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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Paperback – August 28, 2007
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Gold Medal in Nonfiction for the California Book Award • Winner of the 2007 Bay Area Book Award for Nonfiction • Winner of the 2007 James Beard Book Award/Writing on Food Category • Finalist for the 2007 Orion Book Award • Finalist for the 2007 NBCC Award
"Thoughtful, engrossing ... You're not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from."--The New York Times Book Review
"An eater's manifesto ... [Pollan's] cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling. Be careful of your dinner!"--The Washington Post
"Outstanding... a wide-ranging invitation to think through the moral ramifications of our eating habits."--The New Yorker
"If you ever thought 'what's for dinner' was a simple question, you'll change your mind after reading Pollan's searing indictment of today's food industry-and his glimpse of some inspiring alternatives.... I just loved this book so much I didn't want it to end."--The Seattle Times
“Michael Pollan has perfected a tone—one of gleeful irony and barely suppressed outrage—and a way of inserting himself into a narrative so that a subject comes alive through what he’s feeling and thinking. He is a master at drawing back to reveal the greater issues.”—Los Angeles Times
“Michael Pollan convincingly demonstrates that the oddest meal can be found right around the corner at your local McDonald’s…. He brilliantly anatomizes the corn-based diet that has emerged
in the postwar era.”—The New York Times
“[Pollan] wants us at least to know what it is we are eating, where it came from and how it got to our table. He also wants us to be aware of the choices we make and to take responsibility for them. It’s an admirable goal, well met in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A gripping delight…This is a brilliant, revolutionary book with huge implications for our future and a must-read for everyone. And I do mean everyone.”—The Austin Chronicle
“As lyrical as What to Eat is hard-hitting, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals…may be the best single book I read this year. This magisterial work, whose subject is nothing less than our own omnivorous (i.e., eating everything) humanity, is organized around two plants and one ecosystem. Pollan has a love-hate relationship with ‘Corn,’ the wildly successful plant that has found its way into meat (as feed), corn syrup and virtually every other type of processed food. American agribusiness’ monoculture of corn has shoved aside the old pastoral ideal of ‘Grass,’ and the self-sustaining, diversified farm based on the grass-eating livestock. In ‘The Forest,’ Pollan ponders the earliest forms of obtaining food: hunting and gathering. If you eat, you should read this book.”—Newsday
“Smart, insightful, funny and often profound.”—USA Today
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable, if sometimes unsettling, attempt to peer over these walls, to bring us closer to a true understanding of what we eat—and, by extension, what we should eat…. It is interested not only in how the consumed affects the consumer, but in how we consumers affect what we consume as well…. Entertaining and memorable. Readers of this intelligent and admirable book will almost certainly find their capacity to delight in food augmented rather than diminished.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“On the long trip from the soil to our mouths, a trip of 1,500 miles on average, the food we eat often passes through places most of us will never see. Michael Pollan has spent much of the last five years visiting these places on our behalf.”—Salon.com
“The author of Second Nature and The Botany of Desire, Pollan is willing to go to some lengths to reconnect with what he eats, even if that means putting in a hard week on an organic farm and slitting the throats of chickens. He’s not Paris Hilton on The Simple Life.”—Time
“A pleasure to read.”—The Baltimore Sun
“A fascinating journey up and down the food chain, one that might change the way you read the label on a frozen dinner, dig into a steak or decide whether to buy organic eggs. You’ll certainly never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again…. Pollan isn’t preachy; he’s too thoughtful a writer and too dogged a researcher to let ideology take over. He’s also funny and adventurous.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Pollan] does everything from buying his own cow to helping with the open-air slaughter of pasture-raised chickens to hunting morels in Northern California. This is not a man who’s afraid of getting his hands dirty in the quest for better understanding. Along with wonderfully descriptive writing and truly engaging stories and characters, there is a full helping of serious information on the way modern food is produced.”—BookPage
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about something that affects everyone.”—The Sacramento Bee
“Lively and thought-provoking.”—East Bay Express
“Michael Pollan makes tracking your dinner back through the food chain that produced it a rare adventure.”—O, The Oprah Magazine
“A master wordsmith…Pollan brings to the table lucid and rich prose, an enthusiasm for his topic, interesting anecdotes, a journalist’s passion for research, an ability to poke fun at himself, and an appreciation for historical context…. This is journalism at its best.”—Christianity Today
“First-rate…[A] passionate journey of the heart…Pollan is…an uncommonly graceful explainer of natural science; this is the book he was born to write.”—Newsweek
“[Pollan’s] stirring new book…is a feast, illuminating the ethical, social and environmental impacts of how and what we choose to eat.”—The Courier-Journal
“From fast food to ‘big’ organic to locally sourced to foraging for dinner with rifle in hand, Pollan captures the perils and the promise of how we eat today.”—The Arizona Daily Star
“A multivalent, highly introspective examination of the human diet, from capitalism to consumption.”—The Hudson Review
