Notes from reading: The Omnivore’s dilemma by Michael Pollan

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Just finished Michael Pollan’s omnibus masterclass on our food, where it comes from, and where it can come from, and maybe, where it should better come from, if you will. This book is at once a most readable tome on history, social science, agriculture, and ethics of food production and provided a ten-thousand foot view on the landscape.

The book has a central thesis on food production that humans, like the rest of the animals compete for energy that comes to earth in the form of sunlight and plants transform the solar radiation energy to consumable food energy. How humans in many different ways have transformed that production of energy for their own consumptions and its consequences have important fallout for our planetary survival. But humans are also omnivorous, and this presents a tension in the humans (and indeed like many other species, notably rats) as to what to eat — what would be safer, and eating “what” would add to evolutionary advantage that the species will be sustainable and carry over to generations hereforth.

This last question still dogs us to this day and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” as a book offers some interesting perspectives that Pollan discussed and explored in course of his four meals. The first meal was eaten from a box of Macdonald’s taken out from a drive-in takeaway counter in America for his family, where he ate a burger and his son ate chicken nuggets and his wife ate salad and something else. Here, in this section, Pollan made elaborate descriptions about how corn eventually, in his thesis came to colonize America rather than what might seem the otehr way round and how for industrial agriculture, “corn” was a “staple”, pun notwithstanding. This was a scary section to read really, given the pervasiveness of industrial production of food that is all around us. If you read this book, read it before you visit next time a large grocery store. I certainly have become a skeptic. Do not miss this section.

His next meal was from an “industrial organic” context, and again you start reading the skepticism about whether large scale adoption of organic food is all that different from the industrial agriculture based food products we get in supermarkets in terms of their taste (he suspects that they taste perhaps any worse, except for say meat that are packed and transported efficiently anyway maintaining the “cold chain”), but its worth, Pollan argues, lies elsewhere. It is in the Ethics and environmental footprints that are decidedly small for organic food products, no matter now industrialised that may be. A particularly good point I thought here was his portrayal of how organic food are packaged and sold on the fancier sections of your supermarkets where you find them. Rather than the emphasis on ingredients and composition (that you’d still find on mechanised and industrial food as it were), you will find labels on these food products more evocative in terms of the “goodness”.

His third meal was from a small farm that insisted on selling food locally. This section, I found was very well written, and I for one, was inspired to go local; why, even grow my own food as much I would do, and share my produce locally with others. It was a fascinating read. This section reminded me of the excellent columns and works we get to see here right in Medium in the pages of Invironment ( See Invironment); I thought of the writings by Gutbloom and the practice my farmer friend here in our local Glenroy practices. Rotational grazing, the benefit of using pastures, grass and sunlight, and keeping it small — the science of the right herd size. This is a fascinating reading in that section of the book. Definitely do not miss it.

A pasture in Canterbury, New Zealand (source: )

The final meal that he described was one from a hunting-gathering experience he described. This was a dense section that mingled a number of different themes here together including what I felt a long philosophical treatise on the ethics of eating. Here he also introduced the concept of slow food movement, and the need for going local. The section of vegetarianism was good, but I thought beside the point and rambling. His acocunt of his own hunting expedition was terrific, and the details of his preparation of the meal. One would come away with the impression that living the hunter-gatherer way where you leave least footprint on nature, and you fish if you have to eat fish, or collect and grow your own mushrooms, would be a slow but deliberate way of living. Perhaps impractical given the way we live now, but decidedly better than tucking into that bag of McDonalds more than once a week.

An aspect of this book and Pollan’s narrative I did not like is his very narrow focus on White Eurocentric view of American life. Admittedly that this book was written for an American audience in mind, but even in America there is a “melange” of people of other ethnicity, whose dietary practices have much to admire and do not necessarily follow either an entirely fast food based life, or entirely organic, new agey nerdy food style, or going local, or foraging in the forests. Yet they manage to eat a balanced healthy meal and stay healthy in the madness of it all. Why were these other ethnic groups absent from his narrative? Is it due to his snobbery? It cannot be due to his ignorance, for this book is far too pedantic and information/opinion-rich with evidence to command your respect.

All in all, a great book; definitely read it if you care what you eat (and even if you do not care — then perhaps more reason to read it). I did not like the fact that book was quite long and in places it would test my patience. The sections on corn and mono-agriculture was long, somewhat rambling.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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