Omnivore’s Dilemma: Full Synopsis and Review

Synopsis

The modern supermarket offers such a maze of maize. All cleverly disguised behind ‘All natural’ and lines upon lines of literature composed to draw the attention of consumers. But, to many, the supermarket offers “outstanding biodiversity”. Hundreds of species gathered together in a beautiful union to create a bounty no biome could even hope to produce. Unlimited choices are quite the dilemma. But upon closer inspection these choices dwindle, because between the “canyons of breakfast cereals and condiments” and unfortunately the meat, the ingredients start to look the same. This vast array of sections: beef, pork, chicken, fish, the entirety of all processed foods the boxes that so cleverly market these items, the pesticides used to protect them, the “linoleum an fiberglass” providing their home and of course the fuel used to transports these goods thousands of miles to you, can all be factored down into one common denominator, corn. To those appalled, here is the shocking answer to the one central question. Why?

During the settlement of America, corn offered such a versatile product while also providing tremendous efficiency of food production. It was capable of adaption to a myriad of climates and conditions, offered “high genetic variability” and could be stored indefinitely. Among the indigenous populations and then later settlers, its applications included providing a ready to eat food, acting as a source of flour, and even alcohol. The other plant matter could be repurposed into “rugs and twine”, “silage for livestock”, as a heat source and – to much discomfort – toilet paper. This versatility propelled corn into the center of developing America which ensured the plants survival.

Pollan’s journey tracing the flow of corn begins in Iowa. On a small farm owned by George Naylor, in Greene County, he begins this voyage by sitting in a roaring tractor helping Naylor plant, in less than a day, what would eventually equate to, 1.8 million pounds of corn. It is no surprise that the ‘rural’ state of Iowa is more developed than many cities with only “two percent of the state’s land” remaining as it originally was, grass prairies. All of this was made possible by post WWII industries as factories switched from bomb production to fertilizer. The excess of ammonium nitrate was cleverly converted into “an excellent source of nitrogen for plants”. With the help of the Department of Agriculture, the idea of using as fertilizer took root. What had once been an industry of chemical agents and explosives, now was shifted into an industry of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As Vandan Shyva so accurately states, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War Two.”

With this change, an industry that was almost exclusively ‘solar powered’ now relied so heavily on fossil fuel for all aspects of production that “every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between one quarter to one third of a gallon of oil to grow it”. Simplified: 50 gallons per acre of corn. Even further discouraging “more than a calorie of fossil fuel energy” was required “to produce 1 calorie of food”. Before chemical fertilizers farms, like Naylor’s, managed to produce caloric energy at a rate of 2:1, that is food produced to – alternative – energy sources invested. Why chose to go to a less energy efficient system? Ultimately, it is cheaper in dollars to produce corn with synthetic fertilizer. Traditional methods were slower and provided less yield; lower energy input yielded less profit.

Due to the desire for higher yields which ultimately equates to more profit, farmers use “yield insurance”, in the form of laying, in Naylor’s case, 80 percent more fertilizer than required. That excess evaporates into the air where it “acidifies rain” and contributes to climate change. Some finds it way into the water table where it converts into nitrite, which “compromises the bloods ability to carry oxygen to the brain, when consumed. The rest runs off through drainage ditches, the into rivers which flow into the Gulf of Mexico. This stimulates “the wild growth of algae”, and as a result smothers the fish. This is cause of the hypoxic or dead zone that is now the size of the state of New Jersey. These practices can be traced back to the end of the New Deal Era.  With the fall of Russia in 1972, Earl Butz, Nixon’s second secretary of agriculture, helped arrange a sale of 30 million pounds of American grain. The goal was to boost crop prices, and it did, A combination of rapid demand aired with poor growing conditions that year “drove grain prices to historic heights”. Butz was then in charge of fixing this issue. It began with pushing farms to increase yield; he called upon farmers to recognize themselves as agribusinessmen. This was all because he believed that larger farms were more productive. Simultaneously, through passing the 1973 Farm Bill, he dismantled the New Deal programs such as the price supports.  Rather than supporting farmers through “loans and government grain purchases” he moved to a “system of direct payments to farmers”. This shift in farm policy dropped the, previously steady, market price of corn. Farmers could now sell corn at any price and the government would make up some of the difference. During all this, to “make American grain more competitive in world markets” nearly every farm bill lowered the target price of corn It was only several years later that ADM and Cargill – “the largest privately-owned company in the world” – began to shape these policies further. This shift of direct support to farmers through government programs to indirect support through subsidies marked, what Naylor calls, “the plague of cheap corn”.