“What should you eat? Michael Pollan addresses that fundamental question with great wit and intelligence, looking at the social, ethical, and environmental impact of four different meals. Eating well, he finds, can be a pleasurable way to change the world.”—Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness
“Widely and rightly praised…The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals [is] a book that—I kid you not—may change your life.”—Austin American-Statesman
“With the skill of a professional detective, Michael Pollan explores the worlds of industrial farming, organic and sustainable agriculture, and even hunting and gathering to determine the links of food chains: how food gets from its sources in nature to our plates. The findings he reports in this this book are often unexpected, disturbing, even horrifying, but they are facts every eater should know. This is an engaging book, full of information that is most relevant to conscious living.”—Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Spontaneous Healing and Healthy Aging
“Michael Pollan is a voice of reason, a journalist/philosopher who forages in the overgrowth of our schizophrenic food culture. He’s the kind of teacher we probably all wish we had: one who triggers the little explosions of insight that change the way we eat and the way we live.”—Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant
“Michael Pollan is such a thoroughly delightful writer—his luscious sentences deliver so much pleasure and humor and surprise as they carry one from dinner table to cornfield to feedlot to forest floor, and then back again—that the happy reader could almost miss the profound truth half hidden at the heart of this beautiful book: that the reality of our politics is to be found not in what Americans do in the voting booth every four years but in what we do in the supermarket every day. Embodied in this irresistible, picaresque journey through America’s food world is a profound treatise on the hidden politics of our everyday life.”—Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror
“Every time you go into a grocery store you are voting with your dollars, and what goes into your cart has real repercussions on the future of the earth. But although we have choices, few of us are aware of exactly what they are. Michael Pollan’s beautifully written book could change that. He tears down the walls that separate us from what we eat, and forces us to be more responsible eaters. Reading this book is a wonderful, life-changing experience.”—Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine and author of Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
About the Author
Michael Pollan, recently featured on Netflix in the four-part series Cooked, is the author of seven previous books, including Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire, all New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world.
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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.
Many people are scared of industrial farming, the inputs that are used, and the genetic engineering that is advancing farm science. Most of these fears are based upon "frankenscience" designed delilberately to be scary. Scary and sensational sells books, magazines, and newsprint. The "organic" label has been profitable to the tune of billions of dollars and will continue to be so. There is so much momentum in the press about the dangers of industrial farming and too much money to be made for it to stop. On the other hand industrial farming is not going to stop either. We have to eat.
In our society the best way to control how people think is to control the questions posed. When industrial farming is discussed it is presumed to be bad because it is "industrial" and there are chemicals involved. Ergo we have the slew of reporting biased against industrial farming. All of these books may even be right and everything they maintain may prove to be true. I doubt it, but even if so we have a problem that is ignored by the media when experts pontificate about agricultural issues. The question isn't whether industrial farming is good or bad. The real question is, "there are over 6 billion people on the planet, and the population will grow to be over 9 billion. How are we going to feed everybody?"
The prescription of this book, more local farming and more organic food, is simply a recipe for billions of deaths through starvation. Many people hate it when facts don't fit their preconceived notions or agendas. In fact, I never seen a political party that doesn't suffer from this flaw. My response is neither political nor do I have an agenda. Although you may not listen to what I have to say, I feel compelled to try and point out the simple holes in the logic of this book. You may not thank me for it, but at least I will have tried. This book is irrational because it refuses to face the real question of how to feed everyone. A rationalist is a person who plays the hand of cards they are dealt, not the hand of cards they wish they had. They solutions offered in this book amount to playing the cards we wish to have rather than the ones we do have.
Here are the cards. Land can either be good farmland, tolerable farmland, ranch land, or non-arable. All of the good farmland and tolerable farmland in the world is already being farmed. There are no reserves of land in this world that would make good farmland. You can try to farm ranch ground, or poor farm ground, and you can pursue slash and burn farming in rainforests, but the problem is that the land will only be productive for a few years. After that it is uneconomical to farm it. By that I mean you will put more calories into the farming than you can withdraw. Moreover this land then is subject to erosion and other environmental problems. The simple math is this: there are roughly one billion arable hectares in the world and there are just over 6 billion people. Those are the cards we hold. Can we feed everyone? Yes, for now.
