Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan presents the history of four meals from their source to his plate. He follows the path corn takes from Iowa to his fast-food meal; he compares the journey of two organic meals, one purchased at Whole Foods and the other from a single farm; and he describes the hunting, gathering and growing he did to produce the fourth meal.  

Technique is a dominant theme in the book. Often it is explicitly on the surface. How could one not think of Jacques Ellul and technique when reading sentences like: “There are a great many reasons American cattle came off the grass and into the feedlot, and yet all of them finally come down to the same one: Our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines. They prize consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economies of scale” (2006, p. 201).

Yet technique bashing is not Pollan’s primary aim. In fact, Joel Salatin, the farmer most praised in the Omnivore’s Dilemma, uses a lot of technique in doing sustainable agriculture. Here are just two examples. The schedule of what happens on a particular section of pasture is carefully controlled. Chickens follow cattle, and neither are allowed to graze too long; Salatin seeks optimum yield by allowing the grass to grow for a specific amount of time before bringing the cattle back. A super-lightweight portable electronic fence is a vital element in the whole operation.

Contrasting case studies in Pollan offer the opportunity to ask the question: what is the difference between the role of technique at an industrialized cattle feedlot operation and at Joel Salatin’s farm? In one we see what concerned Ellul, the rule of the spirit of technique and its focus on absolute efficiency driving every decision. In the other we see individual techniques and technologies used. Yet at times the most efficient approach is intentionally not taken because it conflicts with the overall goal of seeking to farm in a way that follows nature and leads to good relationships between the farmer and his neighbors and to health for all involved.

Pollan does an excellent job of not demonizing individual actors in the industrial food system. Although he does not present a conspiracy theory, the alienating elements are so strong and effective that at one point I thought: it is as if you asked a commission to make changes to our agricultural food system so that it would ruin our health, make us more oil dependent, damage the environment, and stress farmers in a myriad of ways including economic. There was, of course, no commission, but we do see these results.

As I read Pollan’s books I increasingly found myself reflecting on the biblical theme of the powers. What then does an ethic of freedom look like in relation to the food system today? Pollan provides information, concrete examples of alienation and freedom and he offers guidelines for consumers. A helpful start. We are called by Jesus Christ to go deeper and enabled by the cross and resurrection to do so.


Posted on September 9, 2016 .