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.
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.
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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. Corn, or Zea mays, is in nearly everything. It can be eaten as corn, it can be fed to livestock, and it has many derivative products that few realize have their base in corn. To illustrate his point, Pollan invites his readers to consider the chicken nugget. The chicken itself is fed corn. Cornstarch can be found in the glues that hold a chicken nugget together, corn flour is used in the batter, and corn oil is used to fry the nugget. Moreover, most soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. It seems that corn is a part of us, and Pollan actually explains that scientists are able to track the amount of carbon in the average American body that comes from corn. It has come to the point that Americans rely more on corn than the Mayans did, so much so that Pollan refers to the American public as “processed corn, walking.” If people are what they eat, then it seems that corn has indeed conquered the American body.
Ironically, when Europeans and the Native Americans first met, the Europeans valued wheat at their staple crop. However, they soon discovered that a single kernel of corn would return far more kernels than wheat. Since then, Americans have been planting more and more corn. Pollan points out that Zea mays is especially easy to cross pollinate to create hybrid crops. Hybrids often combine the strengths of two types of corn to produce a superior crop. Until recently, the ease with which these strands of corn were cross-pollinated was a difficulty for corporations to control. Eventually, a hybrid was discovered that produced a superior yield in the first generation (or F-1) and an inferior yield in the second, creating what Pollan refers to as
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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.
Pollan marvels at the technological innovations that have been made in agriculture but cautions that American agriculture relies on an ecological subsidy that requires a considerable amount of energy derived from fossil fuels. Pollan suggests that synthetic nitrogen, invented by Fritz Haber at the start of the twentieth century, is the most important invention of the twentieth century and that much of the world would face starvation without it. Synthetic nitrogen allows farmers to give their soil necessary nitrogen—although Pollan points out that the process actually requires fossil fuels to create the synthetic nitrogen. Consequently, although these crops once relied exclusively on solar energy to grow, they now rely on fossil fuels. More recently, scientists have begun to increase crop yields at the genetic level, which allows a greater number of corn stalks to grow in proximity to each other, which in turn improves the annual yield.
Pollan introduces George Naylor’s “Naylor Curve.” The economics of supply and demand seem to fail to apply to agriculture because the demand will be constant no matter what happens in the economy. However, since the 1970s and the policies of Richard Nixon, farmers have been required to “go big” to survive. Pollan explains that the result has been an increase in the production of corn. Ironically, according to Naylor’s curve, this drives down the price of corn, which benefits corporations like Cargill and Coca-Cola as well as consumers who need corn to feed their livestock or their families—but the only way farmers can pay their bills is to produce more corn, which in turn drives down the price. Meanwhile, the government subsidizes farmers to continue producing...
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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 so abstract, nor was it always so ubiquitous. Pollan notes that up to 1850, corn was stored in and shipped in bags that contained the farmer’s address. The buyer would pay for the corn only after inspecting it upon arrival. However, the Chicago Board of Trade instituted a grading system in 1856, which allows buyers to ignore who produces the corn and which also invites farmers to ignore any objective in growing corn except yield or, in Pollan’s words, “the quality of sheer quantity.” When Pollan arrives at the elevator, he discovers piles of excess corn on the ground and discovers that there is a colossal surplus of corn being produced by America’s extremely efficient farmers. Pollan concludes:
Moving that mountain of cheap corn...has become the principal task of the industrial food system, since the supply of corn vastly exceeds the demand.
From an ecological perspective, there is a surplus of biomass that nature must be forced to absorb. Pollan suggests that factory farming, obesity in America, and the prevalence of food poisoning are all indirect consequences of this system.
Pollan points out that a government subsidy pays farmers for their corn, so much so that the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays about nineteen billion dollars each year to farmers. Pollan notes that the farmers are blamed for this subsidy, but the beneficiaries of this policy are companies, represented by Cargill and ADM. These two companies, Pollan notes, sell fertilizer and pesticides, and they operate most of America’s grain elevators. Pollan also suggests that they
help write many of the rules that govern this whole game, for Cargill...
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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 being produced very cheaply, although its reliance on synthetic nitrogen means that it relies on fossil fuel energy rather than solar energy. Cattle have evolved to eat grasses, a relationship that benefits the grass as cows spread grass seeds and prevent shrubs and trees from encroaching on grassland habitats. However, the feedlot largely eliminates grass from the diet of cattle in preference of cheap corn. Corn also has the advantage of fattening cattle faster, which means that cattle can be brought to a high weight more quickly. It takes less than two years to bring cattle to slaughter now; decades ago, it could take as long as five years.
However, although this process may seem economically efficient, it produces several problems. Perhaps the most pressing problem for Garden City, Kansas, is that it is left with reeking manure pits. On the farm, Pollan explains, farmers could use the manure of their cattle as fertilizer, creating a closed loop. However, the manure produced at the feedlot is too high in phosphorous and nitrogen to be used as fertilizer. Furthermore, the movement of cattle from a decentralized population to a concentrated animal feeding operation has produced medical problems for the cattle. Whenever a population is concentrated, disease follows. However, disease is controlled in the feedlot through the extensive use of antibiotics, a “solution” that has led to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria.
Although these practices seem to make a great deal of money for the corporate interests that profit from concentrated animal feeding operations, and they also produce relatively cheap meat for the population to consume, Pollan cautions that these practices are not without hidden...
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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 people that live in northern latitudes to taste pineapple in winter. Less food spoils, so it seems that consumers have freed themselves from their reliance on natural systems. Pollan explains that food companies like General Mills process food for profit rather than nutrition. Pollan outlines his argument by pointing out that people can only eat so much food, a concept represented by terms like fixed stomach and inelastic demand. He invites readers to consider, If people can only eat so much food, how can a company or industry’s profits grow? Pollan explains that the population expanding is too slow, but there are two short-term strategies: the first is to coax people to eat more; the second is convincing consumers to spend more money for the same amount of food. Pollan concludes:
Turning cheap corn into complex food systems is an excellent way to achieve both goals.
Pollan goes on to discuss other innovations that have come from processed foods, including “nutraceutical foods.” He cites a recent product that combines the cancer-fighting flavonoid phenols of red wine with the dietary fiber of a red apple. Pollan recalls a dream from the 1960s in which an entire meal’s nutrients could be put into a pill; he suggests that today the dream is to put pills into food. To point out the odd nature of these foods, Pollan cites an article entitled “Getting More Fruits and Vegetables into Food” and comments, “I had thought fruits and vegetables were already foods.” Pollan suggests that a recent innovation, “resistant starch,” is indigestible. This means people can eat foods built from resistant starch without actually digesting them....
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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 people suffering from over-nutrition (one billion) had surpassed the number of people suffering from malnutrition (800 million). Pollan points out that type II diabetes has become more prevalent than ever before, so much so that the life expectancy of children born in America is shorter than that of their parents. Pollan acknowledges that this obesity epidemic has a variety of causes (including changes in lifestyle, work, and marketing) but he invites his audience to consider the impact of excessive and cheap corn, and particularly the rise of high-fructose corn syrup, on America’s waistline.
In “The Farm,” Pollan explained how government policies from the 1970s created an excess supply of corn, which has since kept the price consistently low. Pollan argues that “when food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” He goes on to point out that since the 1970s, people have increased their calorie intake and that those extra calories are stored in the body’s fat cells. It is no coincidence that government policies created incentives for the cheap-food farm also during the 1970s. In the 1820s, excess corn was turned into alcohol or fed to pork; today, it is most often fed to cattle or turned into high-fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile, food companies have discovered that although people will consume a standard number of servings, they can be made to eat more food if the size of the serving is larger. In this way, America has overcome the fixed stomach that limits consumption.
Pollan points out that people have naturally evolved to eat sweet and fatty foods because they contain the most energy. However, in contemporary America, the food that contains high-fructose corn...
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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.
At the drive-through window, Pollan receives a handout titled “A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts: Choose the Best Meal for You.” He discovers that one of the ingredients (dimethylpolysiloxene) is a suspected carcinogen. Pollan considers whether Chicken McNuggets taste like chicken and realizes that almost all fast food simply tastes like fast food. This leads him to speculate how much corn was used to make his family’s meal, and he decides to have a meal tested using a spectrometer. Pollan lists his meal “by order of diminishing corniness”: soda has the most corn, followed by the milk shake, the salad dressing, the chicken nuggets, the cheeseburger, and finally the French fries.
Pollan explains that from the point of view of the agribusiness, the corn-fed industrial food chain allows corporations to increase profits faster than the American population expands. For consumers from the “lower rungs of America’s economic ladder,” this food is cheap—but it also leads to obesity, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Ecologically, the industrial food chain requires a great deal of energy to continue running because it relies not only on solar energy but also on fossil fuels. Although the corn plant itself is more abundant than ever before, American corn farmers exist only by government subsidy. Pollan concludes:
You have to wonder why we Americans don’t worship this plant as fervently as the Aztecs; like they once did, we make extraordinary sacrifices to it.
Ultimately, the Pollan family’s meal added up to over four thousand calories, far more than they naturally require for lunch. Although many people may view fast food as a comfort...
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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 work, eating grass as well as parasites from the cattle manure. This allows Salatin to produce healthy cattle without relying on chemicals and antibiotics. The grass is also harvested for hay. This is why, although he raises cattle, chickens, pork, rabbits, and turkeys, Salatin considers himself a “grass farmer.” Grass is at the root of everything he does, converting energy from the sun. This energy is the basis of Polyface Farm’s pastoral food chain.
This system of farming is organized around what Pollan calls a “natural model.” In nature, grasslands coevolved with grazers like cattle, whose grazing was followed by birds. The grasslands rely on these herbivores to keep shrubs and forests from encroaching on their territory. Pollan notes that the industrial model robs the topsoil, but Salatin’s model enriches the soil. It seems to be sustainable in a way that industrial models and global markets will not allow.
Pollan takes the time to emphasize how different Salatin’s model of farming is from the industrial model on which George Naylor relies. Polyface is pastoral, not industrial; it relies on perennial grasses rather than annual crops; its ecosystem is a polyculture, not a monoculture; it relies on solar energy rather than fossil fuels. Salatin’s food is sold locally as well—so much so that he refused to FedEx Pollan any of his food. Consequently, Pollan finds himself moving hay bales on Salatin’s Virginia farm to study Polyface Farm, but his search does not end there.
Salatin’s farm, as well as his disdain for foods marketed as organic, leads Pollan on the next leg of his quest to map out America’s food chains. According to Salatin, most organic farms ironically...
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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 essence nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This breakthrough simplified the biological processes found in humus, or the decaying plant matter that adds nutrients to soil, and made it possible to industrialize agriculture. Howard and his followers predicted and continue to argue that this simplification inhibits the creation of healthful food.
What Pollan finds when he visits California’s organic farms does not live up to the pastoral ideal. Pesticides and chemicals are not used, which Pollan acknowledges is a fantastic achievement, but more idealistic farmers argue that this is merely “input substitution.” The farms are not sustainable: they still require nonsynthetic fertilizer to be shipped in. Rather than using herbicides to control weeds, industrial organic farms increase tilling. Finally, the food that organic farms produce still consume a substantial amount of fossil fuels, particularly when it comes to transporting organic lettuce from California to New York or organic asparagus from Argentina to the United States of America. Perhaps the most daunting weakness of the industrial organic model is its continued reliance on monocultures because they are so susceptible to disease, particularly industrial organic meat, which continues to concentrate populations of animals but is prohibited from using antibiotics.
Studies find that the polycultural agriculture found on more idealistically organic small farms produces better yields than both conventional and organic monoculture farms, but supermarkets resist buying from a variety of small farms because it is not cost efficient. After examining the transformation of several organic farms that formed during the 1960s, Pollan found that the farms...
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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 imported from New Zealand, particularly through Allan Nation’s magazine, Stockman Grass Farmer. Farmers like Salatin are engaged in “management-intensive grazing,” or “rotational grazing.” Every day, Joel inspects his grass to see whether it is ready for the cattle to move on to it. If it is, Joel moves his cattle by using a portable electric fence. Following this system, Salatin does not participate in the overgrazing that distinguishes the ranching throughout much of the rest of America. Furthermore, Salatin has drastically improved his grass’s productivity well above the national average. Pollan cautions his audience from interpreting this as a traditional form of agriculture. Salatin’s operation relies on complex and sophisticated information-age expertise, and Salatin prefers to characterize Polyface Farm as a “postindustrial enterprise.”
However, the food chain that Polyface Farm follows is simpler than the industrial food chain is. The industrial food chain relies on fossil energy, often relies on synthetic chemicals, and certainly relies on corn subsidies to provide cheap feed. The benefit of this system is that it provides a predictable and consistently produced product. However, the costs of this system are more difficult to identify. Although a fast food hamburger might cost ninety-nine cents, Pollan points out this system of accounting fails to factor in the costs of farm subsidies, health care costs, and ecological costs. (Pollan also points out that concentrated animal feeding operations have not been made to obey clean air and water laws.) All of these costs drain tax dollars. Pollan goes on to point out that Polyface Farm actually produces more energy than a corn crop does,...
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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 from another a dependent part. A body organ like the liver is a holon.
On Salatin’s farm, everything operates on more than one level. For example, the grass is used to feed cattle, which fertilize the ground with their manure. Salatin uses chickens to peck at the insects within the cattle manure, which prevents pests and disease from spreading on the farm. In the pig barn, manure is covered with wood chips and corn, which forms compost that can be spread the following spring. Salatin credits the heat of the compost with keeping the pigs warm in the winter. The farm has a woodlot on its north-facing slopes, which Salatin admits is difficult to account for in a ledger. However, it provides a habitat for birds, which consume pests; it provides woodchips for compost; and it prevents erosion and allows ponds to form. In Salatin’s farm, nothing is taken for granted and most parts of the farm serve several purposes, which allow the land to outproduce monocultures.
In contrast, the fence-to-fence sowing promoted by the United States Department of Agriculture had little time for trees. Pollan points out that this model of agriculture has numerous problems. It promotes monocultures, which are prone to disease. Concentrated animal feeding operations may seem efficient for the supermarket because managers can buy from a single source but they are also susceptible to disease, particularly the organic operations that cannot use antibiotics. Pollan believes that agriculture has been robbed of its traditional wisdom and intelligence. Joel Salatin has to find very clever solutions to his problems, but most farmers wait for solutions to be bottled and sold to them. Salatin points out that most...
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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 himself, farmers are only able to process a limited number of birds on their farms. The slaughter process is draining and often gruesome for Pollan (who participates in killing, eviscerating, and boiling the chickens), but Salatin explains that his preference to slaughter his livestock is an extension of his worldview. However, Salatin is now fighting for the right to continue his open-air abattoir.
Government regulations regarding slaughter are designed to accommodate centralized abattoirs. For example, it is mandated that the walls be cleaned on a regular basis and that there be a separate washroom for the federal inspector. However, there are no walls and there are no washrooms at Polyface’s abattoir. Contrary to what one might expect, Salatin reports that he has had his chickens tested for bacteria against those of the industrial abattoir— and his birds have lower levels. Salatin concludes that this is because the open air and the sunlight control act as a disinfectant. Salatin also points out that concentrated agriculture is what allows for the rampant spread of bacteria, which is why there are so many regulations for industrial slaughterhouses. Ironically, the one regulation missing is an acceptable level of bacteria within chicken. There is no standard for bacteria levels; there is only a standard for the process of slaughter. Even if there were a standard, Pollan reveals that the United States Department of Agriculture cannot instigate a recall of slaughtered meat anyway.
The differences between Salatin’s process and the industrial process of slaughter continue. Although Pollan feels squeamish while killing chickens, he finds that he quickly grows accustomed to it, to the point that...
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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 Salatin’s food is sold, he finds that consumers have a host of reasons for electing to buy from an alternative food chain. Some find that Salatin’s chicken tastes better and many praise his eggs. In fact, when Joel’s brother sells eggs to local restaurants, he often showcases the eggs to make his sale. Salatin insists that his buyers are willing to pay for quality, which it seems many people have stopped considering due to the standardization of food. Although the industrial food chain (and its standardized products) rules the supermarket, Pollan finds that many alternative farmers are selling their produce to local restaurants, which are in turn promoting their local growers. Pollan also finds that farmers’ markets are on the rise, though they are Salatin’s least profitable market.
In “The Market,” Pollan makes a distinction between industrial farming and “artisanal” farming and questions whether the two models can be merged. For Salatin, they are antithetical. The artisan farmer’s model must operate on the local market to maintain a relationship with the customer. Furthermore, it seems impossible to increase the scale of an artisan farmer’s operation. However, is it likely that the artisan’s model will take over the industrial model? Pollan thinks not, in part because it cannot be scaled to fit a larger model. Pollan points to the rise of the global economy and international trade. All of the questions of production and value are hidden behind a barcode.
Still, a growing number of people are willing to engage in this alternative food chain, a process that Salatin understands is about opting out of the industrial system. Pollan notes that the Internet helps like-minded groups of...
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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 relationships that people are able to form locally. Thus, Pollan elects to eat with close friends who live near the Salatin farm. As compensation for his week helping around the farm, Joel gives Pollan a Polyface chicken and eggs. Ironically, Pollan admits that he would have preferred to not eat chicken after so recently participating in their slaughter, but he relents, realizing that chickens are the meat in season at this time.
