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

by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Summary

Introduction

Going to the grocery store can be an exercise in guilt. You know—or think you know—that you should buy free-range eggs, organic celery, and grass-fed beef. But should you pay attention to the labels or to the price? Should you shop at your local farmers market, or grow your own tomatoes? These, and other pressing issues, are explored in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, published in 2006.

Pollan, an entertaining writer and expert foodie who reached nonfiction fame with The Botany of Desire and An Eater’s Manifesto, attempts to answer the question that weighs on all of America: do we save our money or our planet...and how? In three info-packed and wryly funny sections, Pollan suggests ways in which to do both. Section 1, titled “Industrial Corn,” examines the source of much of our mass-produced calories, from sweet corn syrup to corn-fed cattle. As a shocking conclusion, Pollan dissects a fast-food meal ingredient by ingredient, in order to show just how much corn Americans ingest.

Section 2, or “Pastoral Grass,” investigates the growing culture of organic farming, and questions whether or not it is truly good for the planet. A large-scale industrial “organic” farm is compared to a much smaller operation, where the farmer takes active steps to work within the natural ecology. Pollan caps this section with a meal made entirely of food purchased at Whole Foods, a well-known national purveyor of organic food.

Finally, in Section 3, Pollan goes primitive in “The Forest,” and eats a meal consisting entirely of food he caught and foraged himself. While he admits that this is not exactly practical, he advises it as a meditative exercise for those of us who have lost touch with the source of our sustenance.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was one of a number of food-centric books published in the past decade, including Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, all of which vilify industrial farming and act as proponents for locally produced and grown food. This trend has translated to movies as well, and Pollan himself narrated the 2009 film Food, Inc., based loosely on The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Synopsis

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, published in 2006 by Penguin Press, is the author's examination of Americans' overall eating habits. Pollan approaches this subject by looking at food as a naturalist does. He points out that all of our food originates as plants, animals, and fungi.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section focuses on industrial farming, the second analyzes organic food, and the third discusses hunting and gathering one's own food. Each section ends with a meal, and Pollan's narrative traces the meal back to its origins.

In the book's first section, Pollan zeroes in on the corn industry. Corn and oil compose the heart of the food industry: corn as a crop with byproducts, and oil as the fossil fuels that transport it to our tables. Pollan analyzes a McDonald’s lunch. The meal’s origins are on a cornfield in Iowa, with a main focus on the burgers that come from the steer that eat the corn. The oil used for cooking the fries also comes from corn. In the milk shakes and sodas, the syrup that is used also comes from corn. Amazingly, corn also makes up thirteen of the thirty-eight ingredients in Chicken McNuggets. Any reasonable reader would ask, “How can this be?”

Pollan continues his assault on corn, which makes up more than one fourth of the 45,000 items in a supermarket. Eggs, chickens, corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup, prepared foods, toothpaste, and mayonnaise all go back to corn.

What has happened? The food industry went overboard with the corn plant and sold its many byproducts to the American people, making them become fatter and fatter. This exploitation of corn also did not help farmers.

Pollan makes a meal from the ingredients from a small Virginia farm as a lesson in our food, where it comes from, and what our expectations are from such a local meal. He shows readers how far we have come as a society from knowing the sources of our food. What ends up on our tables little resembles its original state.

Critics appreciate Pollan’s cause and admire his compelling and clear writing. The Omnivore’s Dilemma alerts its readers to the changes in our country’s food industry and how radically it has changed our health, diet, and country.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Extended Summary

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma sets out to answer a single question: “What should we have for dinner?” This question of what to eat is of particular importance to the omnivore. Omnivores are capable of eating a great variety of foods—unlike monarch butterflies, which only eat milkweed. Unfortunately, not everything that can be eaten is nutritious, so every omnivore is stuck between fearing and loving new foods. This book discusses how to choose.

Pollan points out that many cultures base their eating decisions on tradition. In fact, many traditions that seem relatively accidental actually render food nutritious. For example, Pollan uses the “French Paradox” to illustrate that although the French seem to eat a great deal of unhealthful food, such as chocolates, cheeses, and wines, they tend to be healthier than Americans are. Pollan points out that this is because the French also have traditions that guide the amount of food one should eat. In contrast, America has few culinary traditions, which is why Americans seem especially prone to adopting fad diets.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma received an enthusiastic critical reception because it convincingly explains the roots of “America’s National Eating Disorder.” America faces numerous food-related illnesses, including heart disease, obesity, and increasing diagnoses of type II diabetes. These diseases have been on the rise over the past few decades, especially since the 1970s. To explore what has happened to Americans and their food, Pollan decides to explore three general “food chains,” and at the end of each he prepares a meal built from that food chain. The three food chains are the industrial, the pastoral, and the personal, and they form the organizing structure of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Industrial Food Chain

Pollan first investigates the industrial food chain. He starts at the supermarket, which ostensibly offers a varied cornucopia of food. However, what Pollan discovers is that the majority of the food offered in the supermarket is made from processed corn, so much so that if people are what they eat then Americans are corn. Pollan explains how corn became an American staple crop during the 1970s as a result of technological advances, the agricultural policies of the Nixon administration, and a corporate preference for cheap corn.

Interviewing George Naylor, a corn farmer from Iowa, Pollan discovers that this system of producing excessive amounts of corn does not actually benefit the farmer. Corn is being produced to such an amazing degree that it has outrun demand, which keeps the price of corn lower than it costs to produce it. Consequently, Naylor argues that the corn farmer’s only option is to grow more corn, which causes the supply to continue to outstrip demand, thus driving the price down further. Pollan suggests that corn farmers rely on government subsidies to survive. He asks readers to consider, if this system is not serving the farmer, who is benefiting?

Pollan suggests that the industrial food chain primarily benefits agricultural corporations like Cargill and ADM because they are able to buy corn at a consistently cheap price and then process the cheap corn into “value added” products. This system has the benefit of keeping supermarket prices low as well, but Pollan highlights the indirect costs paid by the consumer. To start, corn is heavily subsidized by the United States Department of Agriculture, which means that American consumers are actually paying for corn with their taxes. Furthermore, Pollan points out that industrial agriculture also relies on synthetic fertilizers, which means that it is using not only solar energy but a significant amount of fossil fuel energy as well. This system relies on...

(The entire section is 1565 words.)

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

In “The Plant: Corn’s Conquest,” Michael Pollan begins his first investigation into what he calls the “industrial food chain.” Most American consumers get their food from the supermarket, and Pollan uses several examples to discuss how far removed the supermarket—with its air conditioning, florescent lighting, and “machine-lathed” baby carrots—is from the natural world. By the time Pollan’s exploration of the supermarket reaches Pop-Tarts and Twinkies, it seems that he has established the need to investigate where these “foods” come from.

Although the American supermarket appears to offer a wide variety of foods—a representation of biodiversity—his investigation yields a surprising result....

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

In “The Farm,” Michael Pollan tells the story of George Naylor, a corn farmer from Iowa, to illustrate the impact that corporate industry, government policy, and technological innovation have on the production of corn. He discovers that corn is being grossly overproduced—to the detriment of the American farmer but to the benefit of corporations and grain exporters. Ironically, it has come to the point that it costs a dollar more to produce corn than it does to sell it. George Naylor is able to produce twice as much corn per acre as his father could, who in turn could have said the same thing about his own father. However, in spite of these impressive yields, Naylor and many other farmers struggle to make ends meet.

...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

In the first chapter, “The Plant: Corn’s Conquest,” Michael Pollan sets out to trace the industrial food chain back from the products he finds in the supermarket. In “The Farm,” he manages to find where many of those foods are produced. However, by the time he reaches “The Elevator,” he discovers the impossibility of his task. Pollan makes a distinction between a farmer’s bushels of corn and corn as a fungible commodity. As much as Pollan might wish to trace George Naylor’s corn to its final destination, it is mixed with corn from numerous other farmers (each of whom may have a uniquely created or hybrid strand of corn) at the elevator before it is shipped to a variety of locations.

Corn was not always...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

In “The Feedlot,” Michael Pollan’s investigation into the industrial food chain leads him to Garden City, Kansas, an industrial feedlot. Pollan makes several important distinctions, including the difference between solar-powered food and fossil fuel–powered food, between systems that produce food without problems and systems that produce food problematically, and between economic logic and evolutionary logic. In each case, Pollan concludes that the feedlot has produced more problems than solutions.

For corporate corn interests like ADM and Cargill, the principal advantage of the feedlot is that it forces cattle to consume a diet that is three-fifths corn. As Pollan explains in “The Farm,” corn is currently...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

In “The Processing Plant,” Pollan attempts to track down what happens to the corn that is not sent to the feedlot. Much of it ends up in processing plants. Pollan distinguishes between a traditional mill, which grinds corn into flour to produce tortillas, and wet mills, which rely on a great deal of water, energy derived from fossil fuels, and steel tanks. These wet mills are like an artificial digestive system that breaks corn down into its molecular parts so it can be used to produce, among many other things, high-fructose corn syrup. Pollan explains that once corn is broken down into these component parts, food scientists can process it to create nearly anything.

