Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The omnivore’s dilemma is that…for those who can eat just about anything, the problem lies in selecting what to eat, especially since some of it can sicken or even kill you.

– Paul Rozin in The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals.

If there’s a pattern to bookclub books that I like, it’s that they are all non-fiction. Either I just don’t like the prose of most of the acclaimed authors that we choose…or perhaps I find it more interesting to read about the real world rather than a fictional one that someone wanted to construct.

Getting back on track, The Omnivore’s Dilemma deals with the question: what should we eat for dinner? Deceptively simple perhaps, but this modern age where the food industry of the West keeps bombarding our heads and stomachs with diets and fads and the latest research, do we really know where our food is coming from? To find out, Michael Pollan follows four different food chains – industrial food, industrial organic, local, and the food we obtain ourselves – from their sources through to the meal that ends up on our tables, presenting an account of the modern dining experience that may well change the way you eat.

This is my first book by this author, and I may well go back for more, about this topic or others. Michael Pollan writes with a freshness that any good non-fiction writer should have, and succeeds in presenting his findings in a way that should not alienate most readers. To put it another way, there is little jargon that would be unknown to all but a few readers, and a good dose of creative humour. Take this little passage on one of Joel Salatin’s cows on grass:

…she doesn’t just see the color green; she doesn’t even see grass. She sees, out of the corner of her eye, this nice tuft of white clover, the emerald-green one over there with the heart-shaped leaves, or, up ahead, that grassy spray of bluish fescue tightly cinched at ground level. These two entities are as different in her mind as vanilla ice cream is from cauliflower, two dishes you would never conflate just because they both happen to be white. The cow opens her meaty wet lips, curls her sandpaper tongue around the bunched clover like a fat rope, and with the pleasing sound of tearing foliage, rips the mouthful of tender leaves from its crown. She’ll get to the fescue eventually, and the orchard grass, and even to quite a few of the weeds, but not before she’s eaten all the clover ice cream she can find.

This creativity made for a very enjoyable read, particularly because I am quite removed from the society who’s eating habits he is exploring.

Pollan’s account is a distinctly American one. Hailing from Australia (originally), I can be confident at least that my family’s beef comes not from corn, but rather from the grasses of our huge arid continent. Sadly, Japanese beef is a little bit difficult to come by – step into a supermarket here, and you’ll find beef from America, Australia and New Zealand, but seldom wagyuu, which is far too expensive for the average Japanese family to have on a regular basis. Furthermore, fresh vegetables are readily available to me here, and Australia has way too many Asian families to ignore the market for spinach, pak choy, and other quick perishable greens. Even the hunting and foraging is based on American experiences. Rather than feral pig, I’d be after kangaroo or fish…and I’m sure the list goes on.

However, some of the issues he identifies are most definitely global. Modern methods of freezing and transportation have made it possible for us to eat what we could not in the past, and the cost of this are higher than we often realise. Japanese people now eat beef that can only be heavily subsidised, because there is no way a steak all the way from Australia should cost me just three bucks (or thereabouts) at the supermarket. And whilst we may not ever be able to confirm this, these subsidies are probably payed for through our combined taxes. It’s pretty ironic that, whilst Americans seem to be vehemently against an obvious attempt at regulating healthcare, they are happily ignorant of the way the government controls what they eat.

Well, ignorance, as they say, is bliss. One of the first things I did after reading this book was to try to change my own shopping habits, from buying whatever was cheapest (industrial) to choosing food that has traveled the shortest distance to my table (local). But this isn’t quite as easy as it seems. I’ve already noted my issues with beef above (though I’ve finally managed to buy some produced within the country!) but even in a prefecture that eats a lot of pork, most of our bacon seems to hail from Denmark! In our modern capitalist economy, the vast majority of consumers are conditioned to choose the cheaper option, and government subsidies to farmers will continue this detrimental spiral. Nevertheless, the first step towards change is knowledge, and the Omnivore’s Dilemma certainly brings some of these issues into light.

However, despite what some such groups and individuals seem to think, the Omnivore’s Dilemma does not present just one point of view, such as that of the moralist or of the economist. Instead, Pollan considers several opposing views and presents where his investigation into the origins of his food has led him. The implication is that we should follow his example and make our own decisions…though I personally don’t want to get any closer to hunting than fishing.

Nevertheless, they make some valid points. It is pointless to criticise the producers, who are confined to producing what the market and government want. The change cannot come from the farmers, nor can we expect the government to correct what benefits them. The change must come from us, and I will always credit Michael Pollan for bringing these issues before people like me.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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