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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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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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on June 18, 2006
I didn't expect to learn much from Michael Pollan's new book, _The Omnivore's Dilemma_ - since I write and talk regularly about the problems of industrial agriculture, local food production and sustainability, I thought that while I'd probably enjoy his writing (I took a great deal of pleasure in his prior books on gardening), his book would be enlightening to a rather different audience than myself. But, in fact, I did learn a great deal. Pollan's gift is to entertainingly present complexities, without being weighed down by his own excellent scholarship - it is a gift, to know that much about something and to know which bits of evidence will compell and which will merely bore. He's an enormously erudite guy, without being even slightly dull. Several people I know who are far less engaged by food issues than I say they found it compelling and readable.

I will add up front, that one of the two things that most irritated me about this book was that in the mid-1980s, Margaret Visser, a brilliant food writer, wrote a very similar book, _Much Depends on Dinner_. Neither the book nor the author were particularly obscure - the book won several awards, and Visser went on to write another one about table manners (great book, btw, and highly recommended), and the books were published by Pollan's own publisher. And yet, Pollan's book does not cite or acknowledge the book, even though many of the chapters (those on chicken and corn especially) were very similar in their approach and analysis. Someone, either Pollan in his research (which, I think, was otherwise good), or his editor missed something - because the concept of eating a meal and being outraged by the history of its context is not his. Visser's book, particularly the chapter on rice, which I read in high school, was my biggest early influence in thinking about food, so it rankles me (even though these things happen in books) that Pollan ignored her.

But returning to the main point, I did learn a great deal from Pollan - I found out, among other things, exactly what Xanthan gum is (hadn't you always wondered, even if you knew it couldn't be good?), made a connection I'd never perceived before between the widespread alcoholism in America in the 19th century and the widespread obesity of today (both due to the need to use up agricultural excesses of corn) and heard as concise and compelling an account of the complexities of farm subsidies as I've heard before. I hadn't thought, for example that anyone could give me any more reasons not to eat at McDonalds, but Pollan added a couple.

The first section of the book traces a meal at McDonalds back to its basic ingredient - corn. From the corn that feeds the chickens to the xanthan gum in the milkshake to the sweetener in the ketchup and oil in which the fries are cooked, McDonalds is mostly corn. Since Fast Food Nation and the other exposes, I don't think there's anyone who cares who doesn't know how gross fast food is, and Pollan admirably stays away from the yuckiness factor (not that there isn't reason to go there, but it has been rather overdone of late). Instead, he goes to the aesthetic one, accusing Americans who eat fast food of having become like koalas, capable of absorbing only corn, to terrible cost. In some sense, as someone who likes to eat, his description of our reliance upon (and the costs thereof) corn is more grotesque than any expose of slaughterhouses could be.

He then describes the history of two organic meals, one of them bought on a trip to whole foods, and an industrially produced organic meal, the other local, sustainable and produced to a large degree from Joel Salatin's Polyface farm, where he acted as reporter/farm hand for a week. It may be here that Pollan's book is most valuable, because it makes a distinction that your average Mom who buys at Whole foods has never made - that industrial organic food is more industrial than organic. This book has been roundly hyped on NPR and in the New York Times, and has the potential to change a lot of minds - and despite my later critiques, I will be enormously grateful if Pollan can simply convince people to look beyond the word organic and think about the costs of their food to the environment and the people who grow it. This is a potentially influential book, and Pollan does not make the mistake that many, many food writers make, of reading the word "organic" to mean sustainable.

While acknowledges that large scale, organic, industrial food is better than nothing, he doesn't cut it a lot of slack for its drenching in fossil fuels, use and sometimes misuse of migrant labor, and general unsustainability. Perhaps his best writing in the book is when he attempts to analyze whether it is possible to grow food sustainably and well on any scale at all, and when he concludes that you can't, someone like me, who is trying to grow food on a small scale, looks up ready to cheer. Because such a conclusion should lead inevitably to the next step - ie, to the idea that the only solution to the problem of industrial agriculture is that a lot more people have to grow food, both for sale and at home. But he never quite gets there, and that may be the great flaw of the book. Still, however, I think that the line that the distinctions Pollan does draw are deeply helpful, and could potentially change things a great deal.

