The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by

Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
1. Wednesday Afternoon. Pollan is reminded that he came to Polyface in the first place because Joel refused to FedEx him a steak. This was a matter of principle—Joel doesn’t ship food long distances and he doesn’t sell to supermarkets, whether it’s Walmart or Whole Foods. All his food is sold and eaten within a few miles of the farm. Joel believes in “relationship marketing,” or developing connections with the local community members who buy his food. These people sometimes drive more than an hour on country roads to buy Polyface food. They tell Pollan that they buy directly from Joel because they trust his food production process more than they trust their local supermarkets.
Joel refuses Pollan’s seemingly reasonable request to ship him some food from Polyface Farm because he rejects the system of large-scale, long-haul production represented by the mailing of food across large distances. For Joel, shipping food breaks the continuity of an interconnected food chain, making it more difficult for people to know where their food comes from. Food from the supermarket, after all, could have come from anywhere.
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Pollan asks Joel how he responds to the charge that artisanal food like his is inherently elitist, because it’s significantly more expensive than supermarket food. Joel points out that his customers are all people of modest income who choose to buy locally. He also argues that his food is “honestly priced,” as opposed to the cheap food that passes on “hidden costs” to the environment and taxpayers. Pollan reflects that, among industrialized nations, Americans spend an unusually low portion of their disposable income on food. People are used to their food being cheap, which gives them more money to spend on other commodities like, say, cell phones. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way.
After his conversations with Joel, Pollan begins to think that perhaps the problem is the expectations of American consumers, who now expect food to be cheap, convenient, and efficient. Joel rejects that expectation, pointing out that there are other values to which people might adhere when buying their food. His food is less easy and efficient to buy, but when people purchase his food, they know that are buying into an “honest” food chain that is transparent about its origins.
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Pollan thinks that it’s odd that something as fundamental to people’s health as food is sold completely on the basis of price, as opposed to other information about its production. Instead of transparency, consumers get bar codes that obscure the origins of their food. He thinks that the industrial food industry relies on this ignorance, whereas what Joel offers is a direct relationship between consumer, farmer, and product. At the same time, however, there are some flaws in Joel’s pastoral vision. For example, it would be difficult to maintain a similarly unmediated relationship in an urban area like New York City. When Pollan raises this issue with him, Joel expresses skepticism that there should be cities at all—showing the depth of the cultural gap between him and Pollan.
Pollan is persuaded by Joel’s arguments that people should look to values other than mere cheapness when choosing how and where to buy their food. However, he also notices that Joel is inflexible and uncompromising on how he thinks food should be produced and sold. A sustainable food chain like his might be practical in rural Virginia, where people can come to buy his food directly, but makes less sense in New York City. In order to feed larger amounts of people, Joel would no doubt have to make more compromises.
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Related Quotes
 Pollan meets Bev Eggleston, a farmer who is trying to open an ethical meat processing meat factory but has been shut down by USDA regulations. In the meantime, he works as a food seller, driving grass-fed beef and other food products from farmers like Joel all over the region. Bev sells to farmer’s markets and “metropolitan buyer’s clubs,” groups of city dwellers who band together to buy products from local farms. Joel explains that, thanks to internet, it’s never been easier for people to “opt out” of the industrial system by connecting to other like-minded food consumers.
Bev and Joel have built a successful business by selling food to people who have “opted out” of a system that seems increasingly unsustainable and unethical to them. But while this is all well and good, Pollan thinks that this is not necessarily a solution that will work for everyone—not all city dwellers are going to be so uncompromising about where they get their food.
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Pollan reflects on the difference between artisanal and industrial food systems. An industrial system is based on maximizing profits and efficiency, which it does by substituting human labor with fossil fuel energy and new technologies. By contrast, artisanal food systems are not designed to be efficient; they’re designed to produce a unique, desirable product. Joel and Bev have come to believe that artisanal and industrial can’t be mixed, since their aims are fundamentally opposed. This is why Joel’s “relationship marketing” strategy has succeeded, while Bev’s attempt to conform to industrial regulations has failed.