The benefit of processed foods is that it allows...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

In “The Consumer,” Pollan explains the contribution that corn and its derivative products have had on America’s health. Although America is currently facing what the surgeon general calls an “obesity epidemic,” Pollan explains that the current state of emergency has a public health predecessor in alcohol. He explains that in the 1820s, most Americans drank corn whiskey throughout the day, causing America to become known as a “republic of alcohol.” At the time, there was an abundance of cheap corn, so it was only natural that people began to turn it into liquor.

Pollan suggests that Americans now live in a “republic of fat.” He refers to a United Nations report from 2000 that claims that the number of...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

“The Meal” concludes the first part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan attempts to trace what he calls the industrial food chain. Having discovered how ubiquitous corn has become in America, Pollan acknowledges that he could have eaten almost any meal to finish his investigation. However, he ultimately chose to take his wife and son out to McDonald’s, where they each ordered individual meals. Although his wife objects to wasting a meal by eating fast food, Pollan’s son quickly shares that McDonald’s now serves salads. Pollan’s son is fulfilling a marketing strategy in which a child is able to “deny the denier” of fast food by pointing out that there are more healthful options like salads.

...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

In “All Flesh Is Grass,” Michael Pollan moves on from his investigation of America’s industrial food chain and looks into alternative models of producing food. He expects to look into the recent focus on “organic” food, one of the most rapidly expanding product lines in America’s supermarket. Instead, Pollan finds himself looking into Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia.

Salatin does not label his food “organic”; he argues that organic food has become another form of industrial produce that ships food from one region to another. Salatin’s Polyface Farm is a mixed farm that is founded on grass rather than corn. Salatin’s cattle graze (and fertilize) the grass. Afterward, his chickens set to...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

In “Big Organic,” Pollan considers whether an organic microwavable TV dinner is a contradiction of terms. Once again, Pollan has returned to the supermarket, this time to a Whole Foods market. On the labels of food there, Pollan repeatedly finds pastoral agricultural imagery that features red barns, lush pastures, and a return to a past utopian agriculture in defiance of the industrial food chain. In many ways, the pastoral narrative represents the ideals of the organic foods movement.

Pollan traces the ideals of organic agriculture back to the nineteenth century and the thinking of Sir Albert Howard, who criticized the scientific breakthroughs of Baron Justus von Liebig. Liebig found that soil fertility was in...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

In “Grass,” Michael Pollan expands on the mechanics of Joel Salatin’s grass farm. Pollan explains that for many Americans, grass exists as an abstract concept, little more than a green carpet. However, he explains that there is more to grass than most Americans realize. For Joel Salatin, his entire farm starts with grass. Salatin refers to a blade of grass as a “photovoltaic panel” that converts sunlight into energy. Pollan explains that humans are unusual among omnivores because we cannot digest grass. Cattle, on the other hand, can digest grass perfectly.

Life on the Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm is perhaps best described as “alternative.” In many ways, Salatin’s idea of grass farming has been...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

In “The Animals: Practicing Complexity,” Pollan continues to document Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Pollan is consistently struck by the complexity of Salatin’s agricultural practice, and he contrasts it with the precariously simple systems found in industrial farming. Throughout the chapter, Pollan struggles to discuss aspects of Salatin’s farm in isolation—only to repeatedly discover that the farm operates as a whole.

Perhaps the most important concept in “The Animals” is the “holon,” which is borrowed from Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. Pollan defines a holon as

an entity that from one perspective appears a self-contained whole, and...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

In “Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir,” Pollan and Salatin process broiler chickens. Specifically, several hundred chickens are “killed, scalded, plucked, and eviscerated.” As in previous chapters, Pollan explores first hand what it is like to participate in this part of agriculture, though he admits that it is not easy for him. He explores the emotional and ethical implications of slaughter, but he is primarily interested in contrasting how Salatin’s abattoir differs from an industrial slaughterhouse.

In the industrial food chain, Pollan notes, animals are killed behind closed doors and high walls. At Polyface Farm, animals are killed in the open air. Although Salatin would prefer to butcher all of his livestock...

