When I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma for the first time two summers ago, I was taken aback by a relatively innocent passage in his section on the Supermarket Pastoral food chain:
Taken as a whole, the story on offer in Whole Foods is a pastoral narrative in which farm animals live much as they did in the books we read as children, and our fruits and vegetables grow on well-composted soils on small farms much like Joel Salatin’s. “Organic” on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I’ve come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we may know better than to believe this too simple story, but not much better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief. (137)
I had certainly never looked at organic food this way. I grew up eating organic food, my parents having discovered organics several years before the US Department of Agriculture began its certification program. When I asked what this word “organic” meant, my mother told me very simply that it meant the food was grown without pesticides. Over the years, I had to tweak that definition for such considerations as chemical fertilizer, but that was pretty much what I thought of when I saw foods labeled organic. I saw no “rich narrative,” no “well-composted soils on small farms,” and no heroes or villains. Nor did I see any reason to be surprised (as Pollan was) by a microwaveable organic TV dinner. That’s not to say that I was born with a detailed understanding of the workings of organic farming. I knew next to nothing about farming, but I never saw any reason to fill in the blanks with these kinds of stories.
I suspect that Pollan is right that Whole Foods would like us to think of these stories. Regardless, I’d venture to guess that he and I experience shopping at Whole Foods about as differently as two people might experience the same grocery store, given his fascination with stories and my own devout literalism.
Having been through The Omnivore’s Dilemma two more times since my initial reading, I’ve come to believe that Pollan’s passion for stories explains a lot about the book. For one thing, it does much to explain the book’s popular success. Not only does Pollan like stories, but he’s good at telling them. In naming The Omnivore’s Dilemma one of the ten best books of 2006, the New York Times called Pollan “the perfect tour guide,” praising his writing as “incisive and alive.” Even B.R. Myers of The Atlantic, in a review that condemned the work as “a record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms,” conceded that “Pollan writes of the role of corn in American life in such an improbably thrilling manner that I have to recommend the book.”
At the same time, his fixation with stories helps to explain why the book troubles me in some ways. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, stories aren’t just a way to communicate facts while keeping the reader engaged. One might even say that the facts are secondary to the stories. Rather than base stories on the facts, Pollan chooses stories to fit an overarching reactionary thesis: The best way to eat is following nature and tradition, and our attempts at progress only make things worse. The facts, then, are worked into his narratives, but sometimes they don’t really fit.
Science is one victim of Pollan’s reactionary thesis. Nutritional science receives part of the blame for America’s health problems. “We place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success” (303), he writes. Yet much of his evidence that “we place our faith in science” lies in our susceptibility to weight-loss diets and food fads that aren’t supported by scientific consensus. Moreover, he seems oblivious to the successes of nutritional science in curing nutrient deficiencies, some of which existed in traditional diets. (To be fair, I do recall Pollan devoting an entire sentence to this point in In Defense of Food.)
Science also receives unfair treatment in the agricultural context. Pollan attempts to summarize parts of Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament, which he calls the organic movement’s bible. Yet he makes Howard’s work out to be some sort of anti-science treatise, when it just isn’t. Pollan concludes from Howard’s treatment of humus, “To reduce such a vast biological complexity to [nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium] represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst” (147). While Howard offers plenty of criticism of modern agricultural science in particular, he does not criticize the scientific method more broadly. Indeed, he even calls aspects of conventional agriculture unscientific, proposes a few scientific experiments, and expresses his hope that science be among the tools of the agricultural investigators of the future. Howard’s work isn’t an argument against science. It’s an argument for better science.
Pollan’s chapters on the fast food chain are probably his strongest, but even there he occasionally oversteps. For example, he suggests that E. coli O157:H7 live only on feedlot cattle, when the scientific literature indicates that this deadly strain of bacteria is about as prevalent in grass-fed cattle. Later, he goes on to include one of the active ingredients in baking powder on a list of “quasiedible substances ” (113), apparently because of its chemical name. In both of these instances, he criticizes something new — feedlots in the first and baking powder in the second — with the effect of making something traditional seem more appealing.
