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

by Michael Pollan

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

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a book by Michael Pollan that argues for the consumption of sustainable, locally produced foods.

  • In Section 1, Pollan examines common fast food items and snack foods to show readers how much high fructose corn syrup there is in the average American diet.

  • In Section 2, Pollan compares the organic food produced in large-scale farming operations to that made on a small scale with locally-sourced produce.

  • In Section 3, Pollan admits that hunting and gathering isn't a reasonable or convenient solution, but he recommends it as a tool for connecting with food.

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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.


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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.

Extended Summary

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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 monocultures, which are vulnerable, so it also requires herbicides and pesticides to survive. In other words, this is a problematic system that needs a variety of expensive solutions to operate.

To discuss how corn has become so ubiquitous, Pollan explains that corn can be easily processed, and its derivatives (such as high-fructose corn syrup) make their way into a very wide variety of products. Corn also makes its way into the American stomach via livestock. Pollan explains that centuries of evolution are currently thwarted by industrial agriculture because concentrated animal-feeding operations feed cattle cheap corn rather than the grass their digestive systems are designed to convert into muscle. Pollan suggests that although it may seem like the cheapest foods in the supermarket are derived from corn, that low price comes from a variety of synthetic inputs (e.g., synthetic nitrogen) and subsidies.

Pastoral Food Chain

Many people have begun to rebel against industrial food, creating a new market for organic food. In the supermarket, Pollan is impressed by the pastoral imagery on the labels of organic foods; they often depict red barns and other traditional, preindustrial farming scenes. However, when Pollan finds an “organic TV dinner,” he decides to investigate the history of organic food. He asks, isn’t organic TV dinner a contradiction of terms? Pollan discovers that the regulations that guide organic foods do not always match the pastoral imagery on the label.

For example, “organic” meat is made without antibiotics. However, it is often still made according to a concentrated-population (industrial) model. Pollan points out the irony that antibiotics are given to cattle to protect them from disease, which is a risk heightened by concentrated population in a concentrated animal-feeding operation. Meanwhile, organic produce is made without herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, but this process requires heavy tilling, which erodes topsoil. It seems that industrial organic is not a contradiction of terms after all.

However, when Pollan contrasts his industrial meal with his industrial organic meal, he finds important differences. Pollan argues that organic requirements do raise the food industry’s standard and that the reduction of pesticides and herbicides in the organic model is an important improvement over the standard industrial model. However, both systems are precarious because they rely on concentrated populations and monocultures. Furthermore, both systems invite food to be shipped around the world, which Pollan interprets as a fossil fuel input. Ultimately, this model does not strike Pollan as a sustainable one.

He finds a more sustainable alternative in Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. When Salatin’s father, William, bought the land on which Joel now farms, the soil was exhausted from being made to fit the industrial corn model of agriculture. Joel and his father rejuvenated the land by planting trees on the north-facing hills and sowing grass on the rest of the land. By managing the grass using livestock, Salatin has restored the health of his farm’s soil. Consequently, Salatin considers himself a “grass farmer.”

Grass farming considers grass to be a photovoltaic unit that captures energy from the sun to be fed to animals. Salatin then uses management-intensive grazing techniques that maximize the use of the grass. Salatin also “stacks” his animals. In practice, this means that Salatin will set his cattle to graze grass for a short period of time. After the cattle move on, chickens follow. The chickens feed on pests that are present in the manure, providing a natural alternative to pesticides. Pollan marvels that every aspect of Polyface Farm seems connected to another natural process.

Pollan draws several conclusions from his experience on Polyface. Among them, he finds that the food—especially the eggs and the chicken—tastes much better when fed on grass. Salatin’s alternative agriculture relies on local farming and local communities to produce food. Aside from the taste, perhaps the biggest advantage of this model is its transparency. Salatin’s customers can inspect his operation at any time, which stands in contrast to the feedlots of the industrial food chain. When Pollan prepares his pastoral meal, he is careful to focus on quality, locally grown food to make it.

Personal Food Chain

Pollan’s final exploration is the personal food chain. Pollan admits that this last chain is not a realistic alternative to the industrial model because it consists of hunting and gathering. Pollan finds guides to take him boar and mushroom hunting, and the results of these adventures often surprise him. Pollan devotes a chapter to the ethics of eating meat and even adopts a vegetarian lifestyle for a month. However, he ultimately elects to view eating meat as part of an ecological chain of actions rather than a moral act. Still, when Pollan begins hunting, he is surprised by his enthusiastic reaction to the hunt. Ironically, when he sees a photo of him standing over a boar, he feels deeply embarrassed until he sees a similar shot that includes aspects of the entire food chain. Pollan is less conflicted over his mushroom gathering, but he is equally intrigued with it.

Pollan describes his final meal as perfect because it offers many things a normal meal does not. Although his personal meal is not a realistic model to feed an entire nation, Pollan is impressed with the way that it connects him to every aspect of the food chain. He contrasts this with an increasingly common American meal: each family member eating an individual microwavable meal made from processed foods and shipped from across the country. Pollan’s emphasis on the consciousness involved in his personal meal highlights the problems posed by America’s national eating disorder and its reliance on an industrial food chain that seeks to create a quantity of food units rather than quality food that is tasty and nutritious.

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