The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Summary

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a nonfiction book by Michael Pollan published in 2006. A ton of people have already read but it just came to my attention recently, but I found the book fascinating. The book is split into three main sections: Industrial Farming, Organic / Pastoral Farming, Pollan’s venture into gathering and hunting his own food.

I never read the 3rd section, Pollan’s writing was getting on my nerves and I wanted more information about the process of the food industrial system than about his philosophy of food.

This is going to be a long post, but trust me, the book is significantly longer and this gets most of the ideas of the book in a shorter summary.

The Industrial Food Complex / Big Farm

It’s all about the corn

The first chapter of the book tells the tale of a man AND A MONSTER*, ok not really it’s all about humanity and corn. Corn was originally grown in the Americas and spreading from Central America to North America. 
Corn is a co-evolution species (probably not the right term), it has no way to spread it’s seed (the kernels) because it grows in a husk. Something has to remove the husk and spread the kernels. more similar to fruit as opposed to other wheat or grains. But why did corn become so popular?
First, corn is great at absorbing nitrate, which is what plants crave. It’s stupendous at it, better than a lot of other plants and it can pretty much take over an area. 
Second, it’s easy to breed, the separation of the male and female organs make crossbreeding corn incredibly simple.
Third, it’s chock full of calories! It’s full of deliciously succulent complex carbohydrates. 
Corn is actually ideal plant for humanity’s consumption, but why was it picked for the industrial food complex? While a multitude of reasons exist, I believe one of the main reasons is that corn can be made infertile.
The biggest problem with producing and making seeds is that you can only sell a farmer the seed once, the plant will produce seeds on it’s own after that making the entire capitalistic enterprise pointless. Except corn, corn has a special property that if you mate two inbreeds, you can still produce a high yield corn but the children of that corn will produce significantly lower  yields as you continue down genrations. This is called the F-1 hybrid. This also makes the corn incredibly homogenous, allowing machines to easily plant and gather them for the harvest.
A little foray about Nitrate!
So nitrate’s kinda cool. Remember vaguely in history class about how there are nutrients in the soil that get fucked up if you over farm it? Yeah one of the major ones is nitrate. That’s why farmer rotate crops and why #2 crop in the US is Soybeans, they put nitrate back into the soil.
But there’s only so much nitrate and the world is pretty big now, but we can feed them all thanks to a little invention of Synthetic Fertilizer (in the form of ammonia, ammonium nitrate), using some high heat and pressure you can make some nitrate rich soil. Thanks to the German scientist by the name of Fritz Haber who figured it out. He won a nobel prize for his achievement in 1918, ironically he ia also the father of chemical warfare. Helps feed the world and destroys it at the same time.
Nitrate runoff is one of the main sources of farm pollution, certain cities downriver from farms in Iowa have Blue Baby Days, where the water is so full of nitrate it will cause infants to turn blue. It eventually does go into the Gulf destroying tons of sea life there.

Why do we subsidize corn?

So far we know that corn is high yielding, profitable, and an amazing crop, but everybody knows its all about farm subsidies right?
So food has this little hairy situation called inelastic demand, no matter how much you supply or don’t supply, demand stays about the same. We can’t really eat more than a certain amount of food (even if we are getting fatter) the demand does not respond to the supply. So during the 1920s and 30s the great depression drops the cost of food down to almost nada. So FDR sets up a New Deal policy to help farmers stay in business.
The government will buy up your corn during surplus years in order to keep prices up. The government will give you a loan for the amount you bought, during famines the price will get too high and the government will give you back your corn to sell allowing you to payback your loan to the government. This keeps a high and a low price available at all times and everybody is happy! 
Well, until the 1970s. Russia wanted corn, they had a bad year and America agreed to sell it to them, but the famine was bad in the US too, so corn demand was getting higher due to international reasons but the supply was stagnating, suddenly we have a food crisis. The price of food was too high so Nixon got his Secretary of Agriculture to make it cheaper.
The policy was switched, and the era of cheap corn was born. Instead of a loan that you had to pay back when there was an under supply, farmers were paid the diference. If the lowest price was set to $1.42 and you were producing corn at a market price of $1.22, then you would get $0.20 from the government for every bushel. That’s it, new farm policy. 
What does this change though? It changes the policy to basically support, KEEP MAKING CORN. You’ll get $1.42 for it regardless and as long as it’s cheaper than that to make, you’ll be fine. This has created a system of cheap corn being produced all over the United States and creates a necessity to use this corn. Pollan puts down an excellent analogy, food is no longer food to the US Farmer, but just a commodity, just like gold or anything else. Goldman Sachs actually has corn futures, stocks that are based on the price of corn.

So how do we use this corn?

Cattle and why I’m going to stop eating beef

So we know that cattle are forced to eat corn now but what are the problems with that?

