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The Omnivore's Dilemma Thread

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I started reading this new book (put a hold on it at my library before the hard copy even came out so I'm the first one to read this copy) a few days ago and it's one of those can't-put-down reads. I read Fast Food Nation and have seen Supersize Me a bunch of times but this book offers a different approach. While Pollan does critically cover the industrialiazed/chemically processed food industry he also investigates the confusing, if not deceitful organic food industry - one side is not a whole lot better than the more frequently bashed conventional system.

I find myself shaking my head a lot while reading it but so far I haven't found it nearly as nauseating as Eric Schlosser's coverage in Fast Food Nation, probably because in The Omnivore's Dilemma the focus is more on government regulation and Big Business Interest at the expense of society's health.

Anyone else read this yet??

Link: http://www.michaelpollan.com/press.ph...

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  1. I'm waiting for it from my library system now. His "The Botany of Desire" is worthwhile reading too.

    5 Replies
      1. re: EMZ

        Mna's relationship with plants. The two I remember are apples and marijuana. It's a smart book, well written, and even funny in places.

        1. re: Pat Hammond

          Sounds like Pollan. I am enjoying his writing style. Very well-researched and while it's a little dry in some spots, I like how he lightens it up with plenty of humor.

          1. re: Pat Hammond

            Pat, potato and tulip are the missing plants. My copy of THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA is on my night table patiently waiting its turn while I finish other reads.

            1. re: Sherri

              Oh, right! Thanks! I think you'll enjoy it. pat

      2. You corporatize any system and some of those corporations are going to become deceitful and corrupt.

        A long time ago I started researching WHICH organic brands to use: for instance I use a local organic milk brand that actually does allow the cows to roam and be 'free range' rather than the 'open air available' which can mean anything. There are a lot of resources out there to research companies and like with anything - it takes some work.

        Like RJ Reynolds/Horizon....I won't buy from them.

        I haven't read the book yet, but like the others, I will and then I'll find ways to overcome the dilemna (I haven't eaten fast food since reading Fast Food Nation and went 100% organic about at that time). I hope the author gives somes answers, as well?

        All I can do is my very best for a healthy body and a sustainable earth and creatures that we treat with respect.

        3 Replies
        1. re: krissywats

          I'm waiting for my copy to arrive. It's been discussed on NPR alot in the past 2-3 weeks. I bet you can find it on www.npr.com and stream it or download it into your ipod. So interesting!

          1. re: Gayle

            particularly good on NPR was the author's interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC - it was a three way discussion with Ruth Reichel, which added another dimension to the talk
            (I had heard him on Terry Gross's show the day before that - looking forward to the book)

          2. re: krissywats

            Hi Krissy,

            What's the RJR/Horizon connection? I googled around for a while and all I found was that Horizon is owned by Dean Foods (not that it's by any means inconceivable that Dean is owned by RJR, but I couldn't find anything saying that's so).

            Rgds,
            _Adam

          3. j
            janet of reno

            I haven't red the book yet, but I intend to. However, I found the author's interview with Terry Gross on NPR to be fascinating. The discussion about corn/corn products/corn syrup etc. now has me obsessed with corn syrup. He is absolutely right that it is everywhere in American processed food products. Its even in pretzels, for pete's sake....

            1. We just got our mail from yesterday and in the bundle was the latest issue of Mother Jones. Funny - the cover story is an excerpt from The Omnivore's Dilemma. Lots of cool pictures of Joel Salatin's *beyond organic* pastured farm. It's a Weston Price devotee's slice of heaven.

              1. In the same vein, I read a lovely article in the New Yorker written by a man who believes that you should know what you're eating, who goes to a village in Tuscany and learns pig preparation from a butcher who follows the same methods his ancestors used in 1530.

                Link: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content...

                2 Replies
                1. re: Brian S

                  Thank you so much for posting this, Brian. I saw this issue of the New Yorker yesterday at the bookstore and didn't get it because I made a promise to myself I'd get the subscription already and stop buying single issues.

                  Great piece of writing:)

                  1. re: EMZ

                    Yeah, it's a lovely article. You get to meet the butcher and an assorted wacky cast of characters, see how the pig is prepared and hear the raucous and often