As Pollan shops for his meal, he demonstrates a different set of values from those he usually uses to make decisions. He elects to buy wine that is expensive, inferring from the price that it will be a quality vintage. He chooses his vegetables based on their seasonality and whether they were grown locally. In particular, Pollan is aware that he has some of Salatin’s celebrated eggs, and he elects to make a chocolate soufflé for dessert. The process of making the meal is very conscientious and planned out in detail, and it is based on values that extend beyond price and quantity.
Pollan resists boasting but cannot hide his preference for the pastoral meal over the one he ate at the end of the industrial food chain. When Pollan and his family eat McDonald’s in the car, it takes them less than ten minutes to finish the meal, suggesting that there is little in it to be enjoyed. When Pollan eats with his friends, he finds that at first they eat the food without talking because it is delectable. They go on to have a conversation. The atmosphere is not based on efficiency but on the warmth of friendship and the quality of food. Pollan’s soufflé turns out well, and he finds himself able to overcome his concerns about the chicken. The entire meal reminds him of the...
(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 that hunter-gatherers spent only seventeen hours each week collecting food, they quickly exhausted their supply of megafauna and turned to agriculture. Ironically, this reliance on crops led to lower health; Pollan points out only in the past few centuries have people begun to reach the same levels of health and fitness they had in hunter-gatherer societies. Ultimately, Pollan acknowledges the futility of the personal chain as a means of practically feeding society, but he still feels that it will be a didactic experience.
Because he does not know very much about California’s flora and fauna—not to mention the fungi—Pollan once again seeks out a guide. His “forager Virgil” turns out to be Angelo Garro. Garro was born in Sicily before following a woman to Canada and then following a different woman to San Francisco. There he established himself as a man whose life revolved around food. In fact, Pollan admits that he met Garro at the sorts of dinners for which both men’s reputations as food experts would draw invitations. Garro agrees to be Pollan’s guide but informs him that he will have to get a hunter’s license.
Pollan includes a great deal of humor throughout “The Forager.” He finds that
they’ll sell a high-powered rifle to just about anybody in California, but it’s against the law to aim the thing at an animal without first enduring a fourteen-hour class and a one-hundred-question multiple-choice exam.
After two months of preparation, Pollan succeeds in obtaining his license. Over this period, Pollan begins to find that his walks through the wild have changed and that he begins to view nature as a gigantic...
(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.
Unlike people, a monarch butterfly can only eat milkweed, which may sound dull but has the benefit of being reliably safe. Omnivores like humans and rats are required to constantly choose what to eat. Pollan cites studies by Paul Rozin that find that rats test food by eating a small amount and then waiting to see whether it produces a harmful effect, such as a stomachache. It is difficult to poison rats because they are capable of remembering which foods are poisonous. As omnivores, whenever people encounter a new food, they face two conflicting desires: neophobia, a necessary fear of the new, and neophilia, a necessary love of the new.
To some extent, taste buds help people detect whether a plant is nutritious or toxic. Foods that taste bitter are often toxic, for example, but not always. Pollan points out aspirin is made from salicylic acid in willows. Humans are forced to rely on memory and communication to overcome the toxins that plants create to defend themselves from predators. Pollan points out that our ability to cook allowed us to access more plants and meat as food. For example, the cassava produces cyanide, but it can be eaten if cooked. Thus, some anthropologists have suggested that cooking is one of the most important tools that allowed the human brain to evolve.
However, perhaps the most reliable test of what to eat and what not to eat is found in a nation’s culture of food. For example, when Asians ferment soy, they are actually making it more nutritious. Americans do not have a stable culinary tradition, and Pollan suggests that their diet-related health problems are the consequence. Ironically, many American responses to this lack of tradition have produced food fads...
(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, including infants and the mentally handicapped. Singer would have his audience consider the suffering of the animal rather than the intelligence, and it is difficult to deny that animals suffer before they are eaten.
Consequently, Pollan decides to become a vegetarian. He approaches the subject with some humor when he says,
I will now burden you with my obligatory compromises and ethical distinctions.
Burdening others is one aspect of vegetarianism that Pollan finds particularly irritating, and he finds that he feels like a bad guest because he requires special food while visiting friends. He also finds that vegetarianism requires a great deal of careful planning before eating. Perhaps Pollan’s biggest objection to vegetarian eating is not ethical so much as cultural when he shares that
healthy and virtuous as I may feel these days, I also feel alienated from traditions I value.
All of this leads Pollan to further explore what eating meat really means.