In the final section, Pollan eats a meal that he has hunted, or gathered, or grown himself. In doing this, he spends a lot of time coming to terms with hunting and meat eating (he kills his own chicken for dinner at Polyface farm, and also purchases a steer destined for McDonalds, although its final end is as much of a mystery as such things could possibly ever be). Here is where, I expected, Pollan will figure out how we might reasonably eat, humanely and sustainably. But in fact, the last chapter could be described as "Yuppie Jewish guy goes hunting for the first time" - and not just any kind of hunting, but hunting for wild boar in the California mountains with a bunch of European chefs bent on recreating the food of their homelands for Chez Panisse. Pollan may be violating the traditions of his Jewish upbringing (Jews don't hunt, not just because they are often urbanites, but because the laws of kashruth forbid it, and the sense of it as unfitting has lingered long past the observation of the law in other respects for many Jews), but he never actually leaves his class behind. And that is one of the deeper problems of the book - the meal he seeks to make is not a deer burger and homemade potato fries, but wine-braised leg of boar with boar liver pate and cherry something or other (admittedly, it sounded terrific).

Intermittently throughout the book, Pollan attempts to deal with the problem of elitism - whether or not sustainable food is yuppie food. And there's a legitimate case to be made that there is. Pollan, of course, points out the illogic both of what we spend on food (less than anyone in the world) and the externalities that are not figured into the cost of the McDonalds meal, but he never gets down and dirty with the question of class. He quotes Joel Salatin on the subject that regulation adds more to his cost than organic production, notes the costs of meals and that Salatin's customers are mixed in economic situation, but he never fully addresses who it is who mostly eats fast food and who it is who mostly eats organic, and the all-important whys of that question.

When Pollan finally gets down to the ultimate local meal, the chapter is mostly about his angst over killing animals and meat eating (although it was fun to watch Pollan duke it out intellectually with Peter Singer), but it all gets played out over a meal with class overtones so profound and powerful that you cannot escape them. Going boar hunting with a sicilian chef doesn't seem to have much relevance to going deer hunting with a bunch of blue collar guys who live next door, nor is the meal he plans to produce something that anyone could make and eat very often. Speaking as someone who does not hunt (that kosher thing) but whose father did, and who believes that human predation is a perfectly normal thing, and preferrable, say, to having lyme disease from an excess of white-tailed deer (oh, it isn't that easy, of course, but I'll write more on vegetarianism and meat eating another time), I think Pollan ends up using the meal he decided to make as a way of choosing to avoid the logical conclusion of his writing, and the book is the poorer for it. The closing chapter is not about how we could eat, but about the impossibility of producing our own food, and, to a large degree, about the impossibility of even eating sustainably. And I think to a large degree that's because he chose a meal that is unreproducable for millions - as opposed to the simple, ordinary chicken and corn or french fries of his organic and conventional prior meals.

His conclusions, drawn from his experiences on Salatin's farm and of hunting and gathering (and presumably of eating at McDonalds) are implicitly that sustainable eating is never going to happen on any great scale. At the end of his section on Salatin's farm, he likens Salatin to Luther, creating his own new denominations of people for whom food quality and healthfulness matters, small niches of (elitist) people who care about their food in the great wilderness. But implying this suggests that most other people (I wonder who - the ones who eat at McDonalds more and are mostly of a different class?) don't actually care deeply about their food's taste, health and environmental cost.

And his final set of conclusions are deeply disappointing to me, personally. Because he creates the ground work for a fairly simple conclusion - industrial scale food production, whether organic or non, is a failure, a disaster for those who care about ethics or the environment. In a way, it doesn't matter whether what you care about is the suffering of animals (industrial slaughter) or the suffering of humans (malnutrition), the extermination of songbirds (pesticides) or rising cancer rates (pesticides) or the extermination of everyone due to global warming, the conclusion that Pollan expertly and gracefully leads us to - ie, that many more people need to take a role in their own food systems, both by buying locally, encouraging the creation of millions of new small farms instead of an expanding industrial system, and by growing some of their own (or hunting it, or foraging), is finally left off, in the interest of implying that the problem is irresolvable. This, I think, is rather a cheap ending, and an unfair one to the person who has sorted through the complexities of his arguments and analysis and comes out wanting to know what to do next.

Pollan tells us at the very end, referring to his home produced meal and the one from McDonalds, "...these meals are equally unreal and equally unsustainable." But the fact that the home produced meal is unsustainable and unreproducable is his choice - because a dinner of potatoes and eggs with salad, equally local, equally gathered, is sustainable and available to anyone with a bit of backyard if they want it. By implying that self-provisioning is a fantasy in this modern world, Pollan essentially suggests we leave the farming to the farmers - but there simply aren't enough farmers to have a small, local, organic farm everywhere. If we're to reduce our footprint more than anyone can by hopping over to whole foods in the SUV and picking up a box of whole wheat mac and cheese and some organic apples from China, people are going to have to take some responsibility for feeding themselves. No, they don't have to go hunt wild boar. But they might have to grow a garden, or make possible a nearby farm. They might have to encourage their children to grow up to be farmers. And they might have to imagine a world in which feeding oneself is not either a work of magic or a work of industry, but simply the ordinary job that ordinary people have been doing for thousands of years.
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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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on July 24, 2010
In this book, Michael Pollan shows himself to be a master storyteller. Unfortunately, stories aren't just a way to communicate facts while keeping the reader engaged. One might even say that the facts are secondary to the stories. Rather than base stories on the facts, Pollan chooses stories to fit an overarching reactionary thesis: The best way to eat is following nature and tradition, and our attempts at progress only make things worse. The facts, then, are worked into his narratives, but sometimes they don't really fit.

