The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Chapter 9 Summary

Michael Pollan

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 that survived into the 1990s tended to embrace the industrial model because it was the only way they could produce enough food to stock supermarket shelves.

Although organic agriculture as it currently exists fails to live up to its ideals in many ways, the movement has had a positive effect on agriculture. It has raised standards and has prevented many chemicals from being put into the soil. On the other hand, it is not sustainable. It is clear that the agricultural standard can still be raised higher, as it is for farmers like Joel Salatin.