How “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” Made Me Reconsider The Way We Eat

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I recently finished reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, which was an enlightening book on the choices we face as a society that has just about anything we could want to eat at our fingertips. We have an abundance of food options; when we walk down the aisle of a supermarket, there is a seemingly endless stream of brands to choose from. I know whenever I go to the store and enter the cereal aisle, I always end up taking 5+ minutes just to decide on which one to purchase. Do I choose Barbara’s Puffins or Kashi’s Go Lean Crunch? Cheerios or Life?

Yet, when it comes down to it, most of these products that appear to be so diverse come from a single plant– either corn or soybeans. By investigating America’s various sources of food, like the big industrial farms, organic farms, and tiny local farms, Pollan uncovers what goes on behind the scenes of the American food chain that has caused this daily dilemma of what we should eat.

While the book discussed some aspects of the food industry that I already knew, like the (mis)treatment of animals in industrial farms, it also discussed topics I previously was unaware of– like the fact that there is an oversupply of corn, which drives prices down, resulting in corn being processed into almost everything we eat (including cow feed, who are herbivores by nature) in order to offset the surplus. I also never considered his hypothesis that the reason Americans tend to cling to diet fads so quickly is because, as a nation of immigrants, we don’t have a food culture of our own.

Being a vegan, I was naturally intrigued by his chapter on vegetarianism and veganism. He argues plant-based diets are a utopia; an unrealistic solution to the problem. The consumption of animals is part of the natural order, as it helps keep the ecosystem alive. The sun feeds plants, plants feed animals, and animals re-feed the earth through its waste, and on goes the cycle. However, this cycle is a utopia in itself. There are barely any farms that exist in America today that actually utilize this ecosystem. Most farms grow one or two crops, and if they do have animals, they are kept indoors, fed corn, and barely kept alive before being slaughtered in order to feed the American public. For the most part, this ‘natural cycle’ that Pollan speaks of doesn’t exist (or at least not in high enough volume that would make this argument justifiable). It would be impossible to keep up with the demands of society without mass-producing crops and meat through industrialization– thus, I find his argument moot.

Another part of the book I found troubling was while he argues that the current state of the food chain– which raises animals in confinement, feeds them food they can’t digest, and processes food so they are no longer recognizable– is harmful to our health, he doesn’t bring up any healthful solution that would decrease the disconnect we currently have with the food we eat.

What about vegetarianism? Is that not a solution? He argues vegetarians are simply choosing to look away from the issue. By choosing not to consume animal products, vegetarians don’t have to confront any part of the industrial food chain. However, I believe the opposite is true. I believe by actively choosing not to participate in it, vegetarians and vegans are facing the issue straight-on. Those, like Pollan, who know the reality of the situation, yet continue to consume meat, are the ones who are looking away. I am not saying one is right and one is wrong– I am simply saying that we all deal with the omnivore’s dilemma in a different way. Some may be OK with reality, and continue to eat meat, but some may feel more strongly about the issues surrounding our food industry and take action against it.

Although I disagreed with, or had trouble understanding, a few of his arguments, I did take away a few key lessons:

It is really important to eat locally if you want the most nutrients, the shortest food chain, and the least carbon footprint. Yes, you can get avocados or blueberries anytime of the year, but they are most likely coming from farms thousands of miles away, and the farmers who raised them are receiving just a fraction of the value of the product. It may be more expensive to shop at farmer’s markets than it is to order a Big Mac at McDonald’s, but the long-term health costs outweigh any short-term costs of eating locally and ethically. Those who choose to consume fast food will eventually face life-threatening diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure, just to name a few.

Pollan also made me reexamine the concept of food consumption on a personal level, like when I would be able to justifiably consume animal products. I think if I went to a farm that was transparent in its practices, killed the animal myself, took it home, cooked it, and was able to eat it, I would eat meat. One of the biggest things I’ve had an issue with is the disconnect between what we see when we walk in a grocery store (skinless, boneless, ready-to-eat meat) versus what it once was– a live, walking, clucking/mooing/oinking, animal. However, if I was able to close this gap between animal and meat entirely, and then still be able to eat it, then perhaps I would go back to my omnivorous ways.

Even if you are not particularly interested in food/nutrition, I think this book is worth a read if only to indulge in Pollan’s undeniable story-telling skills. Perhaps you’ll even be able to fill the void Pollan has left and devise a solution to the omnivore’s dilemma yourself.

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