“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” book review

I very much enjoyed this book by the author of “The Botany of Desire” (which I also highly recommend).

The Omnivore’s Dilemna is written in three sections. The first covers industrial agriculture, most specifically corn and the meat animals that eat it. The second is organic agriculture, starting with the integrated polyculture small farm, then looking at industrial organic. The last section is hunting and gathering, with some musing on vegetarianism.

The first section was the most interesting and illuminating for me. I find Polson’s best stuff is looking at industrial production; he’s about the one one I’ve read who approaches these topics with an open mind (I’m reminded of the potatoes chapter in The Botany of Desire). The problem facing farming is that it has become business, and our current paradigm requires growth; a mere 2% growth is standing still. Using hybrid corn varieties, lots of chemical inputs, and now GMO, we have increased production amazingly. But that’s only half the problem: the population grows slowly in the US, and we can only increase our eating so much. One result is we are getting fat. We also eat more processed food, since we pay more for the same calories in a highly processed form.

There’s a lot more on how miserable cows and chickens are, and all the industrial processing for cereal, etc. and how the system is systematically set up to stick it to the actual farmer – but for this I’d recommend the book “fast food nation” and the film “The future of food”.

The second section starts with his visit to Salatin’s famous pastured poultry setup. I find his enthusiasm about Salatin’s integrated small farm to be a little over-the-top; I don’t really like cheerleaders, honest skeptism is more interesting and educational. But I agree it’s a great system. The discussion of industrial organic and the evolution and co-opting of the organic movement is also excellent; I knew that it wasn’t all Farmer John with his hoe, but laser-leveled fields so specialized tractors can automatically cut hundreds of acres of baby greens is farther than I had imagined.

I don’t hunt, nor am I a big fan of mushrooms, which may be one reason why the last chapter didn’t do much for me – it was all driving hundreds of miles to hunt wild pig and find gourmet mushrooms (chanterelles and morels) and prepare grand cuisine. Perhaps you can justify it by his allusion to this being a meal from the forest, rather than from annuals (corn) or perennials (grasses eaten by cows). But he doesn’t seem to notice in his all home grown or gathered meal that he’s got wheat in his bread and pasta and garlic and sage (perhaps he grew them, he didn’t say) and butter and pepper, etc, etc. All together it comes across as elistist and irrelevant. It’s deeply satisifying to eat a meal all of food you grew yourself, it gives a feeling of connection to the land that can’t be described, but while his meal was doubtless far finer than the simple meals we eat, our meals are much more real.

The discussion of vegetarianism, speaking as a ex-vegetarian who raises her own meat, was very well done. There is a dilemna between caring for animals and eating them, and I especially like this quote:

“Several years ago, the English critic John Berger wrote an essay, ‘Why Look at Animals?’ in which he suggested that the loss of everyday contact between ourselves and animals — and specifically the loss of eye contact — has left us deeply confused about the terms of our relationship to other species. That eye contact, always slightly uncanny, had provided a vivid daily reminder that animals were at once crucially like and unlike us; in their eyes we glimpsed something unmistakably familiar (pain, fear, tenderness) and something irretrievably alien. Upon this paradox people built a relationship in which they felt they could both honor and eat animals without looking away.”

We do feel honor for our animals and appreciation for them, in spite of having cared for them and then having had them killed. The sheep butchering is a solemn moment. And somehow eating them does not seem wrong or bad.

Besides my impressions, there’s another blog review of this book I recommend; it has a rather different perspective: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/06/omnivores-dilemma.html