Pollan, M. 2006. Omnivore’s Dilemma . England: Penguin Books Ltd. p.15-119
Glazing over the 2 worded opening title of part 1 of Michael Pollan’s 3 parted story, I was not expected much of a riveting tail. Corn is dominant in the seed world. It is mass produced and consumed all around the world. I did not feel any allure to what new facts Michael Pollan had to share. However, the 100 pages that followed captured my interest more than anticipated. I was arguably livid at times. Pollan, through a 1st person narrative, shares his journey of following a complete life cycle of 1 meal. A burger. So in other words, he follows the industrial food chain from the early beginnings of an Iowa farm to purchasing his burger with his family on a visit to McDonald’s. Along every step of the way from where this story begins to where this journey ends, there is one common denominator that is also the main focus of which this story branches out to expose the general conspiracy that is the North American food system. The same denominator that caused my initial inadvertence to swiftly transition to complete enthrallment: industrial corn.
Pollan’s story could be organized into a web diagram. At the epicenter of the web, there is corn. Then there are all the separate branches extending out from this center including: farmers, cattle, environment, humans and capitalism. Then there exist the interconnecting webs between many of these ideas as well, which add further complexity to Pollan’s story. His fluidity and interconnection of writing is a remarkable feat on its own.
One of the branches of Pollan’s story focuses on traceability and consumerism. He relates the traceability of our food- or lack there of, by noting the need to be an “ecological detective”(p.17). His statement acknowledges the notion that tracing food to the industrial scale is rather challenging. Pollan centers on consumerism as well, noting in a bold metaphor that humans are “processed corn, walking”(p.23). We are what we eat and in our world, corn completely dominates. It exists and is consumed in an alarming number of variations, most of which sound nothing like corn. Furthermore, Pollan alludes to “the great edifice of variety”(p.18) in reference to our supermarkets, which emphasizes largely the lack of knowledge that exists for the general public. Variety is simply an illusion, though we do not trace our food to see this. Combining all these ideas together and you get the blissfully ignorant consumer.
Pollan’s journey largely takes place on the farm itself. The wholehearted farm where the corn is grown and harvested, the cattle are raised and butchered peacefully and the farming family is well sustained. Not quite. This is the image we want to see. Contrarily, we know the falsehood of our daydream and as Pollan shares, the industrial farm is far from our moral desires. Pollan notes “the only thing missing from this man-made landscape is…man”(p.38). He further delves into the realistic picture of the farm. The farmers are overworked and underpaid, the animals are ethically mistreated, the surrounding community is vanquished and vanished, the environment is gradually turning toxic, the corporations are thriving and we are all willing to turn a blind eye. In lies, the omnivore’s dilemma.
In a disturbingly eloquent claim, Pollan remarks “the plague of cheap corn” (p.54). There again is the epicenter of the web. Not just corn, but cheap corn. Yes, there was a time where it was beyond rational to utilize corn to all of its capabilities. There was need. However, the need no longer exists. Unfortunately prior to this realization, corn had already fallen victim to capitalism. So cheap corn will stay cheap corn and the plague will continue. The disturbing reality is simply in the North American food system, money is the priority. Is there really any end in sight to this?
Lastly, I want to talk specifically about the cattle. The cattle are what struck me as most off putting in Pollan’s story. As a general disclaimer, it’s fair to say I was largely uneducated in the whole subject matter of a cow’s digestive system prior to Pollan’s insight. Nonetheless, the image of ingested grain causing a cow’s rumen to bloat enough to suffocate the cow from the inside out is heartbreaking. Not to mention, the silver lining of this is that they are batch fed preventative antibiotics or better, slaughtered before this is too much of an issue. Finally, this is all reasoned simply because there are marbled steaks at stake? Maybe I am the irrational one, but I have seriously begun to reconsider my omnivore eating habits.