In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, what is Michael Pollen's view of the issues that surround food which he presents in this book? Please give examples to support your view...

In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, what is Michael Pollen's view of the issues that surround food which he presents in this book? Please give examples to support your view and discuss how this affects his view of nature, with examples.


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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the twenty first century, we are constantly faced with ethical questions and conflicting and contradictory advice on the best ways to save ourselves and the planet. In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan, Pollan delivers stark truths about the real meaning of words like nutritious, healthy and organic. He tries to make the public aware how reliant they are on particular types of food, even to the point of corn having," conquered the American body," due to its current use and presence in many foods; furthermore, seemingly cheap means of producing foods have so many other repercussions such that "the logic of evolution" is overtaken by a reliance on fossil fuels rather than solar energy and a host of other problems result in, what Pollan calls "the industrial food chain." 

People often overlook the impact of their actions when it comes to food choices and, according to Pollan, they have been persuaded that eating from the "industrial food chain," is acceptable, despite the over-commercialization and "corporate attention" that is present in food sales. Many farmers, due to new technologies and innovations, often cannot farm successfully due to associated costs and their efforts become counter-productive and ultimately benefit large corporations and not the farmer. "Naylor's Curve" is an example used by Pollan to show how the simple corn stalk is a huge industry that has lost its identity. In the 1800s, corn was even shipped with the farmer's address on the bag but the focus changed and “the quality of sheer quantity" became the measure of good corn.

To ensure the profitability of food, it seems that consumers have been persuaded to eat more and, at the very least, to pay more for the same quantity of food. Cheap corn has become "a complex food system," and Pollan discusses the disturbing fact that, according to a United Nations report in 2000, there are more people who are considerably over-fed than there are malnourished . Although this may suggest there are less people suffering from malnutrition, that is not the case. There are many contributing factors in discussing obesity but, Pollan warns, the effects of cheap corn must not be overlooked. The US government, he says, ensure that "the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest," referring, of course, to corn.    

Taking a "pastoral" approach is far more beneficial, Pollan suggests; a move back to grass fed cattle and "a natural model," such as he describes Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm to be. Even "organic" farming has largely become industrialized as farmers struggle to survive otherwise. It is also not sustainable without intervention and, although it is better than the strict industrial model, its reliance on fossil fuels, making it almost a contradiction. Pollan cautions his readers that Salatin's polyface farm does involve complex operations in managing it; however, it is simpler and does produce a predictable and consistent yield, exclusive of a need for corn. Grass is a "photovoltaic panel” able to make the best out of sunlight, thus avoiding the use of fossil fuels.

As he continues to explore ethical eating, Pollan discusses vegetarianism and ultimately wonders whether vegetarians actually realize how many small animals are killed when grain is produced. He suggests that simpler practices could even possibly re-introduce vegetarians, who refrain from meat for ethical reasons,to meat-eating because they could be assured that they are eating animals “with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.”

Pollan admits his own surprise, after his initial feelings regarding slaughtering chickens and is conflicted by the excitement he feels during hunting. He continues his personal journey and realises that he is enrihed by experiences. The ultimate for him is preparing food that he has gathered himself. There is also a social aspect to consuming food from the pastoral or personal approach and not the "fast food," such as McDonald's which does not inspire conversation. Pollan reminds his readers that, "we eat by the grace of nature, not industry." Pollan is impressed by the co-operative spirit that exists in preparing this personal meal and hopes that people will be more aware of food chains and their own contribution to the issues around food. 

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