The primary beneficiary of the reactionary narrative is the pastoral food chain, as represented by Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. Even as Salatin describes his farm is a “postindustrial enterprise” (191), he explains that in some sense his farming methods aren’t really new at all; they imitate the ecological relationships that exist in nature. To Pollan the farm is “a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty” (124). Its product, he says, “looks an awful lot like the proverbially unattainable free lunch” (127).
Pollan credits Salatin’s farming methods with revitalizing Polyface’s soil without chemical fertilizers. In particular, he writes,
The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season. (210)
It’s hard to tell whether he grasps the fact that the nitrogen in the chickens’ feces comes from the food they eat, eighty percent of which is grain-based feed from off the farm. What is certain, though, is that he doesn’t raise the question of what is happening to the land where that feed is grown. We would expect from the earlier chapters that the corn and soy in the feed was grown on a farm that was less classic, less pastoral, and less beautiful than Polyface, so it’s striking that Pollan should choose not to look further. He also doesn’t bother to discuss the question of whether that feed grain might be more efficiently used to feed people directly. Either of these questions would be raised in a more fact-driven work, but there’s simply no room for them in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as the answers might not fit the thesis. (Of course, when Pollan later mentions “a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris” (361), he’s talking about the vegetarians.)
As for the chickens, Pollan buys into Salatin’s argument that they are a purely artisanal product. He doesn’t mention that they are the same Cornish Cross hens that in the context of his Whole Foods meal represented “the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding,” and which “grow so rapidly…that their poor legs cannot keep pace” (171).
Pollan also points out that Salatin’s pastures remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There’s no mention, however, of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from Salatin’s hugely inefficient distribution system, which involves large numbers of cars traveling long distances to the farm. (This omission comes even after he’s told us about the fossil fuels used to transport his industrial organic fruits and vegetables from distant farms.) When Pollan tells us that one customer drives 150 miles each way to the farm, it’s merely to be taken as proof of the quality of Polyface meats. There’s no mention of any environmental impact.
Where Pollan’s dedication to his reactionary thesis is perhaps most obvious is in his discussion of vegetarianism. For although there are prominent conservative vegetarians (Matthew Scully among them), vegetarianism today is rooted in a progressive idea. It requires us to accept that we can do something, namely eat, better than our ancestors did it. Indeed, Pollan writes,
Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream. I’m not completely sure why this should be happening now, given that humans have been eating animals for tens of thousands of years without too much ethical heartburn. (305)
Vegetarianism is something new, and his preferred hypothesis for its recent success is the weakening of our traditions:
But it could also be that the cultural norms and rituals that used to allow people to eat meat without agonizing about it have broken down for other reasons. Perhaps as the sway of tradition in our eating decisions weakens, habits we once took for granted are thrown up in the air, where they’re more easily buffeted by the force of a strong idea or the breeze of fashion. (306)
Being something new and representing a challenge to age-old traditions, vegetarianism simply doesn’t fit with Pollan’s reactionary message. In the reactionary view, it doesn’t make much more sense than high-fructose corn syrup or factory farms. As such, it doesn’t receive serious consideration.
Even before his section on the ethics of eating animals, there are signs that he won’t take his debate seriously. He tells us, for example, that his friends’ son is “fifteen and currently a vegetarian” (271), as though vegetarianism is merely a teenage phase. He also makes no secret of the fact that he’s already made the decision to go hunting even before tackling the ethical issues associated with eating animals.
Pollan gives up meat for a while, inspired by an argument of Peter Singer: “No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering” (312). Yet he identifies himself as “a reluctant and, I fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian” (313), so it’s not at all clear that the experiment does anything to lessen his bias.
As a vegetarian, Pollan struggles with the social ramifications of eating differently. He points out that “my new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship” (313) and decides, “I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners” (313). Yet he’ll find himself able to justify only a very limited kind of meat-eating, which likewise represents a “personal dietary prohibition.” He then proceeds to discuss his alienation from traditions like the Passover brisket, apparently not allowing for the possibility that traditions might evolve over time. This rigid view of tradition is an odd one considering his plans to hunt an unkosher pig.