Science is one victim of Pollan's reactionary thesis. Nutritional science receives part of the blame for America's health problems. "We place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success" (303), he writes. Yet much of his evidence that "we place our faith in science" lies in our susceptibility to weight-loss diets and food fads that aren't supported by scientific consensus. Moreover, he seems oblivious to the successes of nutritional science in curing nutrient deficiencies, some of which existed in traditional diets.

Science also receives unfair treatment in the agricultural context. Pollan attempts to summarize parts of Sir Albert Howard's An Agricultural Testament, which he calls the organic movement's bible. Yet he makes Howard's work out to be some sort of anti-science treatise, when it just isn't. Pollan concludes from Howard's treatment of humus, "To reduce such a vast biological complexity to [nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium] represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst" (147). While Howard offers plenty of criticism of modern agricultural science in particular, he does not criticize the scientific method more broadly. Indeed, he even calls aspects of conventional agriculture unscientific, proposes a few scientific experiments, and expresses his hope that science be among the tools of the agricultural investigators of the future. Howard's work isn't an argument against science. It's an argument for better science.

Pollan's chapters on the fast food chain are probably his strongest, but even there he occasionally oversteps. For example, he suggests that E. coli O157:H7 live only on feedlot cattle, when the scientific literature indicates that this deadly strain of bacteria is about as prevalent in grass-fed cattle. Later, he goes on to include one of the active ingredients in baking powder on a list of "quasiedible substances " (113), apparently because of its chemical name. In both of these instances, he criticizes something new -- feedlots in the first and baking powder in the second -- with the effect of making something traditional seem more appealing.

The primary beneficiary of the reactionary narrative is the pastoral food chain, as represented by Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm. Even as Salatin describes his farm is a "postindustrial enterprise" (191), he explains that in some sense his farming methods aren't really new at all; they imitate the ecological relationships that exist in nature. To Pollan the farm is "a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty" (124). Its product, he says, "looks an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch" (127).

Pollan credits Salatin's farming methods with revitalizing Polyface's soil without chemical fertilizers. In particular, he writes, "The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season." (210)

It's hard to tell whether he grasps the fact that the nitrogen in the chickens' feces comes from the food they eat, eighty percent of which is grain-based feed from off the farm. What is certain, though, is that he doesn't raise the question of what is happening to the land where that feed is grown. We would expect from the earlier chapters that the corn and soy in the feed was grown on a farm that was less classic, less pastoral, and less beautiful than Polyface, so it's striking that Pollan should choose not to look further. He also doesn't bother to discuss the question of whether that feed grain might be more efficiently used to feed people directly (as my calculations indicate it would). Either of these questions would be raised in a more fact-driven work, but there's simply no room for them here, as the answers might not fit the thesis. (Of course, when Pollan later mentions "a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris" (361), he's talking about the vegetarians.)

As for the chickens, Pollan buys into Salatin's argument that they are a purely artisanal product. He doesn't mention that they are the same Cornish Cross hens that in the context of his Whole Foods meal represented "the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding," and which "grow so rapidly...that their poor legs cannot keep pace" (171).

Pollan also points out that Salatin's pastures remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There's no mention, however, of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from Salatin's hugely inefficient distribution system, which involves large numbers of cars traveling long distances to the farm. (This omission comes even after he's told us about the fossil fuels used to transport his industrial organic fruits and vegetables from distant farms.) When Pollan tells us that one customer drives 150 miles each way to the farm, it's merely to be taken as proof of the quality of Polyface meats. There's no mention of any environmental impact.

Where Pollan's dedication to his reactionary thesis is perhaps most obvious is in his discussion of vegetarianism. For although there are prominent conservative vegetarians (Matthew Scully among them), vegetarianism today is rooted in a progressive idea. It requires us to accept that we can do something, namely eat, better than our ancestors did it. Indeed, Pollan writes, "Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream. I'm not completely sure why this should be happening now, given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn" (305).

