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The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Everyone who eats should read this book!

What should we have for dinner? For omnivores like ourselves this question always causes difficulties – whether we are searching for our food in nature or in the grocery store, we have a wide range of options from which to choose the most nutritious and most delicious meal on offer. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist, professor and author Michael Pollan proves that this deceptively simple question requires some deep thinking and 415 pages worth of investigation. To solve the omnivore’s dilemma and better understand what we find in the supermarket, Pollan follows the food we eat from the seed to the dinner plate. The four major food chains he identifies are the industrial, the organic, the alternative and the hunter-gatherer one. All four of his attempts at answering the question of what to eat end in a meal.

Part I revolves all around corn – the most produced, and overproduced, crop in America. Pollan visits monoculture-mega farms and corn-eating cows in feedlots. Even with a basic knowledge of contemporary American agriculture, this chapter is shocking. I had heard before that corn is massively overproduced to the financial detriment of the farmers and at great environmental cost, however the complete extent of the absurdity of this industry hadn’t been clear to me until reading Pollan’s chapters on this golden crop. From Iowa corn farms, through food labs and feedlots, this first journey takes the author and his family to McDonald’s where the three of them manage to eat 4,510 calories for fourteen dollars.

The second part of the book explores two types of organic – the one with a capital O could be called industrial Organic and describes the food to be found in a Whole Foods, the second would not get the official “organic” label, so let’s use the term alternative. While Organic might often be the healthier option to conventional industrially grown food, considering that it has to be grown without the use of chemicals, according to Pollan’s account the label’s primary function seems to be the appeasement of the educated customer’s conscience. Organic hides the fact that the food has often travelled thousands of kilometres, exhausting fossil fuel reserves and polluting the air we breathe. The alternative approach to organic is perhaps the most fascinating part of this book – at least for someone who grew up in a city. Michael Pollan visits Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia. Salatin’s philosophy is all about the nature’s cycles. In the wild birds follow the larger animals, he observes, and implements the same rhythms on his farm. Sun, grass, cattle and chicken form a sustainable food chain. The animals roam freely, instead of being stuck in cages. Everything happens on the farm and, crucially, he only sells locally.

Finally, Pollan wants to explore hunting and gathering. With help from friends he learns to hunt and finally shoots a wild pig. In this part he becomes very philosophical. Or rather, hunting seems to be an almost spiritual experience to him. He discovers all the best spots for finding mushrooms and learns how to distinguish the healthy from the poisonous. Most of the vegetables that find their way into his meal have grown in Pollan’s own garden (which we can learn about in his book Second Nature) and preparing this final supper takes several days. The result, according to Pollan, is the perfect meal. Not necessarily because it is the most delicious food he has ever tasted, but because he eats with full awareness and appreciation. He knows exactly where everything on his plate comes from and the food chains are the shortest.

Despite the challenging subject matter, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is engaging, a mostly easy read. In his elegant style, Pollan manages to present the profound political, moral, economic, environmental and psychological implications of his findings without preaching or condemning. Even though hunting and gathering leads him to the perfect meal and despite being obviously enchanted with the ways Salatin runs his farm, Pollan acknowledges that it is impossible to feed all eight billion of us in these ways. What he does suggest is rediscovering a relationship to what and how we eat. To ask where our food comes from, to prepare and eat meals mindfully and gratefully. He seems to suggest that balance is key. Of course, industrially grown food is sometimes the only real option available to many of us. But perhaps we can make an effort every now and then to buy meat and vegetables locally, to spend a little more on a steak and to cook it lovingly, eating in good company rather than in the car or in front of the TV. I highly recommend this book to everyone – though I do have to say, I am glad I was a vegetarian already before reading this...

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