In late 2005, Iowa State University estimates it costs a farmer $2.50 to grow a bushel of corn, while market prices were sitting around $1.45 a bushel. Yes, you read that right. Farmers now, unlike previously, have on option when the market prices fall: produce and sell even more corn. ‘Cheap’ corn has many hidden reasons why it is priced so low. On top of bankrupting farmers, continuously dropping the market price – creating an unsustainable down-spiraling market – it also costs the Federal Treasury $5 billion a year in corn subsidies. This “plague” has seemed inevitable. Return to 1856, the Chicago Board of trade created a new grading system for corn. Number 2 corn, not the corn that many are accustomed to enjoying, was guaranteed as being “as good as any other number 2 corn”. Instead of farmers striving to produce the best product they could, they began to recognize the only critical criteria: yield. Now, when Naylor brings his crop of number 2 corn to sell, it is quickly weighed and graded. Shortly after he is written a check, by in his case, the Iowa Farmers’ Cooperative. Surprisingly this only accounts for a fraction of his income, Pollan notes that over half of “the income of the average Iowa corn farmer ” is from government subsidies. A bill that represents nearly a quarter of the “$19 billion that U.S. taxpayers spend each year on payments to farms”. One primary reason, since 1970, the supply of corn has increased from 4 billion bushels produced annually to, now, 10 billion. And where does all this corn go? Pollan responds bluntly “What’s involved in absorbing all this excess biomass goes a long way toward explaining several seemingly unconnected phenomena, from the rise of factory farms and the industrialization of our food, to the epidemic of obesity and prevalence of food poisoning in America.” Pollan’s intent by joining Naylor on his farm was to track the flow of, specifically his corn through industrial food system. But shortly after he soon realized that this task was nearly impossible.

Pollan now transitions to Poky Feeders, a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO in Kansas. His goal is to observe how his cattle, now named steer #534 participates in the industrial food system. As the name implies, CAFOs seek to do one thing: feed its occupants, in this case cows, quickly to produce meat. These operations have created a world where anyone can consume these products as frequently as desired. It has managed to do this with many techniques, but most crucial to the operation is the ability to convert corn, among other supplements, into raw protein. But before understanding the functionality of a CAFO, it is imperative to understand that cows aren’t naturally consumers of corn. Pollan notes, “The coevolutionary relationship between cows and grass is one of nature’s unappreciated wonders; it also happens to be the key to understanding just about everything about modern meat.” In a natural cycle the cow and grass form a symbiotic relationship. As the cow grazes it “expands [grass’] habitats” by preventing the growth of other flora that would steal resources, specifically sunlight. In return the grass provides the cow with a “high-quality protein”, possible because of the rumen. This organ houses a plethora of bacteria that enable the cow to break down grass. Pollan tactfully asks “Why isn’t it that steer # 534 hasn’t tasted a blade of grass?” And then answers, “speed”. One indication of this trend Pollan remarks is how cows have gone from a slaughter age of four to five years, to three to four, in the fifties, and now in 14 to 16 months. And aptly jests, “Fast food, indeed”. In just that short period of time, modern practices can turn an 80-pound calf into an 1100 pound mass of beef. This is all possible because of corn. Incentives for heavily marbled meat, set forth by standards of the USDA, and the nature of corn’s calorically dense composition have created a fantastic outlet for the 10 billion bushel “mountain of corn”.

It is important to note that using all this cheap corn comes at a cost, especially since producers aren’t incurring it. One common ailment that afflicts cows – and other ruminants – is bloat. It is caused by an increase in gas production from the fermenting grain. Additionally, this high corn diet can cause acidosis. A cow’s rumen is normally neutral, but its high corn consumption causes it to acidify, this causes the cow, what human’s recognize as, heartburn. If left untreated this causes the cow to “scratch their bellies” and “eat dirt” which can worsen into “diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, ruminitis, liver disease and general weakening of the immunes system.” This can leave the animal susceptible to a myriad of feedlot diseases. The prevention of these symptoms is combated through Rumensin and Tylosin. The former helps “buffer acidity” and the latter “lowers the incidence of liver infection”. This practice has now been widely accepted as the direct “evolution of new antibiotic-resistant superbugs”. These practices ultimately leads to a terribly inefficient product that requires eight pounds of food to produce one pound of “gain”, which includes “muscle, fat and bone”. They also have aided in the proliferation of E. coli, something unseen before 1980, now occupying the gut of 40 percent of feedlot cattle.

As for the other two kernels, from five, that don’t make it to factory farms, they end up finding their way into our food system. Consumers are responsible for “consuming a ton of the stuff every year” through indirect consumption all made possible by processed foods. This consumption has created quite the epidemic. With three in every five adults, one in five obese and a rise of type two diabetes, the American health care system incurs annual costs of $90 billion. “Since 1977 an American’s average intake of calories is 10 percent higher.” Some of this caloric intake is due to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but that isn’t the sole contributor. Since 1985 consumption of HFCS has increased from 45 to 65 pounds. Simultaneously the average American’s sugar consumption has risen five pounds. This is partially a result of the price of sugar consistently falling in the over the same period.

Pollan concludes his journey of following corn through the industrial food system at the most appropriate venue: McDonalds. During which, he examined a chicken nugget to discover thirteen of its more than 30 ingredients, were “derived from corn”. He then provides a detailed breakdown of his family’s meal. Some of these include a milkshake and salad dressing, composed of 78% and 65% corn, respectively.

Pollan presses on with his quest of the omnivores dilemma, now back in the supermarket. His arrival has been sparked by his curiosity in the industrial organic system, an $11 billion industry and “the fastest growing sector of the food economy”. Now researching an entirely different food system, Pollan finds himself surrounded by “wordy labels point of purchase brochures and certification schemes”, housed in Whole Foods. Perusing the isles, he selects an organic chicken, an assortment of vegetables and greens, and several other items. Just like the corn, and his steer #534, he traces these items, among others, back to their roots.

He begins with Rosie, the organic chicken, who was marketed as “sustainably farmed” and “free range chicken”. Pollan’s account of the farm is that “the chicken houses don’t resemble a farm so much as military barracks.” To further understand this step in the process he wanted to see what goes into a “sustainably farmed” chicken. Admittance into one of these chicken houses required, what Pollan describes as a, “hooded white hazmat suit” to be worn. The birds aren’t allowed any antibiotics to remain organic. Paired with their proximity to each other they are extremely susceptible to disease. Upon entrance he notes “20 thousand birds move away as one” and “the air was warm and humid and smelled powerfully of ammonia.” At the end of this football field stretch of chickens is a small door leading outside. “Access to the outdoors” is what allows Rosie to be considered free range. But while the birds are given this choice, they seldom exercise it. Standard procedure at Petaluma Poultry is to keep this door shut for the first five weeks of the birds’ life. By the end they are so “settled in their habits” that it makes no sense to them to leave the warmth, protect and food provided by their home.

Pollan treks on to visit Greenways Organic. He notes how, between the conventional farm – located adjacently – and the organic farm that “the fields were virtually indistinguishable”. Industrial organic must combat the same issues as conventional farms but with much greater limitations. Rather than petro-fertilizers, Greenways sources local horse manure as their input for nitrogen. To combat weeds most organic farms practice a series of tilling cycles. A combination of irrigation and tractor tilling helps manage the weeds. Once the crops are to large to allow tractors to continue, farm hands go around with butane torches and blaze all unwanted new growth. This “heavy tillage – heavier than in a conventional field – destroys the tilth of the soil and reduces biological activity as surely as chemicals would.” Pollan deems this “a compromise at best”. Pollan continues to challenge the organic industry as he investigates Earthbound Farm. As he follows the processing of the largest producer of organic greens, he explains that “sorting, mixing washing, drying and packaging” continuously occur at 36 degrees. An estimate from a Cornell scientist determines that it takes 57 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of food. Companies like Earthbound do try to consume less energy and offset their fossil fuel consumption by planting trees. Through their farming practices they have reduced their fossil fuel reliance by four percent compared to the conventional farm.

