June 19, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Trigger Warning: Includes description of animal farming processes

Review by Anjana Nair
2nd March 2022

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a nonfiction book written by Michael Pollan. The book investigates the environmental and animal welfare impacts of various food choices made by people. The New York Times named the book as one of the ten best books for the year 2006. In the book, the author elucidates the magnitude of the threat that endangers the health of the planet and its inhabitants. He seeks to understand the most fundamental nature of food and how humans are at odds with it. Pollan claims that eating food, although fundamental, is a basic transaction exchanged between the species of the planet. He follows food in three major food chains – the industrialist, the organic, and the hunter-gatherers, and begins to explain to his readers the origin and use of these specific meals. The book has 20 chapters in total, divided into four parts.

The Summary:

Pollan begins by saying how supermarkets have a variety of products. But when observed closely, these items are made from a common, single ingredient – Zea mays, known to most as Corn. These include corn-feeding livestock, including cows, pigs, chickens, and fish. Corn is one disguised product that is present in the aisle of processed food, as well as many dairy products. The following chapters delve into the detail of how the corn industry works.  

Pollan then talks about the famous meal – McDonald’s meal. His family ends up eating their meal in the car, a place where 19% of American meals are consumed. McDonald’s famous signature “Chicken McNuggets” is made of at least 13 ingredients derived from corn – that includes corn-fed chicken, modified corn-starch, dextrose, chicken broth, and emulsifiers. McNuggets also contain added preservatives made of chemicals derived from petroleum, not food. Invented in 1983, the nugget became the most popular chicken food in the world.  Pollan points out that the calories that a chicken meal has are super wasteful. Eating corn directly results in the consumption of energy. But when fed to an animal, 90% of its energy is lost. He concludes by saying that the overproduction of corn in no way is a boon to humanity. This is because it takes a toll on the use of water, soil, biodiversity, and even more, the quality of life of factory-farmed animals.

The next part addresses the killing of chickens. Pollan describes the process by emphasising the catching and crating of more than 300 birds. The workers use a plywood paddle to crowd the birds so that they can easily grab one and cramp it to a chicken crate. The chickens are killed in an outdoor area, one that looks like a kitchen. The outside abattoir includes a scalding tank, feather-plucking machines, and metal cones to hold the birds upside down, Once the cones are loaded, the bird’s artery along with the windpipe is cut. The chicken’s heart continues to pump out the blood, but it bleeds out before it dies.  He writes the disposal of chicken is perhaps one of the goriest and messiest jobs. The blood and guts after being mounded in a pile are heaped with woodchips. This compost pile stinks bad, and the whole cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay is on land rather than sending the waste to a rendering plant.

The author tackles the question of whether it is ethical to eat animals. He follows the idea of Peter Singer, animal-liberator advocate, and Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism.  Bentham argued that – “the moral worth of an action is determined by its contribution to the sum total of happiness or pleasure among all people.” Pollan believes that people’s attitudes toward animals are “schizoid”. Only a few worry about the life of a factory-farmed pig. He says that intelligence is not about excluding one animal and caring for another. The circle of moral consideration should be the same, irrespective of the animals we are talking about. One cannot care for pets if one does not care for other animals that are killed and consumed. This is one of many views of animal rights activists, like Singer. Pollan also admits that even if he rejects extreme views taken by some animal rights activists, he still wonders about the pain that animals undergo. He asks,

“If we owe them moral consideration, then how do we justify killing and eating them?”

It is crucial to understand that human beings do not have to eat meat to survive. Pollan says a person either “looks away” from it or stops eating animals.

The Verdict:

For a book dedicated to such a seemingly banal subject as what to eat for dinner, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is remarkably ambitious. So much so that perhaps one will be inclined to view their dinner with even more reverence than they’d customarily do so. The titular dilemma refers to the difficulty omnivores have in choosing what to eat. A lion or a cow does not have to spare a moment’s thought in deciding that question. But for a human, capable of eating everything from fried beetles to foie gras, this choice can be quite open-ended. The problem our waistlines reveal is that we make poor substitutes.

Pollan in the book is very much so advocating that we eat how Joel Salatin wants us to be; old-fashioned and small-scale. He argues, for example, that scientists have not truly discovered what makes the soil fertile or food nutritious, so traditional practices are possibly better guides. He thinks we should eat what we can get locally, and in-season so that we can feel a connection to the land and understand where the food came from. He is, in a word, an anti-industrialist. Admittedly speaking, there is no grand solution. Pollan was writing when the issue of global warming was not as omnipresent an issue as it is today. He has an entire chapter on the morality of meat-eating, for example, without mentioning what has become the primary reason for reducing meat consumption: greenhouse gas emissions.

Truth be told, Pollan has many virtues. For one, he is a great writer, able to both paint a scene and explain a concept with style. He is also intellectually broad. While reading this book, he weaves a story together that includes chemistry, biology, government policy, history, philosophy, anthropology, and of course gastronomy. And he is thorough. In sum, if you want to think more deeply than ever before about what to have for dinner – so deeply that you accidentally start pondering the whole cosmos, this book is heartily recommended.