The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Taste

Omnivore’s Dilemma

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is the kind of book that gets passed around; I heard about it from my mother, a coworker and the guy who sells cheese at the farmer’s market before I picked it up. After reading it, I’m convinced that it’s no longer possible to have a serious discussion about food in the US without mentioning this book.

We live in a country with massive class inequalities-in our health care, our modes of transportation, our housing, our education and the food we eat. The size and terrain of the United States makes it possible for fresh, high-quality foods to be easily shipped around the country, and immigration from around the world gives us access to an amazing variety of cuisines. The US is a fantastic place to eat a meal-if you’ve got the cash. For working-class people, though, there’s another American cuisine-one that comes from a box and is loaded with synthetic chemical additives and high fructose corn syrup. The US also has a massive processed-food industry that stresses profit margin, branding and shelf life over factors like taste and nutrition. And while rich neighborhoods have the upscale gourmet nutrition of Whole Foods, rural and inner-city neighborhoods have been largely abandoned by even basic grocery store chains, leaving poor people to search for nutrition in small stores that sell boxes and cans, not fresh produce. Diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity rates are rising rapidly among the poorest segments of the population-and the food industry’s response has been to add vitamins to Diet Coke.

Yet there is some healthy, affordable and delicious food still available, both in cities and in rural areas, thanks to a growing segment of small farmers who are becoming disillusioned with the food industry and are struggling to stay afloat by finding a niche. So how do we get the food to the people? And, even more to the point, what should we eat?

“What should we eat?” is the question Michael Pollan proposes to answer in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He reviews the sorry state of nutrition in the US, as well as the history of legislation and government programs designed to improve nutrition, often based on the input of the major food processors, and diagnoses the US with what he calls “a national eating disorder.” He looks at the ways in which capitalism has rendered unrecognizable what were for thousand of years the normal ecological patterns of human eating:

…We’ve acquired the ability to substantially modify the food chains we depend on, by means of such revolutionary technologies as cooking with fire, hunting with tools, farming, and food preservation… Agriculture allowed us to vastly multiply the populations of a few favored food species, and therefore in turn our own. And, most recently, industry has allowed us to reinvent the human food chain, from the synthetic fertility of the soil to the microwaveable can of soup designed to fit into a car’s cup holder. The implications of this last revolution, for our health and the health of the natural world, we are still struggling to grasp.

Pollan’s aim is to begin to grasp what food means in an advanced capitalist society. When we are so very distant from the origins of our food, how can we even know what is good for us? In most parts of the country, particularly in urban areas, we no longer are in touch with what grows locally-tomatoes are always in season somewhere in the world, and we have become used to tomatoes as a commodity that is available on demand, whether it means they are grown in a greenhouse or shipped in from Chile. And we eat tasteless, white tomatoes that bear little resemblance to the juicy red gems that could easily grow from the soil in our neighborhoods. So rather than having a diet that is directed by local culture and based on the availability of local ingredients, we are faced with the overabundance that is characteristic of capitalism-megastores filled with more food choices than have ever been available to human beings in the history of our species, some nutritious and some that are quite dangerous for us.

Our senses developed to help us make decisions about food: our noses evolved to help us weed out spoiled foods; our eyes pick up on what’s ripe and appealing; our taste buds tell us when something’s not supposed to be eaten. But the skills that millions of years of evolution have given us don’t give us all of the information we need to make decisions in supermarkets filled with the bounty of industrial production. The dangers we face are different:

By replacing solar energy with fossil fuel, by raising millions of food animals in close confinement, by feeding those animals foods they never evolved to eat, and by feeding ourselves foods far more novel than we even realize, we are taking risks with our health and the health of the natural world that are unprecedented. (10)

So how do we make those decisions?

Pollan’s method mirrors the way most of us make decisions about our meals. He makes four meals, each representing one of four unequal options in food production: mainstream industrial agriculture, large-scale organic production, small-scale local farming, and hunting and gathering. After visiting farms, factories or forests, as well as the stores through which each kind of food is distributed, he serves his family a meal from each kind of food and analyzes its taste, nutritional value, ethical content, potential health effects, environmental impact, and accessibility.