(The entire section is 522 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

In “The Market: Greetings From the Non-Barcode People,” Pollan examines how Joel Salatin sells his food and, to a lesser extent, Salatin’s vision of agriculture. Although Salatin at times sounds like a revolutionary to Pollan, particularly when he sends missives to his customers with statements like “greetings from the non-Barcode people,” the author comes to view Salatin as a reformer. If the system were reformed, what would it end up looking like?

Polyface Farm’s food costs more than food sold at a supermarket. However, Salatin argues that it is actually cheaper because it is produced without subsidies and is ecologically sustainable in a way that the industrial food is not. When Pollan examines how...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

“The Meal: Grass Fed” is the final chapter in which Michael Pollan explores the pastoral food chain. In the first section of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan examined the industrial food chain. Although he discovered that he could have eaten industrial food based on the subsidized corn chain almost anywhere, Pollan chose to take his wife and son to a McDonald’s drive-through. The contrast between Pollan’s fast-food meal and his pastoral meal is striking and promotes the alternative food chain that Salatin’s Polyface Farm is trying to create.

After a week at Polyface Farm, Pollan recalls Salatin’s refusal to FedEx a steak from Virginia to California. The keystone of Salatin’s pastoral food chain is...

(The entire section is 432 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

In “The Forager,” Michael Pollan turns to his third food chain, which he dubs “personal.” Having explored the industrial and pastoral food chains, Pollan now sets his sights on feeding himself. He intends to eat from three sources of food: animal, vegetable, and fungi. Pollan admits that he is largely helpless to feed himself from any of these food groups. Although he has been a gardener for most of his life, he has recently moved from New England to California and does now know gardening in his new environment. Pollan remains determined to complete his quest.

Of the three food chains Pollan has so far explored, he admits that the personal is by far the least practical. He points out that although it is thought...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan explores the meaning of the book’s title and reasons why Americans struggle to make healthful food choices. Although it is in the best interests of food corporations to market food so it will capture a greater share of the consumer’s hunger, Pollan suggests that Americans are especially susceptible to “food faddism.” Unlike other cultures, Americans lack a culture of food to help them navigate the omnivore’s dilemma.

Pollan explains that the curse of the omnivore is also its strength. An omnivore can eat nearly anything, but

when it comes to figuring out which of those things are safe to eat, he’s pretty much on his own.

...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

In “The Ethics of Eating Animals,” Pollan considers the moral act that he is about to engage in as part of his exploration of the personal food chain. While eating a rib-eye steak, Pollan reads Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which calls for people to stop eating meat. Pollan opens the chapter prepared to consider that Singer has a strong argument and that

eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it.

People often set humans aside from the rest of the animal kingdom because of their intelligence. However, Singer would point out that chimpanzees are often more intelligent than a variety of humans,...

(The entire section is 661 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

In “Hunting: The Meat,” Pollan engages in what might be the most difficult part of his investigation into the American food chains. While working at Polyface Farm, Pollan was reluctant to slaughter a chicken. After a while, Pollan was shocked to find that he became ambivalent to the process because it became routine work. Now Pollan is faced with the fact that he is about to enter the wilderness to shoot a wild animal to feed himself. Although he weighed the ethical considerations of eating meat in the previous chapter, Pollan is surprised by his reaction to hunting.

Pollan employs a great deal of humor at his own expense while recounting his hunting adventure. Perhaps the first example is when he catches himself...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

In “Gathering: The Fungi,” Michael Pollan continues his exploration of the personal food chain, in which he attempts to prepare a meal made from ingredients he has directly and independently collected. Pollan has already shared his hunting experiences, and he now sets out into the forest to collect mushrooms. Although Pollan is a gardener, he discovers that there are many surprising differences between gardening and mushroom gathering. He also shares the unique characteristics of mushrooms.

A gardener works with domesticated species and has a considerable amount of control over the garden, so it is not surprising that gardeners tend to view their gardens as their own. Pollan points out that the pests come to be...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Pollan is the first to admit that “The Perfect Meal” sounds a little too smug for one’s own cooking. However, he points out that by “perfect” he does not necessarily mean that his cooking was great. Instead, Pollan explains over the course of the chapter how meaningful his final meal was, particularly because of the amount of preparation it took. It also connects him to the ecology behind food.

In exploring the personal food chain, Pollan explains that he set out to make a meal he prepared from scratch. Some of his goals were compromised. For example, although Pollan attempted to get salt from the San Francisco Bay, he found it too toxic for consumption. His desire to serve abalone as an appetizer also proved...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear