The Omnivore's Dilemma is this: what to eat and what not to eat. Sounds easy, but as Michael Pollan shows this dilemma is at the heart of what both divides and joins people at the most visceral level. The dilemma is sharp because the question of what to eat and what not to eat is moral as well as nutritional. It is practical as well as esthetic. It is a question that engages all people in all cultures. It pits traditional values against modernity. There is the family that eats together a meal prepared by a family member or members, and the meal that is eaten on the run prepared by agribusiness and heated in a microwave. There is fast food and the Slow Food movement. There is the question of whether to eat meat or not, and if not, whether to be a vegetarian or a vegan or something in-between. And if we do eat meat, should a distinction be made between free range flesh and the factory kind? Should the suffering of animals spoil our appetite? We are omnivores, but in a world of so many of us, can we really continue to eat so high on the hog?
Pollan addresses these questions and many others in a courageous and uncompromising way that should gain the respect of all readers, whether they agree with his conclusions or not.
The book is in three parts, with four characteristic meals.
Pollan begins with "Industrial Corn" (Part I) and a fast food meal from McDonald's in the car. This part of the book, which could be an entire book itself--and a very good one--tells the story of corn and how it has come to dominate the American food industry. Eating at McDonald's is appropriate since their menu is dominated by products made from corn including the beef in the burgers which comes from cows fattened on corn, the corn sugar in the sodas and shakes, and the corn oil in the sauces. Eating while driving at 65 MPH is also apt since the car is running partially on ethanol made from corn.
Part II, "Pastoral Grass" is about range cattle and how ruminants turn the grass that we cannot digest into flesh that we can. It is also about the wholesale slaughter of animals in deplorable and disgusting conditions, and how these practices have redirected many people to food from sustainable and humane farming practices. Pollan gets his hands dirty and bloodied as he spends a week on a farm in Virginia harvesting and slaughtering chickens and learning how "grass farmers" work. There are two meals in this part of the book, one an organic industrial meal (from Whole Foods) and the other a grass-fed meal from Joel Salatin's Virginia farm.
In Part III Pollan shots a pig, forages for mushrooms and cooks a meal for ten from (mostly) products that he himself gathered, hunted or grew in his garden. He calls it his "perfect meal." He takes a turn at being a vegetarian and faces head-on the ethical dilemma of eating animals. He makes three strong arguments that allow him to go on eating meat. First, there is the argument of the flexitarian, that eating food is a social and cultural event that is shared with family and friends and serves as a basis for bridging cultural divides. Pollan writes, "What troubles me most about my vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this might sound, from a whole dimension of human experience." He adds, "I'm inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners." (pp. 313-314)
Next there is the argument from evolutionary biology. "To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue...[the relationship between domestic animals and humans; it is] to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species." Pollan explains, "Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans somehow imposed on animals some ten thousand years ago. Rather, domestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own." A chicken raised on a farm where it is allowed to roam free and then come to a quick and humane end is probably better off than a chicken living in a jungle or forest where its life may be shorter and more difficult.
Finally, Pollan argues that while it is the individual in human society that is the basis of moral consideration, in nature it is the species itself. He asks, "Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we've decided it should be in human society? We simply may require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world...(where sentience counts for little)...." (p. 325)
Pollan also confronts the food industry head on. He writes that the industrial factory farm is a place "where the subtleties of moral philosophy and animal cognition mean less than nothing, indeed where everything we've learned about animals at least since Darwin has been simply...put aside. To visit a modern Confined Animal Feeding Operation...is to enter a world...[where animals] are treated as machines--"production units"--incapable of feeling pain." (p. 317)
On next page he adds, "The industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint whatsoever."
What Pollan confronts in this fully lived, deeply researched, and beautifully written tour de force is what is perhaps the deepest existential contradiction of life, namely that in order to live we must eat the bodies of other living things. Only fruits and nectars are given freely to us, and man cannot live on fruits and nectars alone.