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Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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Editor’s note: In our “What We’re Reading” series, team members profile books, blogs, and other media that have contributed to our planning of the upcoming exhibition.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Thorndike Press, 2006

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist Michael Pollan examines the meaning of food in today’s society. He looks at three food sources: industrial, pastoral, and hunter/gatherer. The industrial section primarily examines corn and predicts disaster—he claims genetic monoculture is prone to mass disease and dependent on corn being used for much more than food (from Xanthun gum to corn-bred cows). The pastoral section dumps on the rise of mass scale organic farming and promotes grass farming—a form of sustainable agriculture where a farmer raises grass that feeds cows, chickens, and pigs whose manure feeds the grass. Joel Salatin, who owns Polyface Farms in Staunton, Virginia, is his poster child of success. The enthusiastic hunter/gather portion of the book will probably, how should I say, appeal more to NRA members than PETA followers.

Pollan’s immensely popular book has done much to promote the slow food movement and feed current day anti-commercial farming sentiment. As I develop the agriculture story in American Enterprise, this book will do much to help me understand the attitudes and expectations of a significant percentage of the general public. Whether the arguments of the book are correct is, in some respects, unimportant. Instead, understanding that Pollan’s perspective is a factor in the public debate is key.

While a great read, the book is not particularly rigorous and is hardly fair and balanced. Pollan tends to simplify and reduce the story to right or wrong. In reality the gray area is huge and frankly very interesting. Some of the most evangelical environmentalists that I have met are no-till farmers. They believe in the power of worms, fight to eliminate soil erosion, and are willing to trade maximizing productivity in order to follow their approach. The problem for people like Pollan is that no-till farming is dependent on herbicides–that’s how they control the weeds without plowing the fields.

Pollan’s rants on genetically modified crops are equally problematic. In fact farmers have been “messing with nature” for thousands of years with varying results. Cary Fowler, an environmental scientist, relates a surprising and complicated story about biodiversity in his book, Unnatural Selection. According to Fowler, industrialized nations sent out seed explorers in the 19th century for strategic economic reasons and, in the 20th century, agricultural businesses figured out how to make money off of hybrid plants. Henry Wallace’s Copper Cross corn was a revolutionary breakthrough but it was mechanically hybridized not genetically modified. Of course, everything new is not necessarily good. In The Last Harvest, the journalist Paul Raeburn explains the dangers of GMOs yet shows that when problems occur the world does not necessarily come to an end. For instance, he describes the case of Pioneer 3394, a fabulous corn seed that everybody started using in the early 1990s. Though popular, the seed had an Achilles heel; it was susceptible to Gray Leaf Spot. When the disease threatened the crop in 1995, farmers quickly changed to another seed. Of course, my favorite story about “messing with nature” is one that my brother, an entomologist, likes to tell. In the 1860s, a well-intentioned Leopold Trouvelot introduced gypsy moths into the United States in an effort to improve silk production. The bugs got away and Americans have been battling gypsy moths ever since.

Unfortunately, Pollan does not spend a great deal of time discussing these complicated issues in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Even so, the book has connected with the general public and has done much to shape popular concern about commercial farming.

What is your take on Michael Pollan’s depiction of commercial farming?

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    About the Author

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    Peter LiebholdPeter Liebhold is the Chair of the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Learn more about the exhibition team.View all posts by Peter Liebhold

    • Anonymous

      If you are looking to connect with farmer there are over 20 represented at http://www.farmerbloggers.com/blog

    • http://causematters.com Michele Payn-Knoper

      Pollan raises many interesting points about food, but I have to disagree with his portrayal of modern day agriculture. Farmers share the same values of caring for land and animals today as they did 50 years ago. They still live and work with their families on the land. Farms look different, just as medicine and technology have progressed. It’s called advancement, but many times it’s extraordinarily difficult for 1.5% of the population to communicate this to the 98.5% who are likely 2-3 generation removed from the farm.

      Rather than relying on opinion, I would urge you to connect with people who work in agriculture firsthand. One of the reason’s why Pollan’s words don’t resonate in the ag crowd is his portrayal of farmers being controlled. If you spend time with them, you’ll find a group of independent, stubborn and modest people who prefer to spend time caring for their land and animals. I know very few farmers who would stand for being controlled.

      If it’s helpful, a list of farm and ag blogs is at http://www.causematters.com/ag-resources/. I urge you to use this, contact me or other ag organizations to find farmers to have a conversation with about today’s food production. Thanks for noticing the book is hardly fair or balanced.

      • peter liebhold

        Michele
        Thanks for your willingness to help develop the American Enterprise exhibition. The Smithsonian curatorial team really wants to reach out and involve people from all perspectives.
        One of the most important ways to be involved is to help us locate important artifacts. Recently I was visiting with Jim Rapp in Illinois. Jim is a large corn grower and has some old sign in his machine building that he is willing to donate – “No-Till saves soil” and a Burma type set that promotes ethanol. On another trip I met with Twig Strickler, a poultry producer in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Twig has a great feed sack from the 1950s (the connection between animal and plant production is very important). I am also working with the United Soybean Board to develop a history of hybridization. What are the important seeds and does anybody have any old sacks or signs? In corn we certainly want Henry Wallace’s Copper Cross and Pioneer 3394. With soybeans the introduction of Roundup Ready is a really big turning point. What else should be on the wish list? Maybe people out there across the country can join in with offers of important artifacts for the national collection.

        Peter
        Peter Liebhold
        Chair, Division of Work and Industry
        National Museum of American History
        liebholdp@si.edu

    • Sarah

      Thanks for your post! My feeling is that Pollan, while a talented writer, greatly over-simplifies the process of how food is produced in order to more clearly label villains (“Big Ag”) and heroes (niche farms). I agree that the “gray” area in the discussion about best practices in agriculture is the most important. There are well-run farms and ranches of all sizes. I encourage everyone interested in food and farming to get in touch with farmers in their local community or online- there is a great group of farmers using social media to strike up conversations with food consumers all over the country.

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    • Anonymous

      I was really glad to see this post as well, and that Pollan’s work is factoring into the exhibition’s research.  Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of the most influential books I have ever read, and profoundly changed my eating habits.
       
      I can appreciate your critique, and that of other commentators, that his analysis could be read as overly simplistic.  But having just heard him speak in NYC a couple days ago, it’s certainly not because he’s unaware of the complexities, nor does he shun the grey areas.  He spoke convincingly about embracing the tensions of the “movement” (animal rights vs. sustainable farming, etc.), and how important debate is among various factions.  But to me, some of that discussion, while interesting, is somewhat beside the point.  His most important, fundamental argument (like those of Dan Barber, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver and others) IS simplistic - eat.real.food.  I think at the heart of this movement is the battle against the forces convincing alot of Americans to eat cheap processed food – whether through subsidy, advertising, policy, or lobbying.  I believe we perpetuate (tolerate?) an overall food system that is causing disastrous effects on our health and the environment.  I think the debates within this movement are important, so long as its main, if simplistic focus, is on the big-picture goal of helping more Americans to shun cheap artificial food.      
       

      • Peter Liebhold

        Thanks for the comment, you make some great points. Personally I try to stay
        away from a lot of processed food myself although I do like the
        occasional Snickers bar. Of course lots of people enjoy Cheez Whiz and
        the convenience of frozen dinners and that is their prerogative. I am
        pretty sure most Americans want to make their own decisions about what
        to eat even if we make bad choices for ourselves. People tend to rebel
        when government even suggests what might be healthy and what to avoid.
         
        That said being aware of the location of production and means of food is
        very important. One of the big trends in agriculture today is food
        safety and location has a bearing. Especially with produce, a tremendous
        amount of technology is being developed to trace exactly where food is
        grown and to test to make sure that it is safe. However I think Michael
        Pollan often goes a bit too far and rails about things like corn
        production beyond reason. He and his followers anguish over efficient
        high yield farming, GMO crops, etc. and that is the point at which I
        tend to separate.
         
        Your point about food cost is also really important. Most Americans spend a
        smaller percentage of their income on food than citizens of many other
        countries. The reasons are complicated including cultural differences as
        well as production costs. As an historian I am fascinated at the
        similarities by the trends and issues in manufacturing and agriculture.
        While I think individually tailored shirts would be great I am willing
        to buy ready to wear. Similarly the lettuce from the farmers market is
        really good but the convenience and price of the supermarket is
        attractive. I always worry about labor practices but the efficiency and
        cost savings of factory production is hard to beat. Likewise I am fine
        with high yield farming. Using sophisticated equipment and hybridized
        seed seems like a reasonable trade off for our sense of modernity (I do
        stay away from much processed food like chips but I certainly eat the
        cheaper chicken). One of the curious results of high yield production is
        that fewer acres need to be under plow and damaging runoff can be
        prevented. It is complicated and there are no simple answers.
         
        The non food use of agriculture is also interesting. Henry Ford had a
        vision of farming as a means of chemical independence. In the 1930s the
        movement was called chemurgy with crops like corn and soybeans at its
        heart. Despite what some critics say there is a lot to be said about
        turning the energy of the sun into products through photo synthesis
        rather than petroleum reliance. In the end we all gain when we think
        more about the hidden stories behind everyday actions like eating and
        driving our cars.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_3JJZOU3RTBTHRVSWFSQSDT5FEA Ellen Thompson

      I think that Pollan, even if he’s an talented writer, over-simplifies the
      process about the food is produced
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