In part I, “Corn”, Pollan uses a meal from McDonald’s-eaten in the family car-as the springboard for an investigation into the industrial production of a fast food meal. He covers some of the same territory as Eric Schlosser’s excellent Fast Food Nation, but takes a very different tack; this investigation is really about the political economics of corn. What do burgers, fries and Coke have to do with corn? Everything, as Pollan discovers-thanks to the use of corn-based ingredients, a lab analysis shows that a McDonald’s cheeseburger is 52% corn; chicken nuggets are 56% corn, a milkshake is 78% corn, and a Coke, impressively, is 100% corn (117). (With such outlandish overexposure to one specific food item, is it any wonder that corn allergies are on the rise?) Even the cows eat corn almost exclusively, although their bodies are not built to do so-it’s cheaper and more profitable to feed corn and antibiotics to sick cows than to raise them on nutritious grass.

In fact, corn has gone from a dietary staple of the Americas to a massively overproduced commodity. Pollan traces corn from its evolutionary rise as a foodstuff to the farm legislation of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the modern food industry’s quest to keep corn prices high by utilizing as much of the grain glut as possible in every mass-produced food item possible. As Pollan explains it:

If where you stand is in agribusiness, processing cheap corn into forty-five different McDonald’s items is an impressive accomplishment. It represents a solution to the agricultural contradictions of capitalism, the challenge of increasing food industry profits faster than America can increase its population. Supersized portions of cheap corn-fixed carbon solve the problem of the fixed stomach: we may not be expanding the number of eaters in America, but we’ve figured out how to expand each of their appetites, which is almost as good… If where you stand is on one of the lower rungs of America’s economic ladder, our cornified food chain offers real advantages: not cheap food exactly (for the consumer ultimately pays the added cost of processing), but cheap calories in a variety of attractive forms. In the long run, however, the eater pays a high price for these cheap calories: obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease. (117)

He then goes on to explain the impact that this has on the vast majority of people on the bottom rungs of the world’s economic ladder. He visits a corn farm, a grain elevator and a food science laboratory, and follows a specific steer through its (entirely unsettling) lifetime from ranch to feedlot to slaughterhouse.

Part Two, “Grass,” investigates two alternatives methods of food production: “Big Organic,” the growing mainstream organic foods industry of which Whole Foods is the most prominent public face, and a small, family-run “grass farm” in Virginia. One of the joys of the book is watching Pollan rip apart the ‘friendly capitalist’ image of Whole Foods, whose food sourcing and labor practices are much less friendly and green than the rolling hills and farmlands pictured on the labels of so many of its products.

The “grass farm” Pollan visits is the most inspiring part of the book. Run by a fiercely individualistic farmer named Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm is a vision of what healthy, locally based agriculture can be. Pollan stays on the farm for two weeks and traces the complex food chains that are preserved and nurtured at Polyface. It’s called a grass farm because, just as the hamburgers at McDonald’s trace their existence back to industrial corn, the livestock and poultry at Polyface can be traced back to the lush pastures of grass in which Salatin’s animals graze. His ingenious system allows the farm’s animals’ natural processes to renew the soil and grass, as farmers have been doing for thousands of years. Salatin also explains the ecological benefits of giving over part of his farmland to forest, and his deep understanding of the workings of the ecosystem in which he farms gives the reader an idea of what it might take to bring about a truly sustainable system of food production.

The final section, “The Forest,” traces Pollan’s attempts to produce an entirely non-commercial meal-he goes mushroom hunting at secret locations around Northern California, hunts for wild boar, and even bakes bread with yeast he cultivates in his neighborhood. The point is to try, in the face of an economic system set up to disguise the true costs of food production, to shoulder all of the hidden costs that go into the creation of a meal-the labor, the environmental costs, the sweat and even the emotional cost of killing an animal. He finds it more challenging than he’d anticipated, and concludes, as one might expect, that while the experiment is enlightening, there is simply no way, in a developed economy, for any one person to realistically try to produce his or her food on an individual basis. We are in this together, he concludes, and we have to try to figure out what to eat and how to produce it without incurring costs we can’t pay, or passing the real costs on to farmers, workers and the world’s poor.

What are Pollan’s conclusions? He finds that organic food, while not the cure-all it purports to be, is indeed better for you and better tasting; industrially produced food is frightening and disgusting in the way it treats animals, the way it overloads our diets with superdoses of specific foods, its environmental impact and its health effects; local, fresh, sustainably farmed food is the best thing out there; and hunting and gathering your own food is a rewarding thing to do, but not sustainable as a solution for any but a tiny minority of people.

As Pollan himself is the first to admit, he is a food writer, not a political writer, and is generally not given to polemics. He does not attempt to come up with a political solution to the problem of industrial food production- but he does acknowledge that such a solution is necessary, and leaves the door open to more political writers to attempt it. In writing the book, however, Pollan seems to swing to the left on the issue of food politics. It was probably impossible to avoid-after all, food is an unavoidably politicized arena, and one central to the survival of every human society. You can learn a great deal about the politics of any culture, time or place by asking how it produces its food-and in the case of modern capitalism, the answers are disturbing.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a popular book, I think, not only because it’s a well-written, engaging look at a universally popular topic. It also poses some very important questions about what we’re eating and why. As food allergies, heart disease, diabetes and cancer rates soar, and as we see more and more scandals arise around issues of food safety and sanitation, people are becoming more aware of what the industrial food chain means for their health and their lives, and they’re beginning to seek alternatives. Even bland corporate outfits like the Food Network have helped to raise popular awareness about the quality of food and alternatives to boxed ‘fake-food’ products.

So what is the solution? More to the point, is there a solution under capitalism? Certainly, there are steps we can take as individuals and as communities toward eating better-we can help to organize farmer’s markets in urban areas, we can shop for local foods whenever possible, and we can educate ourselves about nutrition. But the steps we can take as consumers are aimed at circumventing Big Food, not changing it. In order to change the nature of food production, it’s necessary to completely rethink the entire system-and that would mean organizing the sustenance of human beings around the nutritional needs of people and the health of the planet, not around profit. That’s not going to happen under a capitalist system that is completely organized around maximizing profit at all costs.

It’s difficult for us even to picture what a healthy, sustainable global food market might look like-but I think it would have to decentralize food production, placing an emphasis on local production and local cuisines, and on using the land in less harmful ways, like Joel Saladin’s grass farm. I think that it would have to involve ordinary people’s labor and their guidance. I think it would also have to be organized around the elimination of hunger. It would have to use agricultural techniques that nourish the land rather than exacerbating the tendency toward desertification of arable land that already begun by global warming. And I hope that it would involve educating the palates of a new generation whose children will be able to taste the difference between real, healthy food and dangerous synthetic concoctions.

As a piece of culinary writing, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, a work in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher and other giants of the food world. I couldn’t agree more-but it also deserves to be acclaimed as a work of political economy.

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12 Responses to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Taste”

  1. Renegade Eye Says:

    Very interesting post.

    I used to work in R&D at a major food company. The product were designed by a teams of food scientists, engineers and technologists, and grandma’s name plastered on it.

    You would fit in very well with my comrades. we are revolutionary socialists with highly developed palates.

  2. Naveen Says:

    Sarah great post! I need to read this book, but seems like the solutions proposed are still left within a liberal realm of consumer advocacy. This discussion should also incorporate an analysis of distribution of unhealthy diet in public schools, which provide the only meal of the day for some children in the U.S. I’d like you to expand on these themes sometimes about how we go about fighting for better food. John Bellamy Foster’s excellent book on “Marx’s Ecology” also tackles the production of food issues.

    BTW, I tried the chipolte-lime grilled chicken. The chicken ones came out good, but I substituted tofu for my vegan partner and it came out in broken pieces and was soggy… :(… but I can may be perfect it with more experimentation.

  3. healthycookie Says:

    Great post about a book that I believe should be required reading for anyone who intends on eating in their lifetime (yes- that means everyone). We have become so expectant in our lives. We want everything exactly when we want it. I have written about how scary supermarkets are, how we really have no idea what we’re eating or what the food habits of our generation are doing over the long term. But you and I already knew, at least instinctively, about a lot of what Pollen wrote. How do we get people to put down their synthetic vitamin infused Diet Coke, slow down at the drive through window and care enough about themselves, their families and their environment to read this book. At the very least- the first part of it.

  4. mbjesq Says:

    An excellent, thoughtful post about an excellent, thoughtful book.


  5. therealpotato Says:

    Renegade Eye– I have GOT to hang out with you and your comrades one of these days.

    Naveen– Thanks! That’s an interesting idea. I’ve just finished an article about Rachel Carson for the (next, I hope) ISR and am trying to figure out what to write about next– will definitely think about this. Glad the chicken worked out for you! I know shamefully little about cooking tofu, but I bet if you chopped it into pieces and stir-fried it in the chipotle lime sauce, it’d be tasty.

    Healthy Cookie– thank you! I’m enjoying your website (especially the paper on Crohn’s and nutritional health). I think the key is to be as loud about this stuff as we can and keep putting these ideas out there, because people are already open to it. Inflammatory bowel diseases are on the rise, along with cancer, diabetes… Americans are having a HUGE health crisis, and more and more people are hearing ‘keep eating like this and you’ll die’. They’re looking for alternatives to the scary stuff we’re sold, and I think anyone who can provide either good food or good ideas about food stands to get a hearing right now.

    mjbesq– thank you very much! Your blog is quite interesting.

  6. Amit Says:

    Hi Sarah,
    I read this book a few months ago and enjoyed it a lot. My favorite part was also the time he spent on Polyface farm and the way he explained the cyclic nature of animals depending on one another and how the grass and sun play a role.

    Another excellent companion piece to this book is “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter” by Peter Singer & James Mason. It comes from the vegetarian/ vegan/ animal rights perspective (not sure how palatable it will be to you) but that’s not the only perspective, and actually explores some of the popular ideas like “eat/grow/buy locally” and comes up with unexpected results in some cases. I have also reviewed it on my blog.

    I think another issue is that to cook fresh food and enjoy it requires time, and the kind of society we live in, time spent on cooking food somehow ends up as a low priority for most people. Also when people start making connections between personal health and wholesome food, and if we can step down from the treadmill of the american dream for a while, maybe it’ll happen. 🙂

  7. therealpotato Says:

    Thanks, Amit! I’ve seen and heard some interesting things about Singer’s book, both pro and con, and usually once three people tell me to read something I figure it’s time to read it. 🙂 Will check out your review first, though!

    You’re certainly right about the question of time, and that’s something I want to address in a full post at some point. There’s no question that fast food is as popular as it is in this country because people work crazy hours at multiple jobs for very low pay, just to get by. I used to eat Burger King every day back when I was in high school and working, and even just two years ago, before I went gluten free, I was eating takeout almost every day. It really takes a lifestyle change to start making fresh food.

  8. zazou Says:

    Read this book a while back and LOVED it. You should read his others, like Cod: a History of the World and Salt. This person is an amazing writer.

  9. Five-Dollar Foie Gras « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] of commercial meat production, as is just about anyone who’s read Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (not to mention The Jungle).  I’m deeply suspicious of animal rights groups: I’ve […]

  10. Rethinking Meat? Why We Need A Movement « The Real Potato. Says:

    […] much of it in Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971; recent bestsellers like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma have similar analyses. But only very recently have such ideas left the pages of vegetarian […]

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