The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by

Michael Pollan

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Grass Symbol Icon

Grass symbolizes the natural order of the agricultural food chain, as it is the food that cows have evolved over thousands of years to eat. Grass farming thus provides an example of an agricultural system that is designed by humans and oriented towards their needs, but still works in concert with nature. Like corn, grass has a close relationship with humans and their food, but maintains more independence, as it has not coevolved so closely with humans and has maintained its own life cycle and reproductive process. On truly organic farms like Polyface, grass plays the starring role in the food system, providing the solar energy and protein that supports the other animals and plants. Indeed, grass is so central to the philosophical mission and ecosystem of Polyface Farm that Joel Salatin refers to himself as a “grass farmer.” Michael Pollan points out that a cow’s reliance on grass makes excellent evolutionary sense, since cows fertilize the land with their waste, and their digestive system converts grass into energy that they then pass up the food chain to humans. This is a “sustainable, solar-powered food chain” that creates no waste and transforms sunlight directly into protein. By contrast, corn is more wasteful and less nutritionally beneficial for both animals and humans—cattle are fed corn simply because it is more economically efficient. For Pollan, while corn represents the industrial food system’s prioritization of profit to the detriment of all other ethical and environmental values, grass symbolizes a more ideal and natural food chain.

Grass Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The The Omnivore’s Dilemma quotes below all refer to the symbol of Grass. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Bloomsbury edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma published in 2006.
Chapter 8 Quotes

This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process…Salatin’s audacious bet is that feeding ourselves from nature need not be a zero-sum proposition, one in which if there is more for us at the end of the season then there must be less for nature—less topsoil, less fertility, less life.

Related Characters: Michael Pollan (speaker), Joel Salatin
Related Symbols: Grass
Page Number: 126-127
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines. They prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economies of scale. Everything about corn meshes smoothly with the gears of this great machine; grass doesn’t.

Related Characters: Michael Pollan (speaker)
Related Symbols: Corn, Grass
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:
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Grass Symbol Timeline in The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The timeline below shows where the symbol Grass appears in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 4: The Feedlot: Making Meat
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
...the first six months of his life with his mother, 9534, feeding on mostly native grasses. (full context)
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 8: All Flesh is Grass
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Efficiency and Utility Theme Icon
2. The Genius of the Place. Salatin describes himself as a “grass farmer,” because grass is the foundation the complex ecosystem at Polyface Farm. Although the farm... (full context)
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
Humans have had a long co-evolutionary relationship with grass. In the hunter-gatherer period, people cultivated the grass to attract and nourish the animals they... (full context)
Chapter 10: Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture
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1. Monday. Pollan points out that we tend to think grass is a monolith (i.e. that it’s all one thing, just a sea of green). But... (full context)
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Efficiency and Utility Theme Icon
Joel raises his grass by “management-intensive grazing,” a technique that relies on the farmer’s strategic abilities. He explains to... (full context)
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...new pasture every day. This simulates the migration patterns of ancient animals and allows the grass to recover from grazing, since grasses evolved to thrive from exactly this sort of intensive... (full context)
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
...chain might look simple, Pollan argues that it’s actually not. When a cow eats the grass, it sets off a chain reaction in which the grass produces new and nutritious topsoil.... (full context)
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A diverse polyculture of grass is significantly more productive, removing thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year.... (full context)
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Efficiency and Utility Theme Icon
According to Pollan, eating animals that eat grass is about as close as humans can get to a “free lunch,” since this is... (full context)
Nature vs. Human Intervention Theme Icon
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...a recipe for financial ruin, given the experiences of many of his clients—he turned to grass farming. Although Joel’s father has since died, Joel thinks he would be proud to see... (full context)
Chapter 11: Animals: Practicing Complexity
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...a “holon,” Joel practices rotational grazing with his turkeys. He lets the turkeys eat the grass in his grape vineyard, since they help fertilize the trees and vines. Finally, he uses... (full context)
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Interconnectedness Theme Icon
...down the environment for the animals and reducing evaporation in the fields, thus providing more grass for the cows. The forest also improves the farm’s biodiversity by helping control predators. And... (full context)
Chapter 12: Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir
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...Pollan sees blood and guts, Joel sees “biological wealth” that he can turn back into grass. (full context)