Here are the problems with local production and organic food: local production is fabulous when you can do it, but many people do not live where food is produced. Think of New York City. Obviously NYC cannot grow all the food it needs for its population. They need to import food. This is not a new problem. Ancient Rome was entirely dependent upon food produced in Egypt and other provinces. When people choose to live where the food isn't, there is a cost associated with getting the food to those people. There always has been. However, you also can't wish those people to move to where the food is, because their housing would take up all the farmground. So local markets theoretically work great for certain groups, but it is simply not rational to suggest local production as a solution to world food shortages. There is also a reason why the world looks like it does with densely populated non-agricultural areas and thinly populated agricultural ones. People can't live on the good farmground. Plants have to live there. Therefore, when you really think about it, suggesting local production as a solution is just a preconceived bias that in practical application would cause a lot of people to starve. Sure, some people get to live near the food, and it would be more efficient if they would eat the food produced right next to them rather than food that is shipped halfway round the world. Getting people to do so would make the system slightly more efficient, but it is not going to be the solution. It would be a bandaid on a sucking chest wound. Moreover, it wouldn't work anyway....people don't want it. They like eating bananas from central America, grapes from Chile, lamb from New Zealand, cashews from Vietnam, and cornflakes from Michigan. A diet of only local foods would be very bland compared to the diet to which we have become accustomed. So, you can wish for local production all you want, but those pesky humans are going to mess you up every time. They will pay lots of good money to have tasty foods imported from far distant places.
Local production means local foods only. You won't get others to agree to that after they've tasted the goodies of the rest of the world. I sincererly doubt that most readers of this book are actually willing to eat only on what can be organically grown within 20 miles of their residence. If they are not, then they are just chanting, "do as I say, not as I do", which is the fault I find with this book and the author.
Suggesting organic farming as a solution though is frightening. Let's do that simple math again.....one billion hectares and six billion people. Right now, with incredible amounts of oil-based fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, chemical inputs, and, whoa, even scarier, genetic technology, we are just managing to basically keep those six billion people fed. Organic farming does without those inputs....and produces about 1/4 the equivalent yield. If the world switched to organic farming then 4.5 bilion people would have to starve to death. Even if you are willing to become the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world, people are not just going to sit there and slowly starve to death for you. No, they will fight for food for themselves and their children. When you do the math you will realize that organic farming is much more harmful than the "bad meat" chant (I'll get to that in a second). Organic farming simply equates into less food output. Less food = less people. Westerners, in a shocking display of hypocrisy, can extoll the virtues of organic farming, decry the use of chemical inputs, suggest local production, etc., while they are chewing on their bananas, dining in expensive restaurants, wearing their leather shoes, burning their oil in their luxury SUV. But we can't have it both ways. To the third world we appear as insufferable, arrogant, self-righteous, and astoundingly stupid hypocrites. Imagine yourself in a west African village explaining organic food and local market approaches. I've been there....they've done it that way for thousands of years. They'd think you were retarded for suggesting back-breaking labor and risk of starvation to have organic food. They have organic food, and they would love to swap places with you. After trying to grow your own food there for a year, organically, you'd want out too. Those villagers would love the chance to use modern inputs to increase their yields, and a trip to a US grocery store would seem like something out of a fairy tale to them. Before espousing organic farming and local production imagine yourself as the person who had to do the labor, moreover you life depends upon your success, and, additionally, say goodbye to anything more intersting than gruel to eat. This book offers answers that sound great in theory, but in real practice you'd find absolutely horrifying.
There are real problems with industrial agriculture, primarily its dependency on oil, but I'd prefer to see the author looking at the real problems and trying to craft solutions that can actually be made to work. Solutions that the other 6 billion people on the planet can live with and you can live with too.
Complaining about the $75 billion that the feds plug into American agriculture is not very well thought out. I'm not going to defend a single thing the USDA does.....but I am going to defend the reason why it started and why it has to stay. Despite being a capitalist country, we can't not have a safety net in regards to food. If we don't produce enough food in this country then people will DIE. Get it? It's a concept called food security because food is the most important thing in a society. If you don't believe that, just don't eat for two weeks. You can go without gasoline for two weeks, you can sleep outside if you have too, you can live without your DVDs....but try living without food. Since it is the one necessary item before all others, for thousands of years nations have had food security policies and practices. The people in power have to keep the people fed. If they don't, they won't be in power long. The United States is no different and never has been. We have been so blessed with good farmland and good practices that it has been 80 years since we had food shortages. Starvation is not a place any person or any country wants to be. Ergo, governments spend money on agriculture. Yes, sometimes they do stupid things, but food security can't be left to chance. The US Govt is not going to stop, nor should it, implementing policies for our food security. They may not get it right, there may be incompetence and corruption, but it is up to us to do something about it when they get it wrong. We should be deeply thankful that they don't leave food security to the "Free Market".
Another problem overlooked in this book is one of labor. Before the green revolution about 90% of the world population had to work in agriculture. In America today less than 1% of our population has to do so. That frees up the other 99 of us to build cars and houses, write novels, practice medicine, run utilities, make movies and clothing....to do everything that brings us to the level of technology, wealth, and health we enjoy today. Without industrial farming we can't have those 99 people creating and sustaining our level of technology.
One last point. The whole "meat is bad because it takes eight pounds of grain to make one pound of meat". That's just embarassingly wrong, pure proganda, and thankfully Mr. Pollan doesn't fall into this particular trap. What that argument is really saying is that midwestern style feedlots that feed corn to cows are inefficient and oh my gosh! People could eat that corn instead! Then no one would have to starve. I've heard this argument many times before, from many likable people. The problem is that it's not true; moreover it is obviously not true if you think about it. It's an argument that serves the agenda of people who don't like people eating meat. It's an effectively convincing lie apparently, but it is misinformation serving to score political points. I don't care if people eat meat or not, but I do care when deliberate misinformation is used to create a public opinion. Well let me point out the glaringly obvious. Most of the livestock in this world, well over 98%, will never see a feedlot and they will never get to eat anything a person would eat. Hunh? What? By using a small fact, that to fatten a cow in a Kansas feedlot can take eight pounds of corn to creat one pound of gain, and shouting that to the world, you're left to assume that all meat takes eight pounds of grain to create. Not so. No, most of the cows, goats, sheep, chicken, and other beasties in the world that are slated to be our dinners eat things like grass, insects and weeds. Things we can't eat. In fact, I could make a perfectly good argument that based upon on the meat produced for consumption in the world, against all the grain used to create that meat, that it only take 2 ounces of grain to make one pound of meat! Therefore by not eating meat we're going to cause everyone to starve. As Mark Twain once said, "there are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics". Watch out for the lies and the damn liles, but never believe a statistic. Not even mine. Also be careful of believing what others tell you without thinking it through. If you think about it yourself you will realize that most livestock in the world forage for their food. They're not eating anything a human would eat. The "meat is inefficient" argument is only true if applied to an American feedlot and even then it is still specious (a damn lie) for two reasons. Here is the first reason: even those 2% of animals who get to spend a few weeks eating corn and millet in a Kansas feedlot, so that they wind up tasting better to us, still aren't eating human food. Pollan points out they are eating corn that humans can't eat and wouldn't want to eat. Therefore it is a damn lie that what the feedlot cow ate can have been equivalent to 8 times more food for the starving whomever. Now, the anti-meat group's rejoinder is going to be, "yeah, but the land that grows that non-human corn could have been used to grow real human food." Not really. Anti-meat people, because of their bias, tend not to really undrestand much about agriculture as a science. Yes, some of that land used to produce corn to feed cows could be put into human food production; and I guarantee once the need for it is there it will be put into human food production. Farmers make a lot more money on human food than they do on animal feed (humans have more disposable income than cows). So again, the implication of the anti-meat crowd is that we lost 8 times the calories we could have had....not true. If we needed those calories then humans would have gotten them and the pro-meat crowd would have to eat veal rather than steak. Humans are going to get fed before cows do. But the real problem with the "that land could have grown human food" argument is that it is wrong. Those people, because they don't know even the basics about agriculture, conveniently leave out the need for a little thing called crop rotation. It means you don't keep planting the exact same crop over and over again in the same place. You have to rotate crops. Some of our major crops, such as millet, sorghum, and corn, are grown for reasons other than direct human consumption. That turns out to be handy because it means we can rotate crops and keep yields up year after year. Let me try to explain. I could plant wheat five times in a row, but my yields will fall if I do. If I rotate millet into the cycle then maybe I only grow wheat three years and millet one year and sunflower seeds one year during a five year cycle. However, I'll have as much wheat out of my farm as you will have on yours if you tried growing wheat five times in a row. So it turns out the the millet I feed to my dairy or beef cows didn't really cost the world any extra food, did it? Indeed, now I get to eat milk, cheese and ice cream, maybe even a steak once in a while....
Most arguments about food production can be picked apart like I tried to do in the above. The arguments are created to support someone's idea of how they think things should be. They have an agenda, and then they seek facts to support their agenda. I don't have an agenda, but I do see that we have problems. An increasing world population, decreasing genetic variety, soil getting tired, erosion, lack of technology, experience, and inputs for Africa and much of the rest of the third world, depleting phospate reserves, depleting oil reserves, and inconstant weather are all going to be challenges as we go forward. I'd love to see a well-reasoned and rationally sound blueprint that, politics and agendas aside, considers how we are really going to feed 6 billion people now, 9 billion people in 30 years, and how to do it consistently for the next thousand years. This is the real question, and billions of people are relying on us to provide real solutions, ones that everyone can live with. This book unfortunately doesn't do that.
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sure he loves it. Actually I know he does! Michael Pollan is the best!