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Customer Review

1,057 of 1,474 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Flawed Masterpiece, April 26, 2006
This review is from: The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Hardcover)
The Omnivore's Dilemma is a celebration of alternative agriculture that every vegetarian should read. Michael Pollan's account of modern-day food production is beautifully written, and demands the attention of everyone who cares about what, or who, they eat. This is easily among the most important books on food written this decade. Happily, Pollan's disgust with factory farming is clear, and The Omnivore's Dilemma is largely a quest to bring ethics into animal agriculture.

Unfortunately, the superior quality of Pollan's writing only makes the book's flaws all the more glaring. The Omnivore's Dilemma contains numerous minor and forgivable lapses:

* Pollan spends three pages writing about Omega 3s, and the potential for grass-fed beef and free-range eggs to provide this elusive nutrient. Yet he never so much as mentions flax seeds, which are by far the cheapest and cleanest source of Omega 3s.

* He writes that, "...eggs and milk can be coaxed from animals without hurting or killing them-or so I at least thought." Whatever he may have once thought, he never gets around to informing readers that every commercially produced layer hen and dairy cow-even if free-range or organically fed-is sent to slaughter.

* He even suggests that if all Americans went vegetarian, "it isn't at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline." This argument was first made by Oregon University agriculture professor Steven Davis, and has since been thoroughly debunked by Gaverick Matheny.

These lapses can easily be remedied with short rebuttals. Not so with one of the book's main and most problematic themes: the idea that one small farm in Virginia might serve as a template for enlightened agriculture. The Omnivore's Dilemma is largely a hagiography of Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface farm. Salatin's lifework is admittedly remarkable. He's taken virtually all the overt cruelty-but alas, none of the slaughter-out of his egg, chicken, and beef operations. What's more, Salatin has found a way to raise these animals without drugs or pesticides. Through farming practices that radically depart from convention, it appears that Salatin's brand of animal agriculture enriches rather than depletes his soil with each passing year.

Most vegetarians take for granted that eating animals is akin to buying a Hummer, removing its catalytic converter, and using the vehicle to cart around nuclear waste. Pollan's book convincingly shows that animal agriculture can, in fact, operate in a way that respects the environment. For a reader who's acquainted with the staggering wastefulness of animal agriculture, it's hard not to get caught up in Pollan's account of the Polyface alternative.

What Polyface has accomplished is a genuine achievement. However, Pollan never points out that there's a reason why Polyface is plunked down in rural Virginia-hardly the heart of cattle country. This model of farming could simply never be transplanted to the arid, near-dessert landscape of America's western states-the region that produces nearly all American beef. It's one thing to practice boutique farming and to raise 50 grass-fed cattle a year on lush, rain-soaked land in rural Virginia. It's quite another to imply that Polyface could be anything like a model for transforming America's beef industry. You simply can't scale up what's happening on a 50-steer farm in Virginia to positively transform the way that more than 20 million cattle are raised in the American West.

Michael Pollan is a talented writer, and had he only put this manuscript out for proper review this book could have been a masterpiece. Despite its flaws, The Omnivore's Dilemma deserves the attention of everyone who cares about animal cruelty. Nowhere is the case for eating animal products made so persuasively and thoughtfully. Yet the book's shortcomings demand some prerequisite reading-otherwise the reader may succumb to the same lapses in thinking that overcame Pollan.

Reprinted with permission. First published by VegNews magazine, May/June 2006
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Showing 1-10 of 42 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 28, 2007 10:21:55 PM PST
The reviewer says that flax seeds "by far the cheapest and cleanest source of Omega 3s."

That's not accurate. Flax seeds are inferior to fish oil in their omega 3s.

"The brain's needs are further complicated by its inability to use some forms of omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in the diet. Some organ systems can incorporate the shorter, eighteen-chain omega-3 precurser, calledalpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in green leafy vegetables, flaxseed, canola oil, and walnuts. But the human brain has an absolute requirement for the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentanoic acid and docosahexanoic acid, both found primarily in fish oil." (p 45 of The Omega 3 Connection by Andrew Stoll)

Posted on Feb 1, 2007 12:38:09 PM PST
A. Atehortua says:
Erik, I understand and agree with everything you said in your review about Michael Pollen. You're right; I agree. However, we (you, me, Michael Pollen) we are all on the same team, whether we are vegan or not. This is why the world doesn't listen to us, because of critical people like you, but I don't mean that in a mean way. We need to support people like Michael Pollen 100 percent. Everything takes steps, the world is not going to turn vegan in a flash. Be patient, and don't try to be "right" all the time. Being kind and supportive, even if every last detail isn't perfect, is more important than being right. You seem like a very spiritual person and I beleive you will understand what I am sharing with you today.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2007 10:39:30 AM PST
Jack Norris says:
People's bodies can convert some of the ALA they eat into the longer EPA and the DHA that the brain needs. You can also take DHA supplements made from seaweed if you don't want to eat fish.

