In his investigation of where food comes from, Michael Pollan argues that eating is a person’s most direct engagement with nature.
Nature, left to its own devices, will produce the plants and animals that humans use for food, but human intervention has inalterably changed these processes, from the agricultural development and cultivation of land and the domestication of animals to the scientific engineering of highly processed foods. The need to produce a huge volume of food to feed a large population has led to the development of a vast and complex industry; one that is responsive to the demands of the economy. Pollan shows how these systems have modified the state of the natural landscape, and the condition and behaviors of the plants and animals that we eat, and, in turn, our own behavior and condition.
“The omnivore’s dilemma,” for which the book is named, refers to the difficult choices we make about what to eat, because there are so many options available to us as omnivores. The sheer number of choices has been magnified in the modern era, when most Americans are no longer limited by seasonal or geographical restrictions in their diet. Pollan argues that making these choices constitutes our most essential and fundamental engagement with the world, on multiple levels. The number of living humans and our power over many elements of the natural world makes it nearly impossible to prevent the choices we make from affecting other species and their ecosystems.
Although it may seem like there is a line between the part of nature that is unaffected and that which is affected by human activity, Pollan argues that this is blurrier than it may seem. He explains that any kind of agricultural production at all involves human intervention, and our large population has led us to organize agriculture on a large scale. The scientist Fritz Haber first discovered that fertilizer, which uses elements that existed in small amounts naturally, could be made artificially. This vastly increased the available quantities of fertilizer, and has inalterably changed the food and energy cycle: “It has been less than a century since Fritz Haber's invention, yet already it has changed the earth's ecology. More than half of the world's supply of usable nitrogen is now man-made.” Our use of fertilizer has served to “alter the planet's composition of species and shrink its biodiversity,” but it has served some species well, including ours, since we benefit from the vastly increased production of food. Crops that can handle large amounts of artificial fertilizer, like corn and grass, have also fared well.
Pollan writes about how the development of modern industrial agriculture has also deeply changed the lives of the animals we farm: “America's food animals have undergone a revolution in lifestyle in the years since World War II.” Forcing animals to subvert their natural roles, instincts, and internal processes—including feeding cows corn instead of grass, and keeping pigs and chickens enclosed in tiny spaces—are radical impositions on them. Because we eat these animals, we also can’t escape the effect these changes have on us: “A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef.” Our changes to nature for the sake of agriculture impact the health of the animals, our health, and the health of the environment, creating the need for veterinary responses to their illnesses and ecological responses to pollution and other systemic waste.
Other innovations in the food system have come back to haunt us. An obesity epidemic has arisen because so many plentiful calories are now available. In his fast-food meal, Pollan writes, “Judith, Isaac, and I together consumed a total of 4,510 calories at our lunch—more than half as many as we each should probably consume in a day.”
After writing about the drawbacks of our industrial agricultural system, Pollan cautions against the conclusion that a system with less human intervention would be better. Nutritionally, there is evidence that this is the case: “A growing body of scientific research indicates that pasture substantially changes the nutritional profile of chicken and eggs, as well as of beef and milk.” And yet, the complicating details need to be considered. Pollan writes, “Conventional nutritional wisdom holds that salmon is automatically better for us than beef, but that judgment assumes the beef has been grain fed and the salmon krill fed; if the steer is fattened on grass and the salmon on grain, we might actually be better off eating the beef.” The purity of a product also depends on the side effects it produces, as seen in the case of large organic farms whose outputs are uncontaminated by chemicals, but which rely on an enormous amount of petroleum to run.
The organic industry has grown up to market to consumers who seek more natural products, but the institution of government-regulated standards for labelling “organic” and “natural” agriculture have obscured the reality of human interventions in key ways. Many consumers are under the impression that they’re buying natural products when they aren’t. Pollan describes the way high-fructose corn syrup can be deemed “organic,” and chickens enclosed in captivity “free-range.” Conversely, other consumers are happy to completely divorce their food choices from nature, as with fast food: “In this consumer's mind at least, the link between a nugget and the chicken in it was never more than notional, and probably irrelevant.” Pollan illuminates the problems with both of these approaches, each of which arise from the industrial-sized production chains.
Ultimately Pollan argues that antidotes to these problems are the small and local approaches taken by small-scale sustainable farmer Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms, or Pollan’s hunting and foraging comrades. However, these methods are far from leaving nature untouched—human intervention in nature is unavoidable at every level of our engagement with food, but Pollan believes that the level and kind of intervention should be calibrated to assess its positive and negative effects.
Nature vs. Human Intervention ThemeTracker
Nature vs. Human Intervention Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.
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.
Through natural selection animals have developed a set of hygiene rules, functioning much like taboos. One of the most troubling things about factory farms is how cavalierly they flout these evolutionary rules, forcing animals to overcome deeply ingrained aversions. We make them trade their instincts for antibiotics.
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.
The question is, Who or what (besides our cars) is going to consume and digest all this freshly manufactured biomass—the sugars and starches, the alcohols and acids, the emulsifiers and stabilizers and viscosity-control agents? This is where we come in. It takes a certain kind of eater—an industrial eater—to consume these fractions of corn, and we are, or have evolved into, that supremely adapted creature: the eater of processed food.
The power of food science lies in its ability to break foods down into their nutrient parts and then reassemble them in specific ways that, in effect, push our evolutionary buttons, fooling the omnivore’s inherited food selection system. Add fat or sugar to anything and it’s going to taste better on the tongue of an animal that natural selection has wired to seek out energy-dense foods.
It looked and smelled pretty good, with a nice crust and bright white interior reminiscent of chicken breast meat. In appearance and texture a nugget certainly alludes to fried chicken, yet all I could really taste was salt, that all-purpose fast-food flavor, and okay, maybe a note of chicken bouillon informing the salt. Overall the nugget seemed more like an abstraction than a full-fledged food, an idea of chicken waiting to be fleshed out.
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.
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.
“Efficiency” is the term usually invoked to defend large-scale industrial farms, and it usually refers to the economies of scale that can be achieved by the application of technology and standardization. Yet Joel Salatin’s farm makes the case for a very different sort of efficiency—the one found in natural systems, with their coevolutionary relationships and reciprocal loops. For example, in nature there is no such thing as a waste problem, since one creature’s waste becomes another creature’s lunch.
Every meal at a table recapitulates this evolution from nature to culture, as we pass from satisfying our animal appetites in semisilence to the lofting of conversational balloons. The pleasures of the table begin with eating…but they can end up anywhere human talk cares to go. In the same way that the raw becomes cooked, eating becomes dining.
And while our senses can help us draw the first rough distinctions between good and bad foods, we humans have to rely on culture to remember and keep it all straight. So we codify the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, manners, and culinary traditions, covering everything from the proper size of portions to the order in which foods should be consumed to the kinds of animals it is and is not okay to eat.
This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t transcend our inheritance, only that it is our inheritance; whatever else might be gained by giving up meat, this much at least is lost. The notion of granting rights to animals may lift us up from the brutal, amoral world of eater and eaten—of predation—but along the way it will entail the sacrifice, our sublimation, of part of our identity—of our own animality.