Michael Pollan: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, 2006
Michael Pollan is the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, where he basically took on the flood of diet advice and replaced it with “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In this book, he discusses the problem of what to eat today, which is not something most species wonder about, either because food is scarce and they will eat everything they can lay their hands on, or because they are so specialized that they can only eat one kind of food (like koalas and eucalyptus leaves, of pandas and bamboo shoots and leaves.) This choice is faced by all omnivores, such as humans.
The book tracks down the history of three meals: One industrial, one pastoral (i.e., organically grown), and one personal, where Pollan had to make everything himself, including hunting down the meat. Or, in other words, one meal from industrial society, one from the traditionally agricultural, and one from a society of foragers. The further back you go, the more he has to fudge the experience (and the same goes for the producers/foragers, I suspect.)
The industrial part of the book talks about corn, a plant that supplies the basis for most of what we eat (from corn flakes to meat (cattle now eat corn rather than grass) to sweeteners). Corn is highly productive, but cannot exist without human intervention. The rather twisted logic here is that the productivity of the farmer destroys farm life, and may destroy food as well.
The organically grown part is based on an analysis of an organic farm (“small” organic as opposed to “big” organic such as Whole Foods) which relies on local markets, crop and species rotation, and quality rather than quantity for profits. Back-breaking work and battles with a regulatory regime set up for industrialized farming (for instance, the meat processing plant needs to have a bathroom specifically for the USDA inspector).
The foraging part, of course, verges into the artificial – Pollan hunts feral pigs, but does it by SUV and with a high-powered rifle with a scope. But it is fun, and allows for some pretty interesting discussions of our relationship to food.
The book is full of interesting viewpoints and facts, and tells you things that you did not know – for instance that “free-range” chicken means that the chicken have access to grass and air. However, since they only live 8 weeks and have access to grass and air through a door that they don’t dare venture out of, having always lived inside, this does not mean the chicken has had a life that much different from the fully industrialized chicken.
Here is one quote I liked (page 293): “The adult human brain accounts for 2 percent of our body weight but consumes 18 percent of our energy, all of which must come from carbohydrates. Food faddists take note […]”
In other words, the book is the supply-side prelude to In Defense of Food. I have not read that one, but it is on my list of books to read, triggered by Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the meantime, I listen to his talk at Google, and so can you: