In tracing four different modern food chains and their resulting meals, Pollan explores the web of connections made by food. Eating, at its base level, is the intake of energy. Since we cannot directly inhale and use the energy of the sun, we rely on other organisms to process the sun’s energy and convert it into the nutrients that we can process. This entails the transfer of energy through a variety of systems, both natural and industrial, which in sum creates the complex network of interactions required to feed all of humanity. Pollan argues that these inescapable connections exist between everything in the natural world, even if we don’t typically see or acknowledge that fact—and much of the modern food system relies on our not seeing it.
Pollan’s comparison between food chains shows them to be, in many ways, radically different, but all share the inescapable interconnectedness of living things—they just handle that fact differently, and are more or less in denial about it. Polyface Farm, the small, sustainable, family-run farm, prides itself on being “a loop rather than a line”; a system designed to reinvest all waste products back into the process in another role. Its owner, Joel Salatin, is acutely aware of every way in which the parts of his farm relate to each other. Pollan writes, “Polyface is an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis.” While Salatin’s own farm is a web of relationships that he attends to, in purchasing very few initial inputs and only selling his products within a small, local radius, Salatin refuses to engage with wider chains and networks of the food industry because he believes those chains create waste and side effects that he couldn’t account for or repurpose.
Salatin is a model of a food producer who is always aware of and careful about his impact on the world, but Pollan makes it clear that Salatin is not the norm. In fact, Pollan describes in great detail the ways in which industrial agriculture completely abandons responsibility for the effects it has on the wider world, creating the opposite of a closed loop and often creating problematic consequences. For instance, Pollan explains how the massive amounts of fertilizer runoff from American industrial farms are creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as fertilizer drains into the water and kills off algae and other living organisms. Meanwhile, the antibiotics used to suppress animals’ reactions to their stressed conditions similarly wind up in unintended places: “The antibiotics these animals consume with their corn at this very moment are selecting, in their gut and wherever else in the environment they end up, for new strains of resistant bacteria that will someday infect us and withstand the drugs we depend on to treat that infection.” The industrial system is designed solely to maximize profits, so it is incentivized to ignore external effects in the service of producing and selling as much as possible.
Pollan is also interested in how the choices we make about food are distorted by what we see and what we don’t see about these systems—both in what actually goes into the product, and what side effects the product creates. Most of the natural processes by which plants and animals metabolize energy are unseen, and we have manufactured a food industry that takes food production away from most of us and largely out of our view. This means the consumers of food rely on incomplete information when making our choices about what to eat, and which foods are good and bad. Pollan argues that more knowledge and closer investigation of our food helps us make more informed choices. As he puts 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.” And Pollan shows how the industry at large—in stark contrast to a small farmer like Joel Salatin—is committed to maintaining consumer ignorance.
The organic movement began because consumers wanted to know more about their food, and to be reassured of its safety for them and the environment. As it has scaled up, many large organic farms have begun operating more like industrial farms, but the label of “organic” and the narratives surrounding places like Whole Foods trick consumers into thinking they still know where their food comes from. Labels on organic eggs that depict free-range chickens frolicking in a yard may not match the chickens sitting in an industrial shed. The fast-food chain takes a different tack, removing any kind of natural or recognizable narratives from their food products, and making no attempt to explain where the food comes from. This puts the food into a completely different category, one for which consumers have different expectations. Pollan writes: “That perhaps is what the industrial food chain does best: obscure the histories of the foods it produces by processing them to such an extent that they appear as pure products of culture rather than nature—things made from plants and animals.”
Pollan believes this lack of seeing that enables a denial of the interconnected nature of the food system can be rectified both by getting closer to his food’s origins and by changing the angle or scale of his perspective. He sees his book as playing a role in exposing the food system and giving consumers necessary information, although he is necessarily limited by his own background, perspective, and experiences. While he can never fully escape this, he attempts to zoom out to examine the wide range of things touched by the production of corn and soybeans that constitutes so much of the industrial food system (“You would be hard-pressed to find a late-model processed food that isn't made from corn or soybeans.”) He also puts himself in the shoes of the other species he encounters: noting the success of corn and grass, he comments that, from another angle, it almost looks as if those species have domesticated us. No matter how close he gets, though, there are certain aspects of the food chain that Pollan still has trouble forcing himself to take in. Slaughter—which he is barred from watching in the industrial chapters—is still difficult to spend much time dealing with when he’s killing chickens at Polyface Farm and “dressing” the wild pig he shot with Angelo. These moments where he still needs to step away show him the extent to which we’ve successfully removed ourselves from the full scope of the interconnected web of nature. Pollan argues that as much as we can remember the web of implications behind each food, the more we will be motivated to make the best choices possible.
Interconnectedness Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly…if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.
The 129 people who depend on George Naylor for their sustenance are all strangers, living at the far end of a food chain so long, intricate, and obscure that neither producer nor consumer has any reason to know the first thing about the other. Ask one of those eaters where their steak or soda comes from and she’ll tell you “the supermarket.”
For one thing, the health of these animals is inextricably linked to our own by that web of relationships. The unnaturally rich diet of corn that undermines a steer’s health fattens his flesh in a way that undermines the health of the humans who will eat it. The antibiotics these animals consume with their corn at this very moment are selecting…for new strains of resistant bacteria that will someday infect us.
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.
You have a choice of getting sad about all that or moving on. We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn’t successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.