Pollan finds that philosophers like Daniel Dennett have begun to draw attention to the nature of animal suffering by suggesting that it may occur on a different order of magnitude than it does for people. For example, a rhesus monkey can have one of its testicles bitten off while competing for a mate only to go on mating the following day. It seems that a great deal of the discussion of animal rights may be based upon anthropomorphic arguments that are based on distance from animals. However, Pollan agrees that there is something very wrong with the way concentrated animal feeding operations work. These slaughterhouses view animals as...
(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 writing “hunter porn.” Pollan confesses that he has always viewed the works of bearded American hunters like Ernest Hemingway with disdain. However, once he enters the bush to hunt for boars, he is surprised by the effect the process has on him. He finds that his senses are enhanced and he experiences “hunter’s eye,” a condition in which he finds that he can suddenly see much farther than usual.
During his first morning of hunting, Pollan and his guide, Angelo Garro, find nothing. In the afternoon, he and Garro spot a group of boars. Pollan elects not to fire first because his gun is not loaded. Garro shoots a boar, but at the end of the day Pollan has still not shot a boar. He considers ending his project but finds that every time he tells the story of his hunt, his audience is disappointed that he did not actually kill a boar. So he returns to the woods with Garro.
In his second hunt, Pollan successfully kills a boar, and he is amazed by the adrenaline rush he feels. However, as time passes, he comes to feel conflicted. Many hunting stories end with the killing of the animal as climax. Pollan goes on to explain the processes of skinning the boar and removing the organs. It is gruesome, and Pollan finds himself amazed that Garro continues to talk about food while preparing the boar. After he has returned home, Garro sends Pollan a photo of him with the carcass. Pollan looks at himself, the grinning hunter standing over his kill, and is appalled at himself. Over time, though, he comes to view his hunt as one part of a larger ecological cycle that connects humans to the sun.
(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 viewed as “Others.” In other words, Pollan concludes, gardening is steeped in dualism. However, Pollan admits that he never recognized these gardening attitudes until he went mushroom hunting.
Mushroom hunting involves a great deal of mystery. For example, it is difficult to find mushrooms, and mycophiles (lovers of mushrooms) must develop an eye for finding fungus—or “get their eyes on”—before they will be able to worry about identification. In fact, finding mushrooms can be so difficult that most mushroom hunters prefer to keep their mushroom locations a secret. Pollan admits that he struggled to find a guide before Angelo Gallo agreed to take him along on a hunt for chanterelles.
Mushrooms not only grow in hidden places but are, themselves, mysterious. Pollan points out that scientists know relatively little about mushrooms. Chanterelles are a mycorrhizal species, which means that they live with the roots of plants. Beyond that, little is known. Pollan explains that fungi are difficult to observe because
what we call a mushroom is only the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger and essentially invisible organism that lives most of its life underground.
Most of the organism exists in the soil at a microscopic scale. Although some mushrooms can be cultivated, Pollan points out that the choicest mushrooms are nearly impossible to cultivate. The most amusing illustration of the mystery that surrounds mushrooms may be that one thinker speculated that mushrooms grew from lunar energy.
Pollan argues that mushrooms represent the omnivore’s dilemma of choosing between trying new food and fearing new food. In contrast to...
(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 unrealistic because acquiring abalone is time and labor intensive and because it loses a great deal of its flavor if not eaten fresh. Somewhat amusingly, Pollan explains that he did not end up even cooking every aspect of the meal because Angelo Gallo agreed to prepare a couple dishes. However, in other ways, Pollan’s final meal is indeed a perfect culmination of his goals in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Pollan invites everyone involved in helping him prepare his personal food chain meal, from the people who helped him hunt for mushrooms to the people with whom he went boar hunting. Pollan spends an entire day cooking—after almost a week of preparation—and frets that because so many of his guests are professional chefs that they will not be satisfied with his offering. However, as the guests begin to arrive, Pollan finds that the conversation gives way to a warm atmosphere. After thanking his guests for their contributions, Pollan is gratified to find that they are indeed enjoying the meal.
Perhaps the most perfect things about the meal are revealed when they are contrasted with Pollan’s industrial food chain meal. Pollan admits that his personal food chain is hardly realistic, but he maintains that it should draw his audience’s attention to how rarely people are so aware of the food chains that feed them. Pollan can readily describe every step involved in preparing his personal meal, from the conversion of sunlight into matter to the gathering and hunting to the cooking. He also highlights the culture in cuisine, a culture that seems to be disappearing from American culture. For Pollan, food should be understood as a means by which people connect with the world. He emphasizes this...
(The entire section is 446 words.)