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

Michael Pollan

Extended Summary

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...

(The entire section is 1565 words.)