Riss Reads: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Praised as “an eater’s manifesto” by the Washington PostThe Omnivore’s Dilemma is “thoughtful, engrossing…you’re not likely to get a better explanation of where food comes from” (New York Times). Written by author, journalist, and professor Michael Pollan, this New York Time’s bestseller is a must-read for any American to better understand the food industry’s past, present, and future.

One of the most informative topics in the text for millennials is the history of 20th century farming in American — an era that precedes our generation. Especially if you are a millennial in the city, it is easy to overlook the drastic evolution of farming in the past century or so. Pollan’s example of this evolution is the Naylor farm in Greene County, Iowa. When George Naylor’s grandfather bought his farm in 1919, one of every four Americans lived on a farm. Now 100 years later, fewer than 2 million Americans still farm. Twenty-first century farmers like Naylor’s grandson (who only raised corn and soybeans on a typical Iowa farm) are so productive that each farmer can provide food for about 129 Americans. “Measured in terms of output per worker, American farmers like Naylor are the most productive humans who have ever lived” (p. 34).

If the vanishing of farm towns in America is not a topic that hits close-to-home, many urbanites and millennials can understand the financial drain of farming in America. Our country is currently in a subsidy crisis: the federal treasury spends $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn (p. 54). The cause of this expense? “Earl ‘Rusty’ Butz, Richard Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture, probably did more than any other single individual to orchestrate George Naylor’s plague of cheap corn” (p. 51).

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan covers every part of the spectrum of food: he differentiates corn-the-food versus corn-the-commodity (p. 58), purchases his own steer and follows the process of his production, and cooks a meal for family and friends comprised only of ingredients he harvested or hunted. One of my favorite anecdotes of Pollan’s is his trip to McDonald’s with his family. Pollan calculates the amount of corn that was used to make the three McDonald’s meals for his wife, his son, and himself. The grand total? Pollan writes that the only way to fathom the amount of corn consumed is to imagine infinite ears of corn filling up his family’s car and spilling out the trunk. At that lunch, the Pollan family consumed 4,510 calories in their three McDonald’s meals; thus, he demonstrates how these meals are a complete reduction of energy and failure to use corn to its full ability. His drive-thru experience at McDonald’s illustrates greater problems at hand: our country’s dependence on corn, our nation’s increasing obesity, the economic incentive of using corn, and the loss of energy in doing so. This is just one example of the omnivore’s dilemma.

Regardless of the anecdote or chapter, The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes the reader “think through the moral ramifications of our eating habits” (New York Times). These are just a few notable quotes from the novel that made me think through my own.

  • “The great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket turns out to rest on a remarkably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single spcies: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn” (p. 18)
  • “You are what you eat, it’s often said, and if this is true, then what we are mostly is corn — or, more precisely, processed corn” (p. 20)
  • “‘The free market has never worked in agriculture and it never will'” (p. 54)
  • “And while number 2 field corn certainly looks like the corn you would eat…it is less a food than an industrial raw material — and an abstraction” (p. 58)
  • “The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories on the market” (p. 75)
  • “‘You are what you eat’ is a truism hard to argue with, and yet it is, as a visit to the feedlot suggests, incomplete, for you are what you eat eats, too. And what we are, or have become, is not just meat but number 2 corn and oil” (p. 84)
  • “It seems that even organic food has succumbed to the economic logic of processing” (p. 96)
  • “…obesity today is officially an epidemic; it is arguably the most pressing public health problem we face, costing the health care system an estimated $90 billion a year. Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese. The disease formerly known as adult-onset diabetes has had to be renamed Type II diabetes since it now occurs so frequently in children” (p. 102)
  • “To eat corn directly (as Mexicans and Africans do) is to consume all the energy in that corn, but when you feed that corn to a steer or a chicken, 90 percent of its energy is lost — to bones or feathers or fur, to living and metabolizing as a steer or chicken. This is why vegetarians advocate eating “low on the food chain”; every step up with the chain reduces the amount of food energy by a factor of ten, which is why in any ecosystem there are only a fraction as many predators as there are prey. But processing food also burns energy. What this means is that the amount of food energy lost in the making of [4,510 calories of McDonald’s meals for three people, is actually] ten of thousand of corn calories that could have fed a great many hungry people” (p. 118)
  • “‘Just because we can ship organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley, or organic cut flowers from Peru, doesn’t mean we should do it, not if we’re really serious about energy and seasonality and bioregionalism” (p. 133)
  • “A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy. According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food” (p. 167)
  • “‘One look at their books convinced him that all the advice he’d been hearing from consultants and extension agents — to build silos, graze the forest, plant corn, and sell commodities — was a recipe for financial ruin'” (p. 206)
  • “‘There’s been a tremendous brain drain in rural America. Of course that suits Wall Street just fine; Wall Street is always trying to extract brainpower and capital from the countryside. First they take the brightest bulbs off the farm and put them to work in Dilbert’s cubicle, and then they go after the capital of the dimmer ones who stayed behind, by selling them a bunch of gee-whiz solutions to their problems.’ This isn’t just the farmer’s problem, either. ‘It’s a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons'” (p. 221)
  • “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm. For him, regulation is the single biggest impediment to building a viable food chain, and what’s at stake is our liberty, nothing less” (p. 236)
  • “‘Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing heir mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?'” (p. 240)
  • “A global food market, which brings us New Zealand lamb in the spring, Chilean asparagus in December, and fresh tomatoes the year round, has smudged the bright colors of the seasonal food calendar we all once knew by heart. But for local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons” (p. 253)
  • “It is true that farms like this are but a speck on the monolith of modern animal agriculture, yet their very existence, and the possibility that implies, throws the whole argument for animal rights into a different light” (p. 319)
  • “Morality is an artifact of human culture devised to help humans negotiate human social relations. It’s very good for that. But just as we recognize that nature doesn’t provide a very good guide for human social conduct, isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature? Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we’ve decided it should be in human society?” (p. 325)
  • “For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world” (p. 411)

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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