The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. 450 p., $26.95.
If the measure of a book is how much we change our behavior based on what we learn and think about, then this book certainly qualifies as a favorite of the year. Michael Pollan skillfully guides the readers through a philosophical discussion about an important yet overlooked aspect of life: food. I have rarely, if ever, considered what I eat worthy of intense thought and philosophy. In our house, the biggest objectives at meal time were time efficiency, cost-savings, eating healthy, and not making too big a mess, in that order. Now that Jamie and I have both read the book and discussed its implications, things have already changed, and for the better. (For Jamie's review of the book, click here.)
The title of the book aptly summarizes the key paradox driving the book. Humans are biologically adapted to consume a variety of foods, but the sheer diversity can overwhelm us and leave us unsatisfied. What tools do we have to guide our food discrimination? Sensory organs help, as do shared knowledge passed down through generations. Culture too has evolved to codify shared knowledge and bring some order to the diversity.
But what about the modern American? Lacking a homogenous food culture and subject to the whims of diet fads and a fast-paced life, we have largely removed the traditional guiding constraints on food. The Omnivore's Dilemma has come back with full force in the modern era in the US. And according to the author, our collective solution (if it can be termed thus) has been to rely more and more on one product: corn. Government subsidy policies and the plant's unique abilities to adapt itself to the modern industrial product have rendered Americans more dependent on one calorie source than ever before.
Pollan's exploration of the industrial food production process caused much consternation honestly. The economist within me wishes to praise the efficiency and productivity gains of economies of scale, high competition based on price alone, and the homogenization of products. But the author is compelling in arguing that food is not a normal commodity. We may listen to an iPod but we don't ingest it. The biological system does not follow economic laws after all and simplifying food and calories down to a price sticker may oversimplify. In other words, as consumers of food we need to be more discriminating than we have been in the past. And by we, I mean me.
The second aspect of the industrial food system is that it is unsustainable from a biological perspective. Pollan readily acknowledges that we cannot go back to a hunter/gatherer society, nor is vegetarianism a solution to concerns about overgrazing, ecological destruction, and depletion of other natural resources. Instead, he advocates a holistic approach whereby food production mimics natural cycles found in biology. Yes prices will increase. But he argues that so will quality, gratitude, and a more stable American culture with respect to food consumption.
Like Colin Beavan's No Impact Man that I reviewed last year, this book errs on the side of idealism rather than reality. The concepts sound great, and personally I feel to change my behavior and be more discerning in what I eat. But how could a non-industrial food process be enacted on the large scale? Pollan spends a large amount of time focusing on Polyface Farms and their mode of producing food. But one farm cannot feed everyone. Of course, removing subsidies to corn producers would be a move in the right direction, though it is politically a non-starter. Still, I fail to see a coherent way we could move our society forward on this point. I guess ultimately it goes back to the concept that change begins with one person. So here goes.