Chapters Ten to Fourteen of Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals constitute his study of the divergence between human eating habits and the requirements of sustainable development through a literal journey through the food chain, beginning with farming techniques, the animals raised for food purposes, the systems used for slaughtering animals for human consumption, and the consumer’s entry into the chain through supermarket purchasing and meal preparation. Pollan’s underlying thesis – that humans have wandered catastrophically off the path of long-term sustainability – is illuminated through this journey from farm to grocery store. Part II of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, titled “Pastoral Grass,” is intended to bring further into focus the manner in which modern agricultural practices prioritize efficiency and cost-effectiveness over more important considerations, namely, the ability of the planet to sustain itself in the face of unnatural food processing policies. Pollan’s chapter on grass (Chapter Ten) for instances, describes the ultimately counter-productive practice of encouraging growth of grasslands to feed livestock, as sustainability of grass needed for animal consumption, with human consumption of the animal the ultimate goal, inevitably involves the use of farming techniques harmful to both the environment and to humans. The use of agrochemicals, for instance, is repeatedly cited by the author and by those whom he consulted or interviewed for the purpose of illustrating how the requirement for such chemicals in order to sustain an alien farming practice functions at variance with nature’s own system for rejuvenating earth.
Similarly, in Chapter Eleven, Pollan discusses the arbitrary (in terms of the natural environment and ecosystem) practice of raising animals in specific regions and the requirements of sustaining that practice. By interfering in the natural order of animal existence, more and more artificiality has to be injected into the farming and ranching processes to make systems work that are otherwise incompatible with nature’s structure. By describing at length the farming techniques used by Polyface, Incorporated, a family-owned farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which employs sustainable, environmentally-friendly techniques, Pollan argues that such a return to more complicated if less-industrialized farming practices could both sustain humanity and preserve the environment. Pollan inverts the definition of “successful farming” by rejecting the economics of large, industrial agricultural concerns, which define success in terms of yield, in favor of techniques that minimize damage to existing ecosystems. An added advantage, he points out, is the reduction in costs associated with artificial means of sustaining impractical techniques. In defending the economics of sustaining agriculture, Pollan points out that “you need to count not only all the products it produces . . . but also all the costs it eliminates: antibiotics, wormers, paraciticides, and fertilizers.”
Part II of Pollan’s study continues in this vein, as the products of the current agricultural system make their way to grocery store shelves and, finally, to the dinner table. In looking, therefore, for a unifying theme for these chapters, once could logically state that it is the pursuit of agricultural practices that provide sufficient quantities of food at affordable prices while sustaining the environment. Integral to this more logical system, he and others argue, is the currently growing support for buying locally-produced foods, which eliminates or minimizes the costs associated with transporting produce and meats to market while ensuring that consumers enjoy the freshest products untainted by preservatives.