The Omnivore’s Dilemma

July 15, 2012

What should we eat?

What should we eat? We answer this question at least three times a day, often without much thought. And yet how we choose to answer this question is of vital importance to the health, happiness, and future not just of ourselves, but of our civilization, for in a capitalist society, every meal we purchase is a vote for the world to be one way or another. The Omnivore’s Dilemma has four divisions, each corresponding to ways of producing food today—the industrial, the organic, the pastoral, and the personal. In each, the author takes part in the production of a meal, and reports on what’s required—of the earth, of the animals, and of the humans involved—for the meal to exist.

Industrial farming is characterized by its massive scale, monoculture (growing just one kind of thing), and use of modern technologies in biology and chemistry like genetically-modified seeds, chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers. While all this technology may make industrial farming seem like the height of sophistication, what surprised me was that industrial farming is all about steamrolling nature’s nuances into simple inputs and outputs: the logic of industrial efficiency. Many examples follow, but for one, consider that cattle evolved over millions of years to eat grass. Grass requires land, which is expensive, whereas corn is cheap, and fattens cows faster than grass, so CAFOs1 fatten cows on corn, keeping them in small pens since they don’t need to graze. Industrial efficiency, right? Except corn changes the pH in cows’ rumens (which were designed to process grass), making them more hospitable to bacteria and leading to higher incidence of food poisoning. And when you keep cows in pens, they defecate where they eat and get sick, so you need to pump them full of antibiotics, except all these antibiotics in our food makes germs more resistant to them from constant exposure. Feeding them corn instead of what they evolved to eat, grass, makes their meat less healthy (and tasty), because grass contains more beta-carotene, vitamin E, and folic acid than corn. So, when you treat animals like machines, ignoring their nature and substituting one input for a less expensive one, you get less healthy animals and less healthy people.

As a culture, we’re beginning to realize this, as the rise to prominence of organic food has shown. Organic farms forego chemical pesticides and fertilizers on plants and do without antibiotics and hormones when raising animals. This leads to healthier, tastier food and somewhat happier animals, whose very natures aren’t constantly thwarted. But the biggest organic farms rival industrial operations in size, bringing to light another downside of Big Agriculture: petroleum. Twenty percent of America’s petroleum usage goes toward growing and transporting our food (83). These massive operations—organic or not2—use petroleum-guzzling machines and exist in isolated locations where land is cheap, shipping their products far and wide through petroleum-fueled distribution channels. Not only does all this petroleum usage ramp up global warming, but when cheap oil inevitably dries up, our dependence on it to feed ourselves will mean widespread starvation.

Addressing this problem is what Pollan calls pastoral agriculture. Natural, local, and sustainable, the pastoral is exemplified in the book by family farmer Joel Salatin. Scornful of monoculture, Joel embraces the natural dynamics of his plants and animals, to marvelous effect. His chickens eat the pests in grass, which their waste fertilizes, and the grass converts free solar energy into nourishment for his cattle. “Organic” isn’t a goal for Joel, just the natural result of his methods. He has no need for chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or antibiotics: “In nature health is the default… Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer he’s doing something wrong.” (221) Since Joel’s is a comparatively small farm, most of his customers are local so his farm has a tiny carbon footprint. And since his customers are local, they’re welcome to come by and see the conditions—even during slaughter—of the cows and chickens they’re going to eat. There’s a reason industrial CAFOs don’t allow the same. After exposing a litany of sanctioned abuses, Pollan goes on to conclude:

No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. (332-3)

It would seem that, had we ourselves to do the dirty work of industrial food production, we’d eat a lot differently. To test this, the author devotes the final section of the book to the personal mode of production—that is, to being personally involved in producing every component of a meal. He doesn’t skimp: Pollan goes hunting for wild pig, forages for mushrooms, and even cultivates yeast found naturally in the air in order to make bread. It took him nearly a week of hunting and gathering to prepare this single dinner, but to call this mode impractical misses the point: all the friends he invited had helped with an element of the meal’s production, so the effort was shared. Instead of a lonely trip to the supermarket to pick up plastic-wrapped edibles from nowhere in particular, “every single story about the food on that table could be told in the first person” (409). And it was an honest meal, its cost paid in full with human effort, unsubsidized by taxes, environmental degradation, global warming, animal misery, and human illness. It would require significant personal and societal changes for every meal to be like this, but Pollan’s example shows simply what we might aspire toward: to know where our food comes from and what is required of us, our fellows, and our world in order to eat the way we do.

We’re not bad people, most of us. We just don’t want to pay a lot. And corporations aren’t evil, most of them, they survive by giving us what we want. But we’re in a place now where the most profitable thing for big food producers is to hide from us the true costs of what we buy. When you look into it, you see cheap food is subsidized by poor health, taxes, war, risk of environmental catastrophe, and animal misery.3 So when you buy the $1-a-dozen eggs at WalMart instead of the $2-a-dozen eggs at a farmers’ market, know that someone is paying the difference—it’s probably you, and it’s probably much more than $1.

The Industrial

The primary criticism of industrial agriculture is that it fails to account for the true cost of food. Industrial farming is profitable largely because of something called cost externalization, which is business-speak for getting other people to foot the bill for your profitable messes. If some of the low, low prices in the supermarket seem too good to be true, it’s because they are. Here are some of the costs of industrial agriculture that Big Food isn’t made to pay for:

Organic farmer Joel Salatin introduces the useful notion of “responsible pricing”:

Then I explain that with [organic, local] food all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food. (241)

Processed Foods

By turning food into a commodity (competing only on price, not quality), industrial farming isn’t terribly lucrative. “The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against this troublesome biological fact: … Unlike many other products—CDs, say, or shoes—there’s a natural limit to how much food we can consume without exploding” (94). The obesity rate’s explosion in America shows that the food industry is successfully pushing this limit upward, but the industry also processes our food more in order to shift profits away from the farmer, who just grows it:

Complicating your product also allows you at capture more of the money a consumer spends on food. Of a dollar spent on a whole food such as eggs, $.40 finds its way back to the farmer. By comparison, George Naylor [a corn farmer featured earlier in this section] will see only $.04 of every dollar spent on corn sweeteners; ADM and Coca-Cola and General Mills capture most of the rest. (95)

…When Tyson food scientists devised the chicken nugget in 1983, a cheap bulk commodity–chicken–overnight became a high-value-added product, and most of the money Americans spend on chicken moved from the farmer’s pocket to the processor’s. (96)

All this processing leaches nutritional value from our food (which is why chicken nuggets aren’t as good for you as a chicken breast), so not only is processed food more expensive, but it hurts farmers and is less healthy for you.

The Organic

People have begun catching on, and opting for the healthier, safer, and tastier organic food over industrially-produced food. But industry has caught on, and not all organic is created equal:

The Pastoral

Pollan teases out some of the ethical complications of globalized food:

The ethical implications of buying [out-of-season food from another hemisphere] are almost too numerous and knotty to sort out: There’s the expense, there’s the prodigious amounts of energy involved, the defiance of seasonality, and the whole question of whether the best soils in South America should be devoted to growing food for affluent and overfed North Americans. And yet you can also make a good argument that my purchase of organic asparagus from Argentina generates foreign exchange for a country desperately in need of it, and supports a level of care for that country’s land—farming without pesticides or chemical fertilizer—it might not otherwise receive. Clearly my bunch of asparagus had delivered me deep into the thicket of trade-offs that a global organic marketplace entails. (175)

The author makes much of the fact that our understanding of nutrition is still evolving (as if the endless overturning of nutritional wisdom in the news weren’t sign enough!)

The first level was reached early in the nineteenth century with the identification of the macronutrients—protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Having isolated these compounds, chemists thought they’d unlocked the key to human nutrition. Yet some people (such as sailors) living on diets rich in macronutrients nevertheless got sick. The mystery was solved when scientists discovered the major vitamins-a second key to human nutrition. Now it’s the polyphenols in plants that we’re learning play a critical role in keeping us healthy. (And which might explain why diets heavy in processed food fortified with vitamins still aren’t as nutritious as fresh foods.) You wonder what else is going on in these plants, what other undiscovered qualities in them we’ve evolved to depend on. (179)

What we can trust is time. For millions of years, plants have thrived in diverse soils without pesticides, animals have roamed free and eaten grass, and our bodies have evolved to eat food without doing anything more complicated to it than cutting it up and cooking it. If you don’t want to buy into the endless churn of “Eat this! No, eat that!”, you can just eat things someone a thousand years would recognize as food and be reasonably certain that you’re eating exactly what your body was designed to.

Pastoral versus Industrial Agriculture

The picture Pollan paints is that, for all its fancy technology, industrial agriculture is a less sophisticated way to grow food than the industrial model. On Joel Salatin’s farm:

If I could actually see everything that was going on right here in this pasture, could trace all the ecological connections involved, the scene unfolding directly before me was not nearly as simple as it looked. In fact, there was easily as much complexity present in a single square foot of this pasture as there is in the whole industrial complex into which [CAFO cows are] plugged; what makes this pasture’s complexity so much harder for us to comprehend is that it is not a complexity of our making. (195, emphasis mine)

According to industrial corn farmer George Naylor, “growing corn is just riding tractors and spraying” (40). Compare this with all the work Salatin does:

As much work as the animals do, that’s still us humans out there moving the cattle every evening, dragging the broiler pens across the field before breakfast… and towing chicken coops hither and yon according to a schedule tied to the life cycle of fly larvae and the nitrogen load of chicken manure. My guess is that there aren’t too many farmers today who are up for either the physical or mental challenge of this sort of farming, not when industrializing promises to simplify the job. Indeed, a large part of the appeal of industrial farming is its panoply of labor- and thought-saving devices: machines of every description to do the physical work, and chemicals to keep crops and animals free from pests with scarcely a thought from the farmer. George Naylor works his fields maybe fifty days out of the year; Joel and Daniel and two interns are out there every day sunrise to sunset for a good chunk of the year. (229)

But for all his labor saved, Naylor is barely making ends meet because of the razor-thin margins on commodity corn, while Salatin’s local business is thriving. And recall that this managed complexity is what lets Salatin get by without pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, and produce tastier, healthier food. Perhaps history will see industrialization as a step backward, temporarily accelerated only by the illusion of infinite, cheap petroleum energy.


The problem with current food-safety regulations, in Joel’s view, is that they are one-size-fits-all rules designed to regulate giant slaughterhouses that are mindlessly applied to small farmers in such a way that “before I can sell my neighbor a T-bone steak I’ve got to wrap it up in a million dollars’ worth of quintuple-permitted processing plant.” (229)

This seems like regulatory overreach. The problem is that while relaxing regulations would help small farmers, it also allow industrial agriculture to further endanger us, since the industry’s bottom-line imperative forces them to cut every possible corner in the pursuit of profit. But why not smarter regulation, and exceptions for smaller, more responsible outfits? I’d imagine that, given the need for some regulation, Big Food lobbies hard for regulation that at least favors their dominance over small farmers. According to Joel Salatin:

The USDA is being used by the global corporate complex to impede the clean-food movement. They aim to close down all but the biggest meat processors, and to do it in the name of biosecurity. Every government study to date has shown that the reasons we’re having an epidemic of food-borne illness in this country is centralized production, centralized processing, and long-distance transportation of food. You would think therefore that they’d want to decentralize the food system, especially after 9/11. But no! They’d much rather just irradiate everything instead. (230)

“You can’t regulate integrity,” says Salatin, who invites customers “to come out to the farm, poke around, sniff around. If after seeing how we do things they want to buy food from us, that should be none of the government’s business” (235). Joel alights on the fact that regulation is a substitute for transparency. Industrial CAFOs are closed to the public (and doggedly guard their secrets), so we need expensive processes and inspectors to sanction their practices. Pollan muses:

Imagine if the walls of every slaughterhouse and animal factory were as transparent as [Joel’s]—if not open to the air then at least made of glass. So much of what happens behind those walls—the cruelty, the carelessness, the filth—would simply have to stop. (235)

Specific Nutrition Benefits of Pastorally-Cultivated Food

Animal welfare, environmental stewardship, and other moral concerns aside, we should care about what we eat for a purely selfish reason: our health. “The question we asked about organic food—is it any better than the conventional kind? It turns out to be much easier to answer in the case of grass-farmed food…” (gathered from pages 266-7:)

The Personal

For the record, hens have it the worst:

The American laying hen…spends her brief span of days piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage the floor of which four pages of this book could carpet wall to wall. Every natural instinct of this hen is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral “vices” that can include cannibalizing her cage mates and rubbing her breast against the wire mesh until it is completely bald and bleeding. (This is the chief reason broilers get a pass on caged life; to scar so much high-value breast meat would be bad business.) Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on the acceptance of more neutral descriptors, such as “vices” and “stereotypes” and “stress.” But whatever you want to call what goes on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can’t endure it and simply die is built into the cost of production. And when the output of the survivors begins to ebb, the hens will be “force-molted”-starved of food and water and light for several days in order to stimulate a final bout of egg laying before their life’s work is done.

I know, simply reciting these facts, most of which are drawn from poultry trade magazines, makes me sound like one of the animal people, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to (remember, I got into this vegetarian deal assuming I could go on eating eggs), but this is what can happen to you when…you look. And what you see when you look is the cruelty—and the blindness to cruelty—required to produce eggs that can be sold for seventy-nine cents a dozen. (317-8)

I love this notion of generosity as investment:

Since the successful hunter often ends up with more meat than he or his family can eat before it spoils, it makes good sense for him to, in effect, bank the surplus in the bodies of other people, trading meat for obligations and future favors. Chimps will do the same thing. (348)

Isn’t this a nice thought when compared to actual banking, and how much of our technology and the machinery of civilization serve to obviate the need for sharing? Why should we put our money in bank accounts to make ourselves a little richer when we might invest it in our communities to make everyone else (and, eventually, ourselves) much richer? Wal-Mart and child labor and consumerism all foster the hoarding of resources by individual families: everyone must have everything, and new! Why not share a lawnmower with a neighbor, instead of both buying one and letting it go unused 6 days a week?

In closing:

Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. (411)

  1. “places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (67) 

  2. Earthbound Farms, California’s biggest industrial organic farm is only about 4% more energy efficient than its non-organic counterparts. 

  3. In the same way that clothes have gotten cheaper, subsidized by child labor, sweatshops, and poor quality; and computers have gotten cheaper, subsidized by conflict minerals and suicidal working conditions.