The Purist’s Dilemma


The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

Here are just a few of the things that best-selling author Michael Pollan is worrying about these days: the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oils in his meat, the “ethical implications” of organic asparagus from Argentina, the access that chickens have to fresh cow pats, how pigs feel about getting their spiraled tails docked (strongly opposed), and whether or not Whole Foods has sold its soul to the industrial devil (he says it has). On the surface, such concerns seem so overwrought, so precious—so irrelevant in the grand scheme of the havoc being wreaked in the real world—that it’s hard to take them seriously.

Yet The Omnivore’s Dilemma is urgently relevant. Through first rate, gonzo-inspired journalism, Pollan frames what seem to be little more than boutique culinary concerns within a larger, politically relevant context. His investigative/conversational approach—a style first glimpsed in his previous book, The Botany of Desire—will motivate even the most indifferent consumer, mouth stuffed with processed cheese, to reconsider the consequences of that bite. His conceit takes us deep into the production of four kinds of meals—a McDonald’s fast-food meal, an “organic industrial meal,” a meal made with ingredients from a self-contained Virginia farm, and a rough-hewn spread that he hunted and foraged himself. His findings easily make this the most important book on American food since Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.

The Omnivore's Dilemma book jacket

Pollan traces the natural history of these meals to show that eating is about more than mere satiation. It’s also about decision making. Humans are omnivores, and when it comes to food, we face dilemmas every time we eat. (In fact, the reason why the human brain may be so comparatively large is that we’ve had to make so many dietary decisions over the evolutionary long haul.) The problem, as Pollan sees it, is that most of us have our eyes shielded by an industry that wants us to see no evil. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is in many ways a complex treatise—lots of science, lots of ethics, lots of elaborate ecologizing—but the ultimate aim that Pollan repeatedly comes back to is basic: He wants us to think intelligently about what we eat. The fact that his book has been on The New York Times best-seller list indicates that when it comes to making responsible food choices, he might be tipping the balance from fringe to mainstream, or at least from radical fringe to fringe. When it comes to American eating habits, that’s saying a lot.

Thinking intelligently about food means, first and foremost, unlocking the darker mysteries of corn. Because corn can be converted into syrup, oil, and gum, its by-products appear in virtually every processed food. It’s also the basis of the antibiotic-infused feed that most American cattle are fed as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, up to their knees in their own shit, while awaiting the abattoir in a CAFO (Confined Animal Feed Operation). Heavily subsidized, grown monoculturally, a guzzler of pesticides, and fueled by nitrogen-based fertilizer, corn is a sad crop. Sure, it might have freed the farmer from “old biological restraints,” but it did so by trading in a free source of energy—the sun—for one that is anything but free—fossil fuel. Indeed, growing an acre of corn on an industrial farm requires no less than 50 gallons of oil. This stat gives Pollan pause, as it should anyone concerned with energy dependency and global warming. Accordingly, Pollan is at his nit-picking best when he breaks down the equation of corn, showing how everything from the production of fertilizer, to the processing of syrup, to the vast distances the myriad by-products must travel has turned a healthy grain into the petroleum-dependent bane of an environmentally responsible—not to mention healthy—diet.

He explores corn production through the lens of an Iowa farmer named George Naylor. Slavishly planting nothing but corn and soybeans to feed the maw of an agricultural machine, Naylor becomes exhibit A of what agribusiness, boosted by government subsidies that reward overproduction, has wrought. The “plague” of cheap corn has driven farmers like Naylor to maximize production despite falling prices because, as a farmer whose crop is not intended to be human food, he’s (in his own words) “at the bottom rung of the industrial food chain.” Should he ever want to break free from this system, he would immediately confront the economic reality that “the [grain] elevator is the only buyer in town” as well as the agricultural reality that his soil was depleted to the point where it could only do one thing: absorb fertilizer and sprout more corn. (Not all that different from the system of sharecropping that prevailed in the Deep South after the Civil War.)

Why does the free market allow this situation to occur? It doesn’t. The federal government structures this dependency, accounting for half of net farm income while ensuring that the lowest rung is supported just barely enough for the Naylors of the world to keep growing corn and soybeans without going bankrupt. The beneficiaries in this rigged system are, of course, the usual suspects: Cargill, Coca-Cola, Monsanto, and Pioneer—that is, big businesses for which cheap corn by-products are the necessary input into the processed Twinkies and HoHos they peddle. In the meantime, the land is rendered useless, water supplies are polluted, fossil fuels are consumed, and the government borrows more money as the Treasury bleeds the nation dry. The final rung of this inherently anti-capitalistic system is the consumer who, until now, may never have considered the political and moral consequences of subsidizing “high fructose corn syrup . . . but not carrots.” And with that typically poignant point, Pollan’s brilliant exposition of corn concludes by reminding us that, like it or not, those of us who eat are complicit in this culinary-industrial racket.

This condemnation of corn, of course, requires an alternative and viable means of food production. What Pollan offers is certainly a dramatic alternative. Whether it’s viable or not is another question. The industrial vortex into which Naylor has been sucked is radically counterbalanced by another of Pollan’s meals—this one prepared with goods produced on the Virginia farm of Joel Salatin. Salatin is a libertarian environmentalist who thinks that the federal government should rot in hell and that cities serve no good purpose—sort of a latter-day William Jennings Bryan (in his agrarian-populist days). Polyface, Salatin’s farm, is a pastoral microcosm that adheres to “a strict construction of the word sustainable.” Pollan is completely enthralled with the place, and for many good reasons. Whereas the basis of industrial agriculture à la Naylor is monocultural corn destined for a CAFO, the basis of Salatin’s small (not officially organic) farm is a diversified range of animals that feed on grass. With fields of multicolored grasses spread before him as he works for a week on Salatin’s farm, Pollan breaks into rhapsodic fits of ecstasy:

“Grass,” so understood, is the foundation of the intricate food chain Salatin has assembled at Polyface, where a half dozen different animal species are raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis. Salatin is the choreographer and the grasses are his verdurous stage; that dance has made Polyface one of the most productive and influential alternative farms in America.

And when the dance comes to a seasonable end, the audience—which has come from all over the state—converges on Swoop, Virginia, like culinary disciples at the end of a pilgrimage. They happily purchase Polyface beef, poultry, and produce for far more than grocery store prices, and they drive back home to eat “completely off the grid.” All because of grass grown by the sun and fertilized with manure from happy animals that eat grass. The simplicity and beauty of it all is, as Pollan tells it, truly astounding.

Polyface might be idyllic, charming, small, and ecologically balanced, but for all these reasons, it’s also an unrealistic blueprint for national food production—at least as the nation currently lives, drives, and works. As brilliant as Pollan’s explication of Salatin’s farm is, there are several points he either touches on briefly or does not explore at all, points which challenge the assumption that Polyface is a viable answer to industrial agriculture. Three come to mind.

First, Salatin is a rare kind of farmer (he calls himself a “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic”) willing to accept small profit margins in order to “grow animals” in an ecologically responsible manner. He approaches his farm the way a priest approaches his altar. The place functions on the force of Salatin’s quirky and passionate personality as much as it does on sun and grass. Which is great—at least for those who live near Swoop, Virginia, but as a simple matter of geography, it’s hard to imagine all Americans enjoying access to their own modest-living Joel Salatins and their inevitably pale reflections of Polyface.

Second, even if there were thousands of “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic” farmers out there waiting in the wings to start their own Polyfaces, the reality of regional ecology would rudely interrupt their symbiotic fantasies. The ecological conditions of Swoop are as exceptional as Salatin’s multihyphenated personality. How would back-to-the-landers do in New Mexico? West Texas? Minnesota? Maybe fine by themselves, but would most consumers tolerate salted meat, smoked chicken, and vegetables from the root cellar as the sole products available for most of the year? In an era when you can get fresh fish from the Mediterranean FedEx-ed to you in under 12 hours, not to mention a bag of Cheese-Its from the vending machine in the hallway, it seems an unlikely proposition.

Finally, committed foodies might spend weekend mornings hitting the farmer’s market circuit, but are these dedicated Pollan-ites ready to spend a significant portion of their busy lives (I would think 90 minutes a day) tracking down dinner ingredients across a vast countryside studded with small, grass-based farms? Beyond that, are they prepared to arrive and find that the tomatoes are sold out? Or that there won’t be asparagus for another four months? Or that the chickens caught a virus and there’s some pickled cow tongue available instead?

If Naylor’s big industrial mode of corn production and Salatin’s small-scale mode of grass production were in fact the only choices available to the modern eater, it’s pretty clear the omnivore would be confronting a dilemma. There is, however, a middle ground, and it’s best represented by an institution that has successfully taken “organic” mainstream: Whole Foods. By promoting a way of eating that is better for our health, for the health of the environment, and for taxpayers, Whole Foods offers, in the form of a grocery store, a significantly more responsible alternative to big industry. Pollan is fully aware of these attributes. He also knows that when he shops at Whole Foods, he supports a form of agriculture in which “no pesticides found their way into any farmworker’s bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics were squandered, [and] no subsidy checks were written.” All of which leads to the question of why he dismisses Whole Foods and the organic model it has pioneered as a “contradiction in terms”? Why not let Whole Foods be the answer—compromised as it may be—between a corrupted industrial system and an idealized sustainable farm? Why not just give in to what he calls “Supermarket Pastoral” rather than slap it around from the high and mighty perch of Salatin’s farm?

Pollan cites three main reasons for knocking Big Organic. First, there’s nostalgia. Pollan unabashedly loves the idea of food being sold outside of a supermarket, and as a result, he examines this outdoor-vendor vision through a rose-tinted recollection of America’s most radical blip of culinary idealism: Berkeley in the early 1970s. This was a time—and People’s Park was the place—when radical agriculturalists read Organic Gardening, grew vegetables on dung-fertilized communal ground, and entertained the option of cooperative living. It must have been quite a hootenanny, but any hope that this celebrated version of a small-scale “edible dynamic” might ever serve as a realistic blueprint for our nation’s food production requires nothing less than, well, a short trip out of Berkeley (where Pollan lives) to any spot of earth between the coasts. It’s different out here, don’t you know.

Second, when it comes to food, Pollan hates bigness per se. He hates it because it cannot support the small, symbiotic harmony practiced by the likes of Salatin and the Berkeley hippies. Whole Foods, he writes, “has adopted the grocery industry’s standard regional distribution system, which makes supporting small farms impractical.” This broad distribution system, in turn, means that Whole Foods purchases much of its organic food from a couple of California companies (namely Earthbound Farms and Grimmwell Farms) whose business model differs little from Cargill’s or Monsanto’s. Salatin calls it the “organic empire,” and Pollan hits it with the term “industrial beast.” (As for Whole Foods’ feelings on the matter, see the sidebar.)

In theory, Pollan is right on the money with this analysis, as he is with his point that the rise of Industrial Organic is ironic given that the organic movement began as a critique of industrial food. But “in theory” Pollan is right about almost everything he writes—like I said, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an incredibly erudite book. It’s just that theory only goes so far. Sooner or later you bump into reality, and that’s where Pollan’s complaint about “bigness” falls flat. Life is big: suburbanization, exurbanization, the 60-hour work week, parents who are both employed, the fact that the kids have soccer practice, and the sick dog that needs a visit to the vet. The structure of American society is too large, too sprawling, too preoccupied to accommodate the agrarian transition Pollan promotes so intelligently. As I see it, the big distribution system supporting the big organic farms keeping the Whole Foods stocked with organic asparagus from Argentina is—kill me for saying it—convenient. Given the way most Americans live, the trade-off between convenience and remaining organic strikes me as a sensible one that, for now, we’d be better off trying to improve and regulate rather than condemn and replace.

Finally, Pollan’s critique of Big Organic builds on the historical premise that early American agriculture was, like Polyface, small and self-sufficient. In reference to Polyface, Pollan writes, “The farm and the family comprised a remarkably self-contained world, in a way I imagined all American life once did … The agrarian self-sufficiency that Thomas Jefferson celebrated used to be a matter of course and a product of necessity.” Not exactly. The history of American agriculture is essentially a story of commercialization, mastering economies of scale, and manhandling the landscape into a marketplace through the vast production of staple crops and large livestock
husbandry for dist
nt markets. Anglo-American agricultural practices manipulated the landscape to serve economic needs, and that manipulation led farmers to deforest the environment, plant monoculturally, and reach markets in Europe and the West Indies. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of early American farming is the fact that livestock was either penned and fed farm refuse (including corn and brewer’s waste) or allowed to graze far and wide on grass that was not at all “natural,” but rather imported from Europe and allowed to blanket the landscape like an invading army. From this historical perspective—one that Pollan overlooks—Joel Salatin is not in tune with the past. He’s radically contradicting it.

And again, in theory, Pollan is right: He’s contradicting the past for the best of reasons. The extent to which Polyface can resolve the omnivore’s dilemma ultimately depends on who will hold the sway of public opinion on matters culinary: pragmatists or purists. On the pragmatist side, there’s Gene Kahn, a “pioneer of the organic movement” who went on to become a General Mills vice president, a position from which he pushes “organic food into the mainstream” as the head of Cascadian Farm. Kahn tells Pollan that we have a choice between “getting sad” about the organic food industry’s departure from its founding ideals or moving on. “We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t successful,” Kahn explains. “This [food] is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it’s just lunch.” And then, of course, there is Michael Pollan, the optimist and idealist who, at the end of his book, is hunting his own boar, foraging his own mushrooms, diving in shark-infested waters for his own abalone, and, through it all, holding dearly to the belief that there is a place somewhere in the gut and mind of this fast-food nation where food is about more than “just lunch.” It would be nice if he were right. And not just in theory.

James E. McWilliams is the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and is currently writing a book on the history of pest control in the United States.

Whole foods or whole hog? (sidebar)

Pollan’s stern critique of Whole Foods goes beyond its extensive distribution systems. He also spills considerable ink on the way the organic supermarket presents itself to the public. He mocks, for one, the store’s “cutting-edge grocery lit,” noting that the milk he bought there came with the qualification that the cows were “free from unnecessary fear and distress.” He finds it somewhat absurd that his organic whole chicken had a name: Rosie. After quipping that Whole Foods “is a place where the skills of a literary critic might come in handy,” he proceeds to dismiss the “wordy labels” as “imperfect substitute[s] for how a food is produced” and then goes on to show how one of its biggest milk suppliers—Horizon—is actually the “Microsoft of organic milk.”

I was curious what a Whole Foods person thought of all this, so I contacted Whole Foods spokeswoman Kate Lowery. Lowery read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and generally bristled at Pollan’s entire line of attack. “We do not feel it is fair to single out Whole Foods Market,” she said, adding “we believe we do more to support local growers, producers, and food artisans than any other supermarket chain in the country.” Regarding Pollan’s specific charge that the “grocery lit” obscures the reality that Whole Foods can no longer support the little guy, Lowery says, “We sell local products from thousands of growers … Pollan fails to point out that many ‘large organic corporations’ are actually networks of small, local growers who have banded together to lower their marketing and distribution costs.” Had Pollan, as Lowery puts it, “done his homework,” he would have “learned that we passionately support local food production all over the United States, while also supporting organic agriculture around the world.”

For all Pollan’s differences with Whole Foods, he agrees with it on at least one point: the power of the consumer. For Pollan, once the American food buyer commits to supporting small local farms, the era of CAFOs and subsidized monoculture will come to an end. Lowery, too, acknowledges the consumer’s role in the way Whole Foods operates, noting that “our customers also tell us they want high quality products from other parts of the world [because] . . . the reality for most of the U.S. is that there isn’t enough local food readily available to meet consumers’ needs in season and out of season.” And yet again, we’re brought back to the larger question of pragmatism or idealism. —JM