Friday, April 8, 2011



The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Ever wonder what exactly is on your plate as you sit down to eat a meal and perhaps ponder where in the world did it come from? Sometimes we ignore or suppress certain questions simply because we have an inkling about what the answer is and don’t really want to acknowledge that. Here is a book that is delightfully easy-to-read and provides several answers that you should know without being judgmental in any way. More importantly, it prepares you to raise intelligent questions and make your own decisions as you go along your merry way.

The premise is pretty simple: Pollan sets out to trace the roots of four different meals and understand how the food ended up on his plate. The four meals serve as samples from four different food channels:

  • Industrial food (Fast-food meal)
  • Industrial Organic food (organic meal from select supermarkets)
  • Local Organic food (organic meal from a local sustainable farm)
  • Ultimate Local food (meal from food collected via hunting/gathering)
As he traces backwards on the food supply chain, it is surprising to discover how tremendous a role corn plays in our daily diet. Just about everything we eat from a traditional supermarket (grocery chain stores) is corn-based. Meat is largely derived from corn.  Even a serving of soda is mostly corn in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup aka HFCS.  Pollan meets with corn farmers to understand how the corn industry has an overpowering stronghold on the American food chain.  Unfortunately the benefit of this market dominance (monopoly, even) is limited to a couple of giant corporations who declined any access to Pollan in his research.  Corn farmers survive largely due to government subsidies and do not enjoy an enviable position.

For me, what was revealing is the manner in which most of the meat available is "manufactured". Cattle and Poultry are not intended by nature to be raised on corn. When cattle is raised on corn alone, their bodies cannot handle it and they get sick. This, in turn, leads to them being treated with antibiotics. To maximize the profitability of the product (beef), they are injected with hormones which will reduce the time to processing i.e. slaughtering. In the early to mid 20th century, the cattle was slaughtered at over 24 months. In the 60s and 70s, this age dropped down to around 18 months and nowadays cattle is considered ready for processing around 14-15 months. The amount of beef consumed in the US is staggering and it needs a lot of cattle to support this consumption.

Pollan purchased one head of steer to follow it through the commercial supply chain but once it reached the slaughter-house, he was denied access to the proceedings inside. It is commonly accepted that if the public knew how beef is packaged and stocked in the meat aisle then it would be difficult for one to eat that. And this is after the intervention by Temple Grandin who changed the beef industry procedures to more humane handling of cattle.

This is not limited to cattle but also extends to chickens and pigs that are commercially raised for consumption. Chickens perhaps have it worst because it is a true assembly line and most chickens end up in a package after spending their entire lives in a crammed cage. Pollan investigates the truth behind labels such as "cage-free", "organic", "free-range" etc. and makes some interesting discoveries. Like almost everything else, it is not quite what it seems. In CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), animals such as pigs and chickens have been observed to display suicidal tendencies.

But the book is not an assault on industrial food chain or even our conscience. There is this other channel of the food chain that departs from the “corn” path, if you will. Pollan tracks down the roots of organic foods available in select grocery chains (such as Whole Foods) and discovers that while these are organic and free of chemical fertilizers, there is a huge impact on the carbon imprint because of the shorter shelf life and market demands across thousands of miles. So he further refines his search to a local organic source and discovers a whole new segment: local organic but sustainable farms.

Pollan works for a week at one such farm (Polyface Farms) run by Joel Salatin in Virginia. The practices on this farm were a revelation to me. They raise cattle and poultry on the farm using environmentally sustainable techniques that allow them to maintain the soil nutrients without any artificial fertilizers or pesticides and still operate a profitable business. They use a rotation method for animals on the farm which serves almost as an ecological system. The cows feed on the grass in a section of the field for a few days and then are moved to another section. The chickens then feed in the cows' previous spot eating worms and droppings from the manure. They, in turn, fertilize the section with their manure and move on to the next section. The compost on the farm is aerated by the pigs on the farm which also graze in the pasture. The chickens are processed (slaughtered) on the farm in an open shed and packaged for sale. They would like to process their own beef but USDA will not permit them so it gets processed in a facility away from the farm. The farm sells only locally and will not ship its products because it is counter to their philosophy. What is comforting is that Polyface is not the only one of its kind. There is a plethora of such farms across the nation and we have access to these, if we so choose. (More information is available at about farms in the US.)

The final section of the book refers to Pollan's efforts to create a meal entirely out of ingredients either hunted or gathered by himself. While this is interesting, it is certainly not a practical alternative. But it makes for interesting reading and introduces us to some colorful characters that Pollan comes across.

What I particularly like about this book is that it is not judgmental about one's eating preferences and practices. This is not a plea to convert you to vegetarianism. It would be a separate debate if there would be enough (nutritious) food available for everyone if nobody ate meat. This is primarily an education regarding what goes on behind the scenes when you pick up a package of food from the grocery store to feed yourself and your loved ones. Once one understands the different channels and sources, one can choose as one wishes. I think that the key issue is that most people (like myself) just don't know much about the food sources and channels. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves to know a little bit more about what we put in our bodies.


  1. Oh why am I so behind on reading your excellent posts?
    Great review. I have two Pollan books in my "to read" list on Now that Ernesto is training to be a chef, we are more aware of food supply and sustainable practices. We love gardening!

  2. @chandlerguera: Sorry for the late reply but my latest post should serve as an explanation. :-)

    We have been using a farm in our region for about a year now. Not exclusively but mainly. It is a change in lifestyle which we are enjoying. There is a distinct difference in taste, that is for sure.