A cow takes almost 3-5 years to get it an ideal weight for consumption on a grass diet but on a diet of ground corn, beef tallow (for fat), and chicken meal (for protein) they can grow a fully grown cow in about 18 months. This new stock helps these cows grow faster and unnaturally larger significantly faster than ever before. They used to provide beef meal but the USDA has banned that since it caused mad cow disease. But here’s the thing, cows aren’t made to handle grain, they eat grass. So the corn in their stomach makes their stomach far more acidic, which in turn wears away the linings of their stomach and causes acid to spill out of their stomach damaging their other organs.

The corn also produces a gas that can suffocate and kill a cow, so the cows on the “farm” are constantly monitored and given tons of antibiotics and hormones in order to manage all of this. The rise of acidic stomach in cows also produce diseases that start being able to survive in human bodies, the cows natural stomach Ph is neutral so any diseases in the cow probably won’t survive our acidic stomach, but these new cows are getting diseases that we can in fact acquire. Greattttt.

They’re kept in such tight badlocks that they basically end up walking around in their own feces too. Awesome.

I’ve actually never been a big fan of beef, growing up Indian really never acclimates you to the taste of beef, I mean I might enjoy a steak or something occasionally but even then I do that medium rarely (you should laugh / groan right about now). The discussion about the whole trying to force an animal to go against it’s natural diet has just turned me off on the entire thing. Chickens and pigs can eat corn and grain quite easily and while they have other problems themselves, I tow the line with fucking with the natural digestion system of a cow.

What can I make with corn: Those things on the ingredients that you never know wtf is it is.

So corn is an awesome plant in that the complex carbohydrates and the structure of it can be manipulated and utilized in so many ways. The peel is removed to turn into corn oil, the starch is separated from the protein which helps give you gluten. The starch can then produce an array of sugars and simpler compounds. If you can’t produce some nice fructose and glucose (high quality sugars), you get maltose, a less sweet sugar. Finally after all that, everything else is put into a vat with yeast and made into ethanol. 
HCFS is a special compound that has the same sweetness as sugar, developed by the Japanese in 1960s. It’s easily produced from corn and is now one of the main byproducts for the processing industry. Combined with American tariffs on sugar, HCFS is a great deal for american companies. 
I’m impressed by the fact that we somehow utilize a near 100% of the corn to produce things, but of course these fake sweeteners and sugars have go somewhere and that means producing something that we’ve never seen before! 
So here comes, General Mills. Originally an actual mill, it produced and created tons of other products most famously cereals. These cereals and produced foods are actually made in an interesting way, instead of creating a tie to the food it originally, they create a brand. You don’t really know what cereal is do you? I mean the first thought that comes to mind is “grain”, but in actuality the cereal companies are so highly processed that they can actually swap out the compounds with other sources, you can get the same food from corn, wheat, or soybeans, depending on whatever is cheapest to buy at the time. 
Processed foods in general are all about actually separating you from the food source, they are not really patentable so the only way you can differentiate yourself in the market is to provide a gimmick (Cinnamon Toast Crunch or special marshmallows). In realty, a lot of our food is like that. Chicken McNuggets became incredibly popular in the 80s and are basically a staple of the american diet. I can continue listing things, PopTarts, cereal bars, hot dogs, oreos, it’s actually been a while since I’ve been in a grocery store but I’m sure the list goes on.
Here’s a cool little piece of info, by using a mass spectrometer to identify base compounds, we can detect how much carbon-13 from corn is in a food product. 
Soda is about 100% corn, a milk shake is about 78% (wait what?), nuggets are 58% (including the carbon-13 in the chicken), a burger is 52%, and fries are about 23% (the coating and the oil). 

Organic Farms

Origin Story and how it is today

The roots of the organic movement came from communies in Berkeley and other enclaves all around the United States in order for hippies to get into a sustainable lifestyle. This movement eventually blossomed bigger and bigger until about the 80s and 90s when after articles about what really goes on in your food, food recalls, and countless other things brought organic farming into the mainstream. These small farmers who were trying for sustainable crops had to become big, and I mean big big, so they sold out. They started incorporating industrial machinery and other big farm processes into their system. Other farms just sold out to major food producers who just wanted to cash in on the organic bandwagon. 
Combined with Whole Foods and other major retailers switching to regional distribution centers, the small locally organic farm became more of a big farm. Whole Foods doesn’t make as many deals with smaller farmers, but deals with two major monoliths in California. Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farm’s Supply, who provide more than 80% of the organic produce in California, are just some examples.

What does Organic Mean?