Joel and Bev’s position implies that, with artisanal food, the point is the uniqueness and appeal of the product rather than its cheapness. This represents a very different system of valuation than the modern industrial food system’s preoccupation with efficiency and convenience. People shouldn’t buy food because it’s cheap, Joel and Bev argue; they should buy it because it’s nutritious and ethically-produced.
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2. Tuesday Morning. In the morning, Pollan goes on a ride with Art Salatin, Joel’s brother. Art is responsible for managing the sale and delivery of Polyface products to fine dining restaurants in the Charlottesville area. Many of the region’s top chefs buy Joel’s produce, both to support a local farm and for the superior taste of his meat, eggs, and vegetables. Art explains that one problem with selling Polyface produce is that people now expect food to be available all year long, even out of season. A globalized industrial food system has made people out of touch with seasonal food patterns. These chefs do their part of help educate people, serving food when it is in season and labeling their dishes “Polyface Farm Chicken.”
For Joel, part of the revolutionary appeal of local, sustainable food is a rejection of efficiency and convenience as a central measure of value. Instead, he recognizes that often food is not convenient—it isn’t always possible to acquire certain foods when they aren’t in season, for instance. In this sense, Joel helps educate people that fresh, seasonal food is more valuable when it comes from a local source rather than a location that requires flying it halfway around the world.
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For Pollan, this alliance between chefs, farmers, and consumers to help each other “opt out” of the industrial food system is a political act. He thinks that food is a natural site for this rebellion against globalization, since it stands for the values of protecting local cultures, identities, and landscapes. When industrial agriculture fails, people often find ways to get around the system and produce food on their own. George Naylor, for instance, compared today’s farmer’s markets to the hidden plots of local farmers who worked around the restrictions of collectivist agriculture in the last days of the Soviet empire. In this sense, “local” food might offer a more sustainable long-term solution than “organic” food.
Joel never makes the argument that local food is more efficient. Rather, he makes the far more radical assertion that it is “efficiency” itself that needs to be rejected as an operating principle of the food system, if the world is to build a genuinely sustainable agriculture. For him, growing food and raising animals is slow, hard work. It is only by respecting the labor of local farms and communities that people can escape a globalized food system that prioritizes profits over all else.
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Pollan notices that a bumper sticker popular in the area reads “eat your view!”—meaning that people should eat locally in order to support farmers and preserve the landscape (or “view”) around them. Admittedly eating local presents many challenges, like eschewing fast, easy food and sourcing produce when it’s in season. But the mission of the local food movement is to remind people of their connection to farmers, suggesting that local, fresh, seasonal food is not only more ethical but simply tastier than its fast food alternative. In this way, “doing the right thing is the most pleasurable thing.”
One of the central goals of the “eat local” or “eat your view” movement is to remind people of their connection to farmers and the local ecosystems around them. In a global food system that often obscures those connections and makes farmers invisible, eating local provides a helpful reminder of the interconnectedness of American consumers to the farmers who grow their food.
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Pollan asks Joel how he thinks the local food movement can triumph over the industrial forces amassed against it, since it remains a fringe presence in the American food system. Joel says that he doesn’t think local food needs to win; it just needs to allow American consumers the freedom to make a more informed choice about where and how they buy their food. The important thing is that the county has a diversified selection of food production chains that aren’t solely reliant on any particular commodity (which, like oil, might disappear one day). In this way, Pollan thinks Joel is “more of a Luther than the Lenin,” someone who wants to change the system gradually rather than destroy the opposing forces.
Joel recognizes that there is no way to transform the industrial food system overnight. Instead, in keeping with his independent-minded principles, he wants to give people the chance to make an informed choice about how and where they buy their food. There can be a compromise between different food systems and values, as long as no one industrial system dominates and destroys all other competition and ways of thinking about food.
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