The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by

Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
1. Cattle Metropolis. Pollan visits Poky Feeders, a cattle feedlot in Garden City, Kansas. He is interested in this particular feedlot for two reasons. For one, western Kansas is where the first feedlots in the United States were built in the 1950s. Also, Pollan plans to trace the fate of a particular steer here at Poky Feeders—one that he purchased in South Dakota the previous fall. He wants to understand how the meat industry transforms the country’s surplus of corn into cattle feed, and subsequently into meat.
The food chain that leads from the cornfield to the supermarket can seem impossibly complex. To help him see the connections between different nodes of the food chain, Pollan chooses to narrow his scope by focusing on a single animal: a steer that will be fattened and slaughtered for beef.
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Poky Feeders is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The lives of cattle kept in these “densely populated new animal cities” bear little resemblance to their lives on the small family farms of the past. The cattle here subsist chiefly on corn—which is ironic, Pollan points out, since cows have evolved to subsist on grass. The only reason why cattle at CAFOs eat corn is because it’s cheap and abundant, although it causes significant damage to their health.
In evolutionary terms, it makes little sense to feed corn to feedlot animals, since cattle have evolved to eat corn rather than grass. In terms of efficiency and utility, however, it makes a great deal of sense, since corn is cheap, abundant, and contains a great deal of protein that will help fatten an animal more quickly.
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When animals lived on small farms, the “very idea of waste cease[d] to exist,” since there was a closed ecological loop: animals ate the waste products of the crops, and the waste products of the animals could in turn be fed back to the crops. A cattle feedlot, by contrast, must use artificial fertilizers to induce fertility. This produces significant amounts of animal waste, which leads to water pollution and other ecological ills.
The efficiency of the animal feedlot produces inefficiencies of its own. For example, corn-fed animals in factories have a waste problem, since their manure has nowhere to go. By contrast, free-ranging farm animals use their manure to fertilize the pasture and make the soil more productive.
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2. Pastoral: Vale, South Dakota. The first stage in the production of a hamburger is the birth of a calf, which usually takes place on an independently owned ranch somewhere in the western United States. Although there are only four major meatpacking companies that slaughter and market the beef, these companies choose to leave the initial raising of cattle to the ranchers, since it’s a financially high-risk operation. In South Dakota, Pollan visits Blair Ranch, which is owned by Ed and Rich Blair. At Blair Ranch in 2001, steer number 534 was born. This calf spent the first six months of his life with his mother, 9534, feeding on mostly native grasses.
In some ways, not much about the lives of modern American beef cattle is “natural.” As Pollan shows, they spend much of their lives in crowded factories, eating a diet they have not evolved to eat. However, most cattle still begin their lives on more traditional ranches, where they’re fed on grasses. Even the industrial food system, then, involves a compromise between nature and human intervention.
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Pollan points out that a cow’s reliance on grass makes superb evolutionary sense. Cows fertilize the land with their manure, and their unique digestive system allows them to convert grass into high-quality protein. This is a “sustainable, solar-powered food chain” that transforms sunlight into protein. Why, then, are feedlot cattle not fed on grass? The answer, in short, is that it takes too long for a grass-fed steer to reach slaughter weight. Rich Blair points out that in his grandfather’s time, a steer might live four or five years before it was slaughtered. Now, the average feedlot steer is slaughtered at around fourteen months. The steer can only reach slaughter weight—1,100 pounds—at that age with a large quantity of corn, protein supplements, and drugs.
The industrial food system has taken a cow’s natural life cycle and made it as efficient and productive as possible. With a diet of corn and supplements, a steer will be ready to slaughter at an earlier age than it would be otherwise. However, as Pollan shows, the grass-based food system actually has significant advantages over a corn-based food system, especially in terms of long-term efficiency. For example, feeding cattle on grass creates no waste (unlike corn) and converts energy directly from the sun into protein.
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When Pollan made the acquaintance of steer number 534, the calf had just recently been weaned from his mother. At this point in their lives, the calves on the Blair Ranch are herded into a “backgrounding pen,” where they are prepared for life on the cattle feedlot. They are confined to a pen, taught to eat from a trough, and become accustomed to eating corn. Ed Blair suggested that Pollan should buy one of the calves, if he really wanted to follow a steer through his entire life cycle. Pollan chose steer number 534 for the distinctive three white spots on his face, which would make him easier to spot in a crowd.
Feedlot cattle like steer number 534 are not naturally adapted to life on a factory. Consequently, the Blair ranch has to take time to teach them to adapt themselves to a regimen of industrial eating and confined space. But human intervention can only go so far—a steer can be taught to eat corn, but corn will still not be as nutritious for the animal as a diet of grass would be.
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3. Industrial: Garden City, Kansas. Pollan notes that traveling from Blair Ranch to Poky Feeders feels a lot like going from the country to the city. However, without the benefit of modern sanitation, this city has more in common with fourteenth-century London. Having started out on George Naylor’s farm, Pollan realizes that this city is not just built on a mountain of corn. It’s also floating on an “invisible sea of petroleum”—the fossil fuels used to produce all that cheap corn.
Pollan realizes that there are connections not only between cornfields and animal feedlots, but also between these factories and fossil fuel mining operations. Artificial fertilizers and other yield-enhancing technologies require petroleum, so the industrial food system is also related to the fossil fuel industry.
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Pollan starts his tour at the feedmill, which processes a million pounds of feed each day. There the corn is mixed with various other ingredients: liquid vitamins, fat, and protein supplements. This feed fattens quickly; it also gives a “marbled” (i.e. intramuscular fat) texture to the beef that is popular with American consumers. But although “the economic logic of corn is unassailable,” it may be causing health problems for humans as well as cattle. Pollan points out that hunter-gatherers don’t have our rates of heart disease, and that many of the health risks associated with eating beef are problems with corn-fed beef, specifically.
Pollan argues that the unilateral focus on efficiency in the production of corn feed ignores the health risks that eating corn might pose, not only to animals, but to humans as well. The artificial supplements in this corn feed will also make their way into the bodies of the humans who consume the beef of steers like number 534. In this sense, corn is intimately connected to the human body as well as the bodies of the animals who are made to eat it.
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Cattle are fed corn because it is the cheapest source of calories. But Pollan argues that this is not necessarily a sound justification. After all, cattle feedlots used to feed rendered cow parts back to cows because it was a cheap source of protein—until they realized that this was spreading bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. This should not necessarily be surprising, since eating the flesh of one’s own species nearly always carries the risk of infection. In this sense, the cattle feedlot is flouting age-old “evolutionary rules.”
Pollan is disturbed by the way humans compel animals to overcome deeply-held aversions developed over thousands of years of evolution. Most animals, for example, are innately revolted by eating the flesh of their own species—but human intervention nonetheless forced cattle to ignore this natural instinct in favor of human priorities and interests.
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Dr. Mel Metzin, the feedlot’s veterinarian, explains that most of the cattle are sick, in one way or another. A concentrated diet of corn causes digestion problems including bloating and diarrhea, which can sometimes lead to suffocation, abscessed livers, and ulcers. Cattle rarely live more than 150 days on this diet, which Dr. Mel thinks is about the limit the cattle can tolerate. The cattle are kept healthy for that long with antibiotics like Rumensim (which prevents bloat) and Tylosin (which lowers the incidence of liver disease). Ironically, the cattle wouldn’t need these antibiotics were it not for their diet.
A corn-based diet is so unhealthy for cattle that many are constantly sick, in a prime example of the destructive impact of human over-meddling in natural processes. Indeed, cattle who eat corn are only kept alive through the application of yet more human-devised drugs, demonstrating that the cycle of human intervention in the natural world is often hard to escape once it has begun.
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Pollan visits pen 63, the new home of steer number 534. The pen overlooks a “manure lagoon” of animal waste; local famers won’t use the manure because it’s too polluted with chemicals. When Pollan finds steer number 534, he notices that the steer’s eyes are bloodshot from the fecal dust. However, he’s put on weight, as the feedlot intended. Pollan observes that the same diet that undermines the steer’s health will also undermine “the health of the humans who will eat it.”
Pollan reflects on the interconnectedness between what this animal eats and what humans eat. Steer number 534 is reaching slaughter weight earlier than he would have done on the pasture, but the chemicals that have meddled with his digestive system may also meddle with the humans who will eat this corn-fed beef.
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Humans and cattle are also interconnected by the bacteria in cow manure—one strain of which, E. coli, causes a kidney disease that can be fatal to humans. But although scientists have shown that the risk of E. coli can be reduced by up to 80% by switching a steer’s diet to hay or grass before it’s slaughtered, the meat industry considers such a solution impractical. Instead, they prefer to sterilize the manure.
The meat industry is so focused on efficiency that it would rather sterilize manure—a messy and not wholly reliable practice—rather than switching to a diet that would be healthier for the animals who live in American factory farms, simply because the former solution is more immediately cost-effective.
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Pollan reflects that steer number 534 is not just connected to the production of cheap corn—he’s also the result of a chain of production that begins with petroleum (which is used to manufacture his feed). One economist estimates that a steer like number 34 will have consumed in his lifetime the equivalent of thirty-five gallons of oil. But although Pollan feels revolted by the conditions at the feedlot, he admits that he will probably start eating beef again. In this sense, eating feedlot beef requires “an almost heroic act of not knowing” or “forgetting.”
Pollan introduces the idea—central to the book—that eating industrial food requires acts of “forgetting.” Food companies rely on people choosing to forget where their food comes from and not inquiring much further into these troubling connections between the treatment of cattle and their own health.
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