The Federal Government has standards on organic, you can’t be using synthetic fertilizer, you can’t be injecting your animals with antibiotics, no pesticides BUT you can use certain organic synthetic elements in your food. In the 1990s big organic farming companies argued against the law that prevented synthetic elements being banned from organic foods. The basic argument was thus: if people want an organic twinkie, why the fuck not? 
In their defense, they have a point, using organic produce and meat is better for the environment overall because of the ban on pesticides and drugs in the production of these elements, but at some point, can you really have a healthy TV dinner that’s organic?
Even the laws about “an animal must have a pasture” are vague, the chicken coops in some of the organic farms that Pollan visitsed had a outdoor area but for the most part the chickens stayed in their houses and never ventured outside. During his visit, he had to wear a suit inside the coop because the farmers were worried about the chickens catching diseases. The fact that they can’t use antibiotics but still put them into these small closed wire frames is not exactly what you think of when you hear organic.

The organic farms till and retill the soil in order to get weeds out, this does its own damage to the environment, but allows them not to use pesticides.

Another big issue with the new big organic farms is that the only way for a properly sustained land to survive is crop rotation, you have to vary and spread your crops but the demands of a modern economy does not sustain that. Certains crops must be grown as much as possible or shipped from overseas. Where does your organic tomato come from? California or Argentina?

These big organic farms are just a question of how much industrialization can really be put into farming without somehow corrupting it. Pollan quotes an theory about farming: you can’t mix the industrial and the pastoral, they operate at different scales and the requirements of each system are different. Sustainable farming and industrial farming can never really mix.

Sustainable Farming

Pollan visits a farm called Polyface Farm out in Virginia that takes the sustainable farming idea to it’s logical extreme. Polyface not only constantly rotates crops, it utilizes and grows a nearby forrest in order to reduce wind, it relies on the chickens to clean out the mature of the cows, it rotates the cows and chickens in a carefully guided path through the fields in order to keep the grass growing strong and healthy. The entire system is built on an equilibrium that does not grow to market demands, it is the complete opposite of what should be working in an industrial economy. It’s limited, it will give you chickens in the summer but never in the winter. BUT it produces delicious and high quality food. Pollan raves about how the eggs from Polyface are significantly superior and the fact that their sales team uses them to get their foot in the door at major restaurants throughout the area is a testament to that.
The chickens are prepared, defeathered and bled out all on the farm and then sold to locals who want to buy them. Pollan dedicates a LOT of the book to this farm and just the intricacies of how it works, this is just a brief summary about how it is possible to do an entirely sustainable system but that just requires significant more amount of work on the part of the farmer and a less reliable system than the industrial way of “input in” -> “output out”.

The sustainable farming idea though has a few major issues coming from the Federal Government, the USDA requires that all meat be processed (the chickens butchered on the farm are a weird loophole) through a federally inspected facility. This facility adds almost a $1 to the cost of the final product for Polyface farms and goes against the idea of sustainable farming all done locally. The Polyface farmer argues against it and the attempt at creating an organic local inspection facility by another farmer proves to be complicated as the amount of meat they process is not worth the cost for the USDA to keep an inspector out at their facility. One question I haven’t been able to find on the internet is if organic meat goes through the same process that regular meat does, I imagine they just don’t have enough organic meat going through to justify their own facility and I imagine the USDA doesn’t regulate it, so the same chemicals that wipe out bugs and god knows what else is probably also applied to grass fed cows not grown with antibiotics.

Dilemmas and Quandaries and those Moral issues


You can argue that vegetarianism should be the norm. We have enough protein from different sources that we can easily reduce and remove meat from out diet but we do not. So how can we justify killing other animals for the sake of a simple reason that they taste good? This is purely from a philosophical standpoint that if you believe in equality that you should not eat meat.

Argument 1: It’s Natural
It is natural for species to eat other species but as humans, but we should able to rise over our base instincts and natural responses. I’ve always disliked this argument in any case one of the best features of humanity is that we can rise above our natural instincts, endangered species protection is important to a lot of us even though it provides us absolutely no benefit to us as a whole.

Argument 2: It’s not like they understand or feel it
We know that animals feel pain, it has been proven and shown repeatedly that a lot of the higher level animals can even suffer and be distressed from previous pain.

Argument 3: They’re just dumb animals. they aren’t sentient
So here is where it gets kinda weird, if you base the claim that we can eat other species based on their intelligence he argues that infanticide or the killing of people who have been mentally disabled or crippled can also be justified. Babies and the mentally disabled both possibly lack sentience, the ability to have subjective experiences and perceive things. You can argue that babies will eventually gain sentience but you can’t for the mentally retarded, at least not with current technology. So if you somehow devalue other species based on intelligence, why not our own?

Argument 4: It goes against tradition
Tradition as an impediment to advancement of society and humane treatment of millions of living beings cannot be used philosophically as a sound argument.