Pollan then moves on to a discussion of animal rights philosophy. He claims to be debating Peter Singer, but he’ll quote Matthew Scully when it better suits his point, never acknowledging any significant difference between the writers. Other times, he’ll just quote Singer out of context.
Pollan eventually argues for meat-eating on the grounds that it serves the interests of domesticated species, which would cease to exist if people didn’t eat them. He doesn’t do much in the way of building up the argument, only hinting at how the interest of a species might be defined and not even beginning to explain why such an interest is more important than the individuals.
Instead of building that argument, Pollan relays a story intended to show that animal activists are out of touch with nature. As Pollan tells it, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service need to kill feral pigs to save Santa Cruz Island’s endangered fox, and the animal rights and welfare people oppose the plan out of a single-minded concern for animal welfare. However, the very same Humane Society op-ed that Pollan cites to prove this point actually includes a substantive discussion of the project’s ecological goals. Moreover, Pollan does not address any of the more scholarly objections to the project, such as Jo-Ann Shelton’s argument that the restoration of Santa Cruz Island is motivated by human interest.
Pollan then launches into a section called “The Vegan Utopia,” where he points out practical difficulties of a vegan world. First, he reminds us that harvesting grains kills animals. It’s a true statement that people who care about animals should keep in mind, but Pollan goes on to suggest that we would minimize animal deaths by basing our diets on large ruminants. That claim is an apparent reference to a study that was quickly debunked. He then argues that a vegan world would force places like New England to import all of their food from distant places. It’s a dubious claim in view of existing production of soy, wheat, and vegetables in New England. He even goes so far as to suggest that the vegan food chain would be more dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers than our current food system. Thanks to the inefficiency of feeding grain to animals, that claim is almost certainly false.
As Myers has pointed out, Pollan does not mention a single thing he ate in his time as a vegetarian. Over the course of the book, Pollan describes at least ten meat-based meals, four of those in exquisite detail, so it’s telling that he doesn’t consider vegetarian cuisine to be worth writing about.
Pollan goes hunting, shoots his sow, and even enjoys the experience. Yet when he finds himself disgusted by the sights and smells of cleaning the pig, Pollan can’t help but take one more jab at vegetarians. He expresses pity for the “tofu eater” for his “dreams of innocence” (361), seemingly rejecting the idea that we should even try to do better.
In spite of all these points of contention, I should acknowledge that Pollan gets plenty right in the book. There’s a lot that’s wrong with modern industrial food production. Making bad changes to our food supply has had profound negative consequences for the environment, public health, and animal welfare. On these topics, Pollan can remain faithful to his reactionary thesis while still representing the facts reasonably well. And so a reader learns about things like the psychology of supersizing, the environmental toll of growing corn to feed ruminants, and the miserable life of a battery-caged layer hen.
I suspect that many people find the information about industrial animal agriculture more powerful because they come from an author who so roundly rejects vegetarianism. After relaying the horrors of forced-molting and cannibalism in battery cages, Pollan writes,
I know, simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry trade magazines, makes me sound like one of the animal people, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to (remember, I got into this vegetarian deal assuming I could go on eating eggs), but this is what can happen to you when…you look. (318)
It’s much harder for a reader to dismiss a message as the sentimental ramblings of one of the “animal people” when it’s coming from somebody who enjoys beating up on vegetarians.
In this way, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a book that bring awareness about important issues to a wide audience. The fact of it being such an enjoyable read further expands that audience. However, it should be at most a starting point for those learning about where their food comes from because the underlying reactionary premise sometimes leads Pollan astray. We live in a world that is increasingly unnatural and unlike the one that shaped our cultural traditions. Our population is growing, our planet is warming, and our values and lifestyles have evolved. It doesn’t make sense for our food chain to remain in the past. As innovations like battery cages and high-fructose corn syrup show, not all ideas are good ones, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to make progress. The future will present us with new challenges, and we’d do well to keep an open mind to new solutions.