Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan

This book was an eye-opener for me. The point of this book is not to get you to stop eating meat. The point of this book is to get you to start thinking about where that meat is coming from. My take-aways from the read were:

The U.S. has a surplus of corn, which is subsidized by the government.

This corn is fed to cows, who are naturally not predisposed to eating corn because they are ruminants that should be eating grass.

Feeding corn to cows makes the cows grow bigger and fatter more quickly.

Feeding corn to cows also takes care of and perpetuates the surplus corn problem.

The cows' digestive systems quickly fail trying to process the corn diet if they are not given antibiotics.

These antibiotics end up in our food.

In addition to corn, the cows get supplements that include protein, which in some instances includes/included cow remains from slaughter houses.

Mad cow disease.

Since the cows are not eating grass, the nutrients in the meat change, and the meat becomes less healthy for humans.

Cows in the U.S. are mainly raised on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).

CAFOs are large-scale, industrial operations that take the cows off of farms and allow farmers to focus on growing a monoculture of corn.

Cows are more likely to get sick when living in confined quarters on a CAFO.

More antibiotics.

Lots of science behind the hazards of farming monocultures.

Surplus of corn.

Farmers have to use artificial fertilizers as they have no cows on their monoculture farms to naturally fertilize the pastures.

Instead of using solar energy to produce food (grass photosynthesizes sun, grass grows, cow eats grass, cow fertilizes grass) we are using excessive amounts of oil and other fossil fuels in our food production, among other things, for acquiring and using artificial fertilizer and removing toxic cow manure from CAFO's.

Many other interesting points. Read the book!

Pollan splits the story into three parts, or three different food chains -- the corn or industrial food chain, the grass or pastoral food chain, and the forest or "personal" food chain. My favorite was the middle section, which describes a self-sustaining farm in Virginia called Polyface, where most of the manual labor is performed by the animals and the grass and the intellectual labor is performed by Joel Salatin, the farmer. Pollan spent a week on the farm learning about its operations and participating in all of its aspects, from rotating the cows to different parts of the pasture to slaughtering chickens. His descriptions make it sound like a farm utopia. The circle of life in all of its glory. I was very excited to learn from Polyface's website that the farm distributes some of its meat and dairy products to a couple of local places in Arlington, Willow Restaurant in Ballston and The Liberty Tavern in Clarendon. I have been to both of these establishments but definitely foresee going there more often, especially to find out what they buy from Polyface and what they do with it.

Finally, while Kingsolver made me want to make my own cheese, Pollan has inspired me to go hunting for mushrooms. It's more of a European and Russian pastime than an American one, and I actually remember, back in the day, my parents driving out to some woods in Pennsylvania, or was it West Virginia, and hunting for mushrooms. I think I would like to do that again.

The book did not inspire me to go hunting for wild California pig, although I commend Pollan for that undertaking.

5 out of 5

Irish cow picture #23


  1. I really enjoyed this book, and his more recent one, In defense of food, which basically says that you should not eat anything that was not available for your great grandmother to eat - i.e. processed, non-local, fortified, etc.

    The CORN cycle in the US deeply disturbs me.

    It makes me want to go back to the time when I was little and we had a lot of land, and my jobs were to

    1. dig for worms in the compost pile, then strategically place them in the vegetables
    2. Pick raspberies for pies
    3. push the seeds into the ground with my tiny fingers - but not too far

    Then again, my mom didn't work and actually had time to grow our food.

    Interesting Fact: Wineries are popping up all over the South Jersey Farmlands now. True story - Vineland, NJ - get it, grape vines? - is the birthplace of Welch's grape juice. We used to grow all kinds of grapes.
    Last weekend we bought 8 bottles of wine from a local winery, including sugarplum wine. I'm excited to drink it on Christmas Eve.

  2. yes, i am definitely adding the follow-up book to my to-read list. pollan also recently wrote an open letter to the president-elect in the new york times about making food a priority (

    i am sort of averse to doing manual labor on a farm with my own hands (except maybe picking raspberries). so i am willing to pay a little extra for food bought at farmers' markets. kingsolver first got me thinking more about what i was putting into my body with every meal, and pollan makes the issue even more urgent. i like taco bell as much as the next person, but when you consider all of the factors (your health, the environment, etc.), the meal you buy there is a hell of a lot more expensive than the two dollars you spent on a bag-full of tacos. it's a choice for me; unfortunately it is not a choice for many other people.

    south jersey wine...interesting...