Pollan concludes his journey through the industrial organic food system with a meal crafted from only ingredients that were produced from that same system; Rosie the chicken, Earthbound Farm salad greens and several other items. While the meal is fantastic, the questions that Pollan asks are even more so: Is organic food better, but specifically “Better for what?”

Pollan then transitions to Polyface Farm, a place he regards as standing “so far away from industrialized agriculture” as possible, “without leaving the planet”. The farm is owned and operated by Joel Salatin. Salatin regards himself as a grass farmer even though Polyface produces “25,000 pounds of beef, 50,000 pounds of pork, 12,000 broilers, 800 turkeys, 500 rabbits and 30,000 dozen eggs”, annually on only one hundred acres of pasture. Salatin’s operates his farm by allowing his cows to graze freely during the warmer months. As they finish their meal from the pasture they are herded and relocated to another area to prevent overgrazing. As the cow sheers the leaves of the grass the plant desires to maintain balance. Its roots die back providing the soil with direct nutrition and indirect fertility by providing other microorganisms with food. By moving his cattle on a precise schedule, Salatin can eliminate the problem of overgrazing which, if left unchecked, can transform a lush grassland into a desert. Several days after the cows have vacated, Polyface’s “sanitation crew”, Salatin’s hens, are given access to the pasture. They pick the fly larvae out of the cow manure helping to manage diseases and pests and also spread the manure around. This exchange gives the chickens free protein that is wasted in conventional systems. This combination of diet and grasses drastically increases the quality of their eggs. Use of these practices eliminate the need for “antibiotics, wormers, pesticides and fertilizers”. Pollan later gather ingredients from the farm and creates a meal entirely out of – mostly – local products.

Pollan finishes this saga by striving to create, what he calls, the perfect meal. Now moving to the least connected portion of the food industry he heads to the forest. He begins by spending several days in the woods where he spent time tracking and hunting wild California boar. His guide, Angelo, an old world Italian, helps him along by training him what to look for as well as the techniques of hunting. Pollan create a surreal narrative of this experience and touches about the ethics of eating meat. He last spends time with Angelo, as well as a cast of other characters, hunting for chanterelles and morels across many forests of California. His adventures all take him to some unsavory conditions where he braves treacherous waters in the quest for abalone and salt. His meal combines all these ingredients, as well as some others foraged from his neighborhood and from the freezers of his friends and acquaintances.

Pollan spends his final chapters planning and creating his perfect meal, which he describes in great detail. His meal is taken from the land with one of the smallest carbon footprints he could manage. And while he spent a large majority of his time in the forest, he also spends nearly as much time pondering some of the larger issues that ultimately culminate in identifying the omnivores dilemma.

Review

Pollan has masterfully created a piece for the ages. Carefully constructed through not just his own experiences but also the flora and fauna shared with him. With blinding, and possibly revolting, comprehension, he eviscerates the industrial food system. Carefully tackling issues and making sacrifices that will leave readers incredulous and inquisitive about the very food system they knowingly or unknowingly participate in. From CAFOs to corn fields he endeavors to call to attention some of the leading cause of health issues plaguing America, increasing devastation to the planet for the short term gain of profits as well as the clever marketing ploys that hide what’s truly in your favorite breakfast cereal or organic TV dinner. With absolutely no reservations, Pollan thoroughly investigates the industrial organic industry. At every turn, providing facts and information that allow the reader to make criticisms and ask questions about an industry regarded as healthy and sustainable. Pollan has done his research getting down and dirty with manure-caked boots, hazmat suits, and crushing physical labor to demonstrate not just an interest in his subjects but also the passion and dedication for creating a truly, authentic narrative. Emotionally aware and chillingly honest, he composes astounding vignettes, laced with shocking facts, blunt criticisms, creative insight and devastating conclusions about himself and his experiences.

To the chef, the consumer, the eater, or the young adult just beginning a journey in this world, one that is so unavoidably connected with food: I highly recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with paramount praise and extreme admiration.

Final remarks

Pollan has changed how I think and operate as a chef and made my question myself as an individual. For that, I would like to extend my undying gratitude. My only regret in reading Omnivore’s Dillema, is that I haven’t done it sooner.

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