You can read more here:

Jack Norris, Registered Dietitian

Posted on Feb 23, 2007 3:39:26 PM PST

I appreciate your thoughtful thorough review. However, I think you are being a little harsh in expecting all people to quit eating animals altogether. The title of the book is, after all, The Omnivore's Dilemma, not The Vegetarian's Dilemma. I am 100% for the abolition of cruel industrial farming practices. But death and consumption of meat are a natural part of life cycle of the world. Is a lion cruel for eating a wildebeest? No, you take in life to give life. It's a matter of learning to respect the sacrifice of the animal again. Conscientious farms like Polyface's are an inspiration, a small step toward a viable solution in the future. And no, of course this model wouldn't lend itself easily to mass replication in the West. That's exactly the point. We need to move from these mega-farms to smaller, localized ones which respond to the environment in which they exist.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 11, 2007 1:49:00 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 11, 2007 1:49:35 PM PDT
R. R. Ernst says:
To Jack Norris: This is something I'm just passing along from Nourishing Traditions by Fallon and Enig. Check it out for yourself. I believe they say that some people cannot convert those fatty acids because their ancestors ate a lot of fish and, therefore, through generations their decendants (us?) lost the ability to do the conversion.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 4, 2007 3:54:58 PM PDT
Jack Norris says:
Do they cite that information? On their website, ( they say, "Some population groups that have been largely carnivorous for generations, such as the Eskimo and Irish seacoast peoples, also lack these enzymes." But they don't include any citation.

This would imply that anyone who descended from such people would have to eat fish and to my knowledge, there is no record of any group of people who must eat fish or suffer what would I would think must be rather severe deficiencies. That said, I wouldn't completely dismiss the idea.

Posted on Apr 20, 2007 5:23:20 PM PDT
M. Lee says:
Wow, that was a one-track review. First of all, flax seeds may have Omega 3's, but they also have quite a lot of Omega 6's too--something that Americans already get way too much of, i.e., corn. It makes sense to get your Omega 3's from properly fed animal sources so you can bypass all those Omega 6's (if you're not vegan, of course--and you're going to have to face it that some of us just aren't).

Also, Erik said, "Whatever he may have once thought, he never gets around to informing readers that every commercially produced layer hen and dairy cow-even if free-range or organically fed-is sent to slaughter." Yeah. So? Look, if you're vegan and you're happy with it, FINE. More power to you. Enjoy yourself! But why try to shove it down everyone else's throat? Do you really think that's going to make omnivores feel awful about their dinner? Do you think that statement is going to give us all an "aha moment"? Why are you projecting your feelings on us? Of course you have to slaughter the animal before you eat it. Would you prefer we eat it while it's still alive? Oh, admittedly, that's a bit trite, but I'm really taken aback by your covert attack with what you obviously think is a great revelation that you are just now bequeathing on humankind. Yes, we kill animals and we eat them. I believe that we should try to treat them better while alive than most farms currently do and that we should slaughter them quickly and without pain, but that's where I draw the line. I'm a meat-eater, so please get used to it because I'm not going anywhere.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 28, 2007 4:54:16 PM PDT
If you've ever read the bumper sticker that reads, "I love animals, I think they're delicious", that would likely best express the sentiments of most meat eaters. Let's face it vegans, we're only following the example of the animal kingdom. Some are hunters, some are prey. Some animals we pet and keep as one of our family, others we feed to our family. It's a fool's errand to try and convert meat eaters into "non-meat eaters". I use that phrase purposely because our physiology screams that we're omnivores. Is there a benefit to moderation in meat eating? I think so. Witness the Atkins fallout and its reasons. At any rate, we have both incisors for tearing and molars for grinding. Even Harvey Diamond of "Fit for Life" fame admits to enjoying meat. He may not eat a lot of it, but he does eat it now.

I've never tried to convince a vegan to give up their philosophy of eating. If they enjoy this less than subtle means of deprivation, more power to them. We simply prefer not to be deprived of an instinctive food choice.

Lee, I salute you.

Posted on May 14, 2007 4:56:53 AM PDT
You write: "the arid, near-dessert landscape of America's western states-the region that produces nearly all American beef".

Ignoring the tastiness of the landscape, I am not sure you are right about its productivity. The state of Georgia, I believe, produces more beef than the thirteen western states combined. Western cattle ranching is another government subsidzed loser.

Posted on Jun 1, 2007 11:05:01 AM PDT
L. McDonald says:
Thanks for the well thought-out review. What I've found incredible in reading reviews for this book as well as responses to the reviews is that so many people fail to realize the immense amount of food that goes to feed animals destined for slaughter that could otherwise be used to feed 100 times the amount of people--quite literally. It's interesting that so many people insist that humans are omnivores (which is fine) without taking stock of the sheer magnitude of the meat consumption of the U.S. alone. Your point seems to be that Pollan failed to take into account many issues in food production, particularly that the scale of meat consumption is one of the most damaging, land-using, and waste-producing factors. It is the U.S. consumption of meat that serves to contribute to a lack of food around the world. We ship food in from Asia and Peru and the like, using huge amounts of fossil fuels, while we use the majority of our own arable land to grow livestock feed such as corn, which depletes and pollutes the topsoil and water table.
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