I originally reviewed this book in December 2006. Shows how my thinking and writing have evolved over the years ;-)
I have read the book a couple of months ago and never found time to write a review till now. I also remember that I finished the book on a Thursday afternoon - an important piece of information as it is on Thursday afternoons that there is a Farmers' Market here in Southern Village, barely a block from me. The first thing I did when I closed the book was to walk up to the Farmers' Market, buy some locally grown food and talk to the farmers about all the issues raised in the book and, lo and behold, they all agree with Pollan on everything I asked them about.
They were also a little taken aback that I tried to talk to them. But, I grew up in the Balkans. A big part of going to the Farmer's Market is to chat with the farmers, banter, joke, complain about the government, haggle over prices, and make sure a kilo of cheese is reserved for you for next week - it is a very friendly and talkative affair. Great fun! Here, there is much more of a class divide. The farmers set the prices. The elegantly dressed city-slickers pick and pay. And all of that is done pretty silently, with a minimal exchange of words. No eye-contact. Nobody is haggling! At the Farmers' Market nobody is haggling!?*@#%$^&! Travesty and Heresy!
In his book, Michael Pollan initially set out to make three - industrial, organic and personal - types of meals, but once he learned more, he realized he had to do four: industrial, industrial-organic, local-sustainable, and personal.
So, although the book officially has three parts, it really has four. Each of the four parts also reads differently and has a different style and tone:
The first part (industrial) is full of facts, stats, governmental documents, etc. - it reads like Molly Ivins' Bushwacked or Chris Mooney's Republican War On Science, although I heard he played loose with some stuff, i.e., cited as true some studies that are very contentious within the scientific community.
While I am a biologist, focusing on animals made me "plant blind" and I learned more about biology of corn from this book than I ever knew before.
The key event, according to Pollan, is the change, during Nixon administration, in the way farmers are paid for corn - everything else flows from that single event: the monoculture, the oil, the feedlots, the fertilizers and pesticides, environmental destruction, obesity and McDonalds.
The second part (industrial organic) is a little bit less of an onslaught of information and he gets a little looser and slower, a bit more personal. He looks at the way organic food production changed since the 1960s hippy farms to today's giant organic producers who are, more and more, playing by the rules of Big Agra.
While the food they produce is still better than the Industrial and the practices are still more energy and environmentally friendly than Industrial, it only looks good because it is compared to the Big Industrial which is totally atrocious. This part of the book resulted in a big back-and-forth debate between Pollan and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, resulting in some changes in the way Whole Foods operates. You can find the relevant links on Pollan's website.
The third part (local-sustainable) is totally fascinating - it is a mix of a travellogue and analysis - he keeps jumping back and forth between his dialogues with his host - Joel Salatin of the Polyface Farms - and the data. This is really the most riveting part of the book and the key element of it. This is also a part of the book that covers most new ground, not stuff found in Fast Food Nation or other well-known books. It also exposes, even better than the first part, the perniciousness of the way our agricultural system is set up, the way Big Agribusiness controls legislation and regulation, and eliminates small farmers from the competition.
Joel Salatin is a Virginia farmer who has perfected amazing agricultural practices on his farm - practically nothing has to be bought by the farm and nothing gets thrown away. Everything has its use and re-use. Everything makes sense when patiently explained to the reader. I actually bought Salatin's book Holy Cows and Hog Heaven and read it immediately after Pollan's.
Interestingly, although the guy is a conservative, libertarian, Christian Creationist, I agree with him on almost everything. His distrust of the Government is perhaps a little bit over the top for my taste, but his Creationism is fascinating because his whole philosophy and his whole methodology of the way he runs the farm reveals a deep understanding of evolution and ecology. His farming practice is BASED on evolutionary thinking. He is, for all practical purposes, an evolutionary biologist. Yet, he says he does not believe in evolution. How is that possible? Because he has no idea what he word "evolution" means. He probably has some "chimp is your uncle" cartoon notion of evolution, while at the same time not giving his own evolutionary ideas any name at all. Someone should tell him.
The fourth part (personal) of the Pollan's book is in a completely different mood, very introspective, sometimes even mystical. One important thing that sets this part apart is that the type of food production described in it is the only one of the four that cannot in any way be affected by legislation, politics or activism - unless one completely bans hunting, gathering, catching, picking, stealing from neighbors, planting stuff in your garden, or collecting yeast from the air!
The best part of this portion of the book is his look at animal rights and his dialogue with Peter Singer. He, being such a typical city-slicker and "Birckenstock liberal" (Come on - slaughtering a chicken, and later a pig, made him sick? Has he never watched or participated in any kind of animal slaughter in his long life yet? Never spent some time on a farm? Dissected an animal in a biology class? What a woefully unnatural and alienated existence!), started out very sympathetic to the idea, but, over a dozen pages or so, dissects the underlying logic and discovers its fatal flows and exposes it in a brilliant paragraph - the best one in the book. You'll find it and recognize it immediately once you read it - and you will read it because Omnivore's Dilemma is one of the most important books written in the last few years, and should be a battle cry for many political activists and a source of ideas for many candidates for political office.