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The Omnivore's Dilemma

Kip reviews the book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

For the past several months I have been writing reviews of gardening books. The Omnivore's Dilemma is, in a curious way, what might be called an anti-gardening book. We are reminded, in extraordinary detail, of how far removed we are from the root sources of the food we eat.

To one degree or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you. This is the omnivore's dilemma... .

The lack of a steadying culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer, for whom the omnivore's dilemma is not so much a dilemma as an opportunity. It is very much in the interest of the food industry to exacerbate our anxieties about what to eat, the better to assuage them with new products.

In the first section, Michael Pollan discusses agribusiness, the industrial side of growing food. The political dimension of this topic—arising principally from government farm policy—is frightening. And the fact that people in the U.S. now consume (in one form or another) more corn as a percentage of their diets than Mexicans do boggles the mind. One scientist the author interviewed, referring to carbon isotope ratios eating corn products influences, said, "(W)e North Americans look like corn chips with legs." Two examples of corn-based foods commonly consumed are soda pop (sweetened with corn syrup) and hamburgers (made from corn-fed beef).

The second section gives us a long look behind the organic food industry, and it's not a pretty sight:

I learned, for example, that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot," eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day.

I also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turns out to be more animal factory than farm. She lives in a shed with twenty thousand other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken.

The USDA is in part the villain here, but more tellingly, it is the business interests willing to compromise standards in order to stay in business, which have so watered down the term "organic" that it no longer tells the story consumers think they are hearing. There are still a lot of old-school small-scale organic farmers around, but they are finding it harder and harder to compete in the world of industrial organic agriculture, or "Big Organic." Some farmers feel that the time has come to go beyond "organic," to settle into a pastoral, grass-based agriculture. The results of their efforts, as described in the book, are truly impressive.

The third and final section covers the author's venture into the world of the hunter-gatherer, but I shall leave the details of this to your imagination (until you read the book, that is).

The Omnivore's Dilemma provides much more disillusionment and revelation, in every way, than that proverbial moment when one discovers that milk is not produced by milk bottles. If ignorance is your bliss, and you are certain that what you don't know can't hurt you, then you may not need to read this book.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007