in Tampa, FL (where I live) because now even organic wasn't good enough for me. About this time a good friend called me and when I told him of my dilemma he suggested I start working a second job to pay for my new food obsession or seek an intervention.

The last chapter, the forest, is about hunting and gathering ones own dinner. Pollan manages to write a beautiful and intelligent piece about the way we eat in modern times without the trappings of hoity, elitist language and attitude present in most writings about food and health. However, though in the end the chapter is saved by Pollans humbleness and genuine intellectual curiosity about the subject of hunting and gathering, boy does this final part of the book skate close to the edge of unrealistic. Thankfully, Pollan acknowledges that we are not about to as a society start to reverse evolution and drop agriculture in favor of returning to hunting and gathering. He only goes through with this experiment for the purposes of illustration not as a viable alternative to eating corn meals and faux organic products. His message is simply know what you are eating, make smart decisions and moderate your impulses.

"The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan is a wonderful book. It has achieved the much-vaunted (if I do say so myself) position of one the few books I insist that everyone should read. Other books in this category include the Pulitzer Prize winning epic by Jared Diamond, "Guns, Germs and Steel." For anyone with a serious interest in the modern food chain or simply eating healthier, you should definitely read, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan. I promise it won't make you nearly as nuts as it made me, I'm just a bit overdramatic and obsessive is all.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2007
A well written and researched book examining the food system we have with glimpses of what an alternative food system might look like. The farm that excites Mr. Pollan is Polyface Farms in Virginia- grass fed beef, free range chickens, happy pigs. Well... I grew up near Amish country and to me.... Polyface Farms sounds like an Amish farm. No alcohol, no caffeine, no TV, slaughter you own meats, be self sufficient. The thing is, Amish people have 5 or 6 kids to help work the farm and most families have a couple of those kids leave the Amish life for the attractions of American culture. Farm work is physically demanding and almost requires a vow of poverty. During my father's generation, farm boys all over the US were delighted to leave the farm and work in offices or factories. A mass return to self sustaining farms is not likely and would not be able to feed our big cities. Mr. Pollan's strongest point, and one should be the key focus of all concerned citizens, is that the whole industrial food system is based on cheap fossil fuels. Every input to industrial farming, from the fertilizers to the tractor fuel through the processing and marketing uses petroleum. The final cost for a calorie of food is more than 10 calories of fossil fuel. The major weakness of the book is the lack of discussion of the ethanol business and how the additional demand for corn as an ethanol input is exacerbating the trends discussed... burnout of the land, overuse of fertilizer, and non-sustainability. Likely Omnivore's Dilemma was written before the corn-ethanol nexus was so apparent. This is a great book which repays close reading.
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