Vegetarianism is something new, and his preferred hypothesis for its recent success is the weakening of our traditions: "But it could also be that the cultural norms and rituals that used to allow people to eat meat without agonizing about it have broken down for other reasons. Perhaps as the sway of tradition in our eating decisions weakens, habits we once took for granted are thrown up in the air, where they're more easily buffeted by the force of a strong idea or the breeze of fashion." (306)

Being something new and representing a challenge to age-old traditions, vegetarianism simply doesn't fit with Pollan's reactionary message. In the reactionary view, it doesn't make much more sense than high-fructose corn syrup or factory farms. As such, it doesn't receive serious consideration.

Even before his section on the ethics of eating animals, there are signs that he won't take his debate seriously. He tells us, for example, that his friends' son is "fifteen and currently a vegetarian" (271), as though vegetarianism is merely a teenage phase. He also makes no secret of the fact that he's already made the decision to go hunting even before tackling the ethical issues associated with eating animals.

Pollan gives up meat for a while, inspired by an argument of Peter Singer: "No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering" (312). Yet he identifies himself as "a reluctant and, I fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian" (313), so it's not at all clear that the experiment does anything to lessen his bias.

As a vegetarian, Pollan struggles with the social ramifications of eating differently. He points out that "my new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship" (313) and decides, "I'm inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners" (313). Yet he'll find himself able to justify only a very limited kind of meat-eating, which likewise represents a "personal dietary prohibition." He then proceeds to discuss his alienation from traditions like the Passover brisket, apparently not allowing for the possibility that traditions might evolve over time. This rigid view of tradition is an odd one considering his plans to hunt an unkosher pig.

Pollan then moves on to a discussion of animal rights philosophy. He claims to be debating Peter Singer, but he'll quote Matthew Scully when it better suits his point, never acknowledging any significant difference between the writers. Other times, he'll just quote Singer out of context.

Pollan eventually argues for meat-eating on the grounds that it serves the interests of domesticated species, which would cease to exist if people didn't eat them. He doesn't do much in the way of building up the argument, only hinting at how the interest of a species might be defined and not even beginning to explain why such an interest is more important than the individuals.

Instead of building that argument, Pollan relays a story intended to show that animal activists are out of touch with nature. As Pollan tells it, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service need to kill feral pigs to save Santa Cruz Island's endangered fox, and the animal rights and welfare people oppose the plan out of a single-minded concern for animal welfare. However, the very same Humane Society op-ed that Pollan cites to prove this point actually includes a substantive discussion of the project's ecological goals. Moreover, Pollan does not address any of the more scholarly objections to the project, such as Jo-Ann Shelton's argument that the restoration of Santa Cruz Island is motivated by human interest.

Pollan then launches into a section called "The Vegan Utopia," where he points out practical difficulties of a vegan world. First, he reminds us that harvesting grains kills animals. It's a true statement that people who care about animals should keep in mind, but Pollan goes on to suggest that we would minimize animal deaths by basing our diets on large ruminants. That claim is an apparent reference to a study that was quickly debunked. He then argues that a vegan world would force places like New England to import all of their food from distant places. It's a dubious claim in view of existing production of soy, wheat, and vegetables in New England. He even goes so far as to suggest that the vegan food chain would be more dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers than our current food system. Thanks to the inefficiency of feeding grain to animals, that claim is almost certainly false.

As B.R. Myers has pointed out, Pollan does not mention a single thing he ate in his time as a vegetarian. Over the course of the book, Pollan describes at least ten meat-based meals, four of those in exquisite detail, so it's telling that he doesn't consider vegetarian cuisine to be worth writing about.

Pollan goes hunting, shoots his sow, and even enjoys the experience. Yet when he finds himself disgusted by the sights and smells of cleaning the pig, Pollan can't help but take one more jab at vegetarians. He expresses pity for the "tofu eater" for his "dreams of innocence" (361), seemingly rejecting the idea that we should even try to do better.

In spite of all these points of contention, I should acknowledge that Pollan gets plenty right in the book. There's a lot that's wrong with modern industrial food production. Making bad changes to our food supply has had profound negative consequences for the environment, public health, and animal welfare. On these topics, Pollan can remain faithful to his reactionary thesis while still representing the facts reasonably well. And so a reader learns about things like the psychology of supersizing, the environmental toll of growing corn to feed ruminants, and the miserable life of a battery-caged layer hen.

