As Pollan explores the four different meals in his book and the food chains that produce them, he never settles on a single definitive “right way” that things should be done. Instead, he is sensitive to the idea of compromise. With an understanding that there is no one perfect food system, he looks at the successes and failures of all four of the food chains that he writes about, comparing the compromises inherent in each, and the trade-offs made by various farmers and food businesses based on their values and desired outcomes. In his own search for the perfect meal, Pollan is very aware that he is making compromises, and that, practically speaking, compromises must be made. But he also outlines a particular philosophy of compromise, and the requirements that he believes are necessary for any good or valid compromise. Ultimately, Pollan finds compromises admissible as long as they have a worthy goal and are made in good faith—and first the compromiser must be as informed as possible of the impacts of their decision, and weigh all of the relevant factors. In doing so, there is the best chance that they will match the proper compromise to the proper situation.
The four food chains that Pollan investigates and the meals he makes from each one represent a spectrum from the most industrial to the most natural. Each approach entails different compromises between the amount of food produced, its quality, profit, and its effects on the health of people, animals, and the environment. In the industrial agricultural system, farmers are under pressure from government policies and large food corporations to produce as much as possible. They are left little choice but to participate in a system that creates a lot of food at profit to the companies, but has harmful effects on public and environmental health.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are small organic farmers that refuse to compromise on health and environmental effects, and therefore produce less food and reach fewer people. Pollan visits Joel Salatin, who runs a small sustainable farm called Polyface, and whose aversion to compromise is so strong that he refuses anything that goes against his values, writing, “I don't believe it's sustainable—or ‘organic,’ if you will—to FedEx meat all around the country.” Government standards for what can be considered organic are not even enough for Salatin, who has created something even more natural and sustainable for the entire ecosystem of the farm and his community. He believes that large organic farms have had to compromise for scale too much to even be truly considered organic.
Many farmers working in the large-scale, industrial organic category of farms, or “Big Organic,” are comfortable with the compromises they see as worthwhile. Pollan visits Gene Kahn of Cascadian Farms, which began as a small organic farm and turned into a large business owned by General Mills. Kahn believes that, although he has given up some of his original ideals, he is able to produce much more and is therefore doing good within the food system by selling so much organic produce and other products that would otherwise not be organic at all.
Pollan weighs whether or not industrial organic has a soul, whether it has lived up to any of its ideals, or whether it’s worth labeling something as organic when this may be misleading. Shoppers at places like Whole Foods, which rely on “Big Organic,” have traded actual engagement with or knowledge about their food for labels and packaging calling the food natural and sustainable. Often, the farms these foods have come from are making major compromises for scale that don’t line up with the ideals they are communicating to their customers. Pollan seeks to expose the varying realities behind the general label “organic,” arguing for a better system of distinguishing between the types of compromises being made behind the scenes.
Ultimately, Pollan shows that no one is immune from some kind of compromise, whether in the various types of organic farms or in the industrial system. He is driven by a desire to help consumers understand the trade-offs behind every food choice they make.
Compromise Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Polyface’s customers know to come after noon on a chicken day, but there’s nothing to prevent them from showing up earlier and watching their dinner being killed—indeed, customers are welcome to watch, and occasionally one does. More than any USDA rule or regulation, this transparency is their best assurance that the meat they’re buying has been humanely and cleanly processed.
[I]f the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO it came from, and information on the pig’s diet and drug regimen, who could bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing.
For one of the things I was hoping to accomplish by rejoining, however briefly, this shortest and oldest of food chains was to take some more direct, conscious responsibility for the killing of the animals I eat.
This for many people is what is most offensive about hunting—to some, disgusting: that it encourages, or allows, us not only to kill but to take a certain pleasure in killing. It’s not as though the rest of us don’t countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practiced, out of view and without emotion, by industrial agriculture.
I prized, too, the almost perfect transparency of this meal, the brevity and simplicity of the food chain that linked it to the wider world…I knew the true cost of this food, the precise sacrifice of time and energy and life it had entailed.