Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals. New York : Penguin Press, 2006. 15-119
Thank you Lynn for putting The Omnivore’s Dilemma in our curriculum! This was definitely my favorite read thus far and have been telling as many people as I can to also give it a read. I wrote so many notes while reading because there were so many quotes I liked; but I will cut it short for the blog world. Pollan is a great writer; his writing is descriptive and informative in a funny and profound way. In this book he follows the life of corn (or at least tries to) from farm to the food we eat. What he basically finds is corn is in almost everything, and we have adapted to eating so much of it.
Pollan starts off in the supermarket, describing the huge diversity of food and the amount of processed foods, then asks an important question: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” (Pg 17) He discovers corn is linked to almost everything, it feeds livestock, used as a coloring, preservative, oil, sweetener, and more. I love how he consults with so many scientists, like Todd Dawson who is a Berkeley Biologist who studies corn, who said, “When you look at the isotope ratios, we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” (Pg 23) Its pretty scary realizing how much corn is in the food we eat, I’ve heard it before, ‘corn is in everything’ but reading this book I realized just how true that saying is. But Pollan offsets the scariness with some humor, “A mutation this freakish and maladaptive would have swiftly brought the plant to an evolutionary dead end had one of these freaks not happened to catch the eye of a human somewhere in Central America who, looking for something to eat, peeled open the husk to free the seeds.”( Pg 27) Pollan was talking about how corn evolved from its ancestor (a grass) to its current form, that was only possible by us pollinating it every year. The history of corn is quite incredible.
I loved this book so much because Pollan went straight to a corn farmer in Iowa, George Naylor, who’s family has had that farm since the early 1900s. Pollan learned everything he could from Naylor, and what he learned what slightly disturbing. “There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will ell you in disgust that the plant has become ‘a welfare queen'”. Corn farmers rely on government subsidies for their crops because of how low the price of corn is, so farmers will push the limits to how much corn they can grow to get more subsidies, but excess corn means its price plummets so farmers grow more to make more money. Quite the vicious circle. There is so much in this book that shocked me, that seems like things are so far gone in the corn industry I don’t think there’s any way of going back, “When humankind acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance of fossil fuel.”(Pg 44) Ammonium nitrate, created in WWII for explosives, is now used as fertilizer, getting into ground water, streams, lakes, where it wreaks havoc.
I was unaware of how much pride corn farmers have in their products, a man could be drowning in debt to produce corn, “But in Iowa, bragging rights go to the man with the biggest yield, even if its bankrupting him”(Pg 55) More and more corn being produced, there is such a surplus that it has to find its way into everything to be used, “I should have known that tracing any single bushel of commodity corn is as impossible as tracing a bucket of water after it’s been poured into a river.”(Pg 63) I thought this was a profound analogy that really shows how much corn disperses into everything. Then, Pollan gets into factory farming, and although I’ve been a vegetarian for 3 years, it makes me cringe, “These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: CAFO- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.”(Pg 67) My heart broke reading this section titled Cattle Metropolis, but it’s so important for us to be aware of how our food gets to our table. Cattle are not meant to eat corn, and it leads to so many health issues because their stomachs and liver cannot handle it, but they are slaughtered at such a young age that these issues don’t kill them; it only makes them suffer. I like how Pollan talked to Dr. Mel Metzin, the vet at a factory farm who sees the issues caused by cattle corn consumption. But there is such an excess of corn, that feeding cattle this way is so much cheaper, and higher in calories than grass (what they are meant to eat). “We make them trade in their instincts for antibiotics.” (Pg 76) Cows eating cows? Just give them some antibiotics to avoid diseases like mad cow. Problem solved?
I loved the shocking way Pollan puts things into perspective, “It takes a certain kind of eater – an industrial eater – to consume these fractions of corn, and we are, or have evolved into, that supremely adapted creature: the eater of processed foods.”(Pg 90) Its pretty crazy how we went from hunter gatherers to believing some extremely processed masses with flavor and sugar added is actually food. Pollan mentions that in the 70s an additive manufacturer defended itself by claiming natural foods were a, “wild mixture of substances created by plants and animals for completely non-food purposes – their survival and reproduction [and that they] came to be consumed by humans at their own risk.”(Pg 97) Wow, and people actually believed this?
Overall, I loved this book, from the beginning at the supermarket til the end of the cycle at a McDonalds eating fast food with his family. My favorite quote that ended the book for me was “But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala.”(Pg 117) I have no desire to be an industrial eater, I do not want to be another corn koala, but is it even possible not to?