I suspect that many people find the information about industrial animal agriculture more powerful because they come from an author who so roundly rejects vegetarianism. After relaying the horrors of forced-molting and cannibalism in battery cages, Pollan writes, "I know, simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry trade magazines, makes me sound like one of the animal people, doesn't it? I don't mean to (remember, I got into this vegetarian deal assuming I could go on eating eggs), but this is what can happen to you look" (318). It's much harder for a reader to dismiss a message as the sentimental ramblings of one of the "animal people" when it's coming from somebody who enjoys beating up on vegetarians.

In this way, this book brings awareness about important issues to a wide audience. The fact of it being such an enjoyable read further expands that audience. However, it should be at most a starting point for those learning about where their food comes from because the underlying reactionary premise sometimes leads Pollan astray. We live in a world that is increasingly unnatural and unlike the one that shaped our cultural traditions. Our population is growing, our planet is warming, and our values and lifestyles have evolved. It doesn't make sense for our food chain to remain in the past. As innovations like battery cages and high-fructose corn syrup show, not all ideas are good ones, but that shouldn't stop us from trying to make progress. The future will present us with new challenges, and we'd do well to keep an open mind to new solutions.
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on December 6, 2008
This book was well written and the author obviously put his heart, soul, and lots of research into it. But it bears the inevitable mark of a book written by a person who is a novice in the subject he is writing about. It is journalism, not research - and far from science. There is way too much sensationalism and jumping to conclusions for my taste.

One thing that significantly annoyed me was Pollan's "wild" meal, of which nearly all the calories, except for the pork, were from store-bought, cultivated foods. He wouldn't buy one or two organic veggies to embellish a Burger King value meal and then call it an "organic" meal, so why did he do something comparable with his foraged meal?

I was also disgusted with the elitism that he expressed again and again throughout the book. I was surprised by his blatant condescension toward Joel Salatin, which reveals a deep-seated us-and-them worldview. He comes to no conclusion, no solution, in this book, because an obvious part of the solution to a sustainable food system is that more people need to be ivolved in growing food and feeding themselves. He doesn't want to do this himself; he feels that it is beneath him, so certainly he is not going to lead the discussion to this most appropriate end place.

An example of Pollan's poor scholarship is his discussion of a test that supposedly can tell how much corn a person is composed of. I teach about food, and have been hearing people talk about this "corn test" ever since the book came out. But there is no such test. The test he mentions can only differentiate between plants using two types of photosynthetic process: C3 and C4. Corn is a C4 plant. The test tells you how much of an organism's tissue is derived from c4 versus c3 plants. This would be a "corn test" only if corn was the only c4 plant. But there are thousands of others, and many of them are common foods. Like sugar cane. The "corn test" cannot even differentiate cane sugar from corn syrup. It also cannot differentiate grass-fed from corn-fed beef, as the grasses and forbs on many range areas, particularly in the arid west, are primarily c4. It seems that Pollan got the idea from a specific study in which archeologists sampled bones from one specific area of Mexico. The archeologists presumed that when a shift in c3/c4 ratios (toward more c4) was seen in the bones, that this represented the shift from a diet of acorns and avocadoes as staples to one of corn and amaranth as staples. If the assumptions are correct, this may be true, but the way Pollan wrote of this test was egregiously misleading. As an author read by millions, one has a respionsibility not to spread this sort of misinformation; now, due solely to his lack of either diligence or intelligence (and I'm assuming the faormer), it will permeate our culture for a generation.

But hey, it's an entertaining read, and it generates thought. I know this review sounds very negative, but I liked the book even if parts of it made me seethe. Definitely get it, read it, and contemplate.
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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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on April 15, 2006
I never gave much thought to seeing so much corn growing in Ohio, but come to think of it, I really never have seen many other crops aside from some soybeans. Until I read "The Omnivore's Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals", I had only the vaguest idea what "they" did with all that corn. Sure, I knew they made artificial sugar for soft drinks from the stuff. And there's margarine. And there's corn on the cob. But that can't explain why there's so much corn being grown. Until Pollan set me straight, I had no idea that corn was the "vinyl" of foodstuffs, that it permeates the entire food chain, and that every piece of meat we eat is "corn-fed." Jeez, I thought cows ate grass. I think I was 40 years behind the times, and I thank Michael Pollan for educating me about our industrial food chain, its vulnerabilities and its hidden costs.

An otherwise fascinating and readable book is marred by numerous typographical and factual errors, unfortunately. For example, "Muscles" instead of "Mussels" - even a city boy knows the difference. And why does Pollan think Carbon is the most common element in the human body? Excluding Hydrogen, wouldn't it be Oxygen? - since we're mostly water?

Many thanks to NPR's "Fresh Air" (April 11, 2006) for introducing me to the book and author.
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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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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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