What it really boils down to is that unless you mind being a speciesist, someone who discriminates against species, you can’t justify vegetarianism. Of course these arguments are from a philosophical standpoint, from a practical standpoint you have to account for culture, the cost, and even the aspect of just having to deal with decision making. A friend of mine even mentioned that she occasionally she’ll think about stopping being a vegetarian just for the ability to not have to worry as much about what she’s eating. There are lots of practical issues with being a vegetarian and it requires significant effort currently though I imagine it’s probably easiest in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know in France it’s almost considered offensive to be vegetarian because of cultural stigma.

The definition of equality

One thing that I found interesting is the definition of equality. Not everyone is purely equal, we know that, some people are smarter, some are better athletes, it’s not about equality in the sense that everyone should be treated and given the same attention.

That’s not what equality is, equality is the equal consideration of interest. The interest of the person is taken into account, if you want to try to be a lawyer, you should have the full ability to become a lawyer, only the factor of HOW well you practice law and should be the factor. You should not be discriminated on based on intelligence, race or anything else, only on how well you can perform it. If you have a natural talent at it, of course you will perhaps get more attention and have an easier time getting into a prestigious law school but the point is that you should have the same equal attention.

This is of course a simpler definition, but I found it an interesting definition of it.

If you’re more curious about the philosophical arguments for vegetarianism you can read the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.

American’s Obsession with Diets

What would you say is the american diet? Hamburgers? Meat Loaf? Pizza? Chinese food? This is where I lose track of Pollan honestly, he argues that there isn’t a strong american diet and a significant lack of food culture in the United States. I didn’t grow up American, I grew up eating Indian food with occasionally forays into fast food and the celebratory Sizzler’s for special events (don’t judge me here allright, I grew up in a small town, Sizzler was nice). 
Except for perhaps portion size, I’m not sure what the distinction of “American food” is, what the hell does that mean? Mexican food you think of tacos, burritos, specific ingredients. Hell, even Russian food you might think of potatoes and stews but I’m not sure what you think of when you hear American food except perhaps fast food and maybe steak and bbq. 
Pollan argues that the weak american food culture is the reason why diets are so popular in the United States, because there isn’t already a strong attachment to a certain cuisine we are able to change it. While you might consider this a healthy choice, he also states that diets in other regions not only because of cultural norms, but because of a evolutionary reasons. The diet is developed because it is healthy eating, the french somehow consume tons of wine and cheese and eat large meals but they do them over a long period of time. The Japanese diet is incredibly well selected and portioned to point where obesity is almost a non-issue in Japan. 
So Americans tend to choose fad diets and diets based about the concept of macronutrients of whatever other thing that is shown to be super useful (I believe the current thing is get lots of omega-3 acids, nom nom nom). 

Final Notes

Pollan’s take on the food system can be summarized to: industrial food is unnatural and not sustainable, it causes massive pollution and the transportation of this food is a major environment impact. Processed food makes determining what you’re consuming exactly incredibly difficult to discern. While he never proposes a solution explicitly I imagine he would want something alone the lines of Polyface farming which is sustainable and cyclical in nature that produces minimal waste, though perhaps a less extreme version that would actually ship and grow larger than the acreage that Polyface does. 
The second focus while he doesn’t talk about as much in this book is eating should be an important part of your day. Lots of people just tend to eat at their desk or while watching TV, eating is just another activity to do and work on instead of really enjoying your food. As a percentage of our income, it has significantly reduced and while that sounds good, it comes at a cost. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Pollan, I eat lunch at work and I always try to eat lunch with my co-workers. Why? Because it slows down my eating and it gives me time to enjoy my meal along with having fun. I’m going to try to make the change in my weekend habits as well, try to use it to go out and have fun with friends instead of just ordering in. 
I’ve also significantly reduced my beef consumption as the damage it does to cows is disgusting and while I don’t think my decision to eat less beef will affect beef consumption in the United States, I would rather not participate. Though trying to avoid it proves to be sometimes difficult as I had sausage on my pizza and relatively sure that includes beef.
One issue that Pollan kept doing was he is skeptical of the idea of just carbohydrates, protein, fat and mentions how there are different types of each substance that need to be taken into account for, he is critical of nutrient science and scientists just trying to add x or y back into the food, but then he talks about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which have only recently shown to beneficial. His skepticism on some nutritional science but not all nutritional science I find highly suspect.
He also comes off as a very liberal mindset that focuses on this pastoral dream. This never really resonated with me and I never fully understood it but that’s not really a criticism of him. The only other thing I would say is that he was super liberal was apparent in his writing and how he expressed himself that it was almost a turn off since he takes the liberal mindset of a loss of practicality for an ideal that might not exist. His lack of focus on solutions in this book and just presenting cool ideals is a testament to that. 
P.S. I hope somebody got the Hunchback of Notre Dame reference in the first line of the corn post.