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Omnivore's Dilemma

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Of all the animals in the world, certainly we have the widest selection of possible foods; we can eat meat, vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy, and even industrial chemicals (apparently). And yet while a squirrel can look at an acorn and know instinctively that it is good to eat, we have to consider our food options. With so much variety, the only way we know what is good to eat and what isn't is through trial and error, cultural norms, and our sense of taste and smell.

This is the omnivore's dilemma, and it forms the basis for the book by Michael Pollan, which explores how we modern humans produce, acquire, and prepare our food.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is one of the defining works of the modern alternative food movement. Like Fast Food Nation before it, it brings to light the questionable operations that underlie various facets of the food system, but it isn't just another tell-all on industrial food. Pollan also looks into the organic movement, the local food movement, and the role of hunting and gathering. He draws connections between all the different systems and speculates on the significance of various methods for acquiring food.

As an editor of Farm to Table Online, I should have read this book years ago, but because it is so foundational to our modern understanding of food, most of the principles are well known by any moderately informed locavore. I know most of the issues related to food production in this country, and the local food community is informed by Pollan's book and others like it. It is part of the canon, as it were.

That said, I still feel like I learned a lot of new things by reading Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan tends to wax philosophical about the implications of various aspects of food, and while this habit seemed a little over the top at times, it did encourage me to see things in a new light. For example, instead of presenting us as the caretakers of corn the plant, Pollan makes a strong case for corn being the active agent in our current reliance on the crop. Giving up its ability to survive on its own, corn made itself so appealing to us that we would do all the work of reproducing it and eliminating its competitors. This view encourages you to rethink our relationships with all sorts of plants and animals. We have grown into many symbiotic relationships with all sorts of domesticated species, and it pays to remember that we as a species have evolved to rely on the existence of chickens, wheat, and cow's milk.

Examining Food Chains

Most of us distrust industrial food, but the trustworthiness of organic foods is much less well-defined in one way or the other. Despite the image being sold, Pollan unapologetically reveals the truth of organics (which is that they are grown in a system almost as industrial as conventional food, though with fewer pesticides and chemicals). And while he doesn't try to condemn anyone or any system, he juxtaposes industrial organic with the system it was originally supposed to be: a small, ecologically balanced, family farm. This comparison doesn't make industrial organic look all that great, except for that fact that it keeps large tracts of land from being sprayed with chemicals.

Unfortunately, this could make a lot of healthy eaters uncomfortable. We want to think that we are doing our part by buying organic versions of the foods we like to eat, but the dilemma is that we are still supporting an industrial system. Ultimately, Pollan's book suggests that ignorance will allow corporate food to take advantage of us. We can tell them what we want, and they will simply repackage their products to assuage our need to feel good about ourselves. To truly make progress, we need to know what we are eating, and the four food chains in Omnivore's Dilemma vary mainly in their length from production to consumption; the shorter the chain, the more sustainable, healthier, and tastier the food that came out of it.

In general, Omnivore's Dilemma avoids passing one-sided judgement on the meals Pollan traces from production to consumption. The book maintains that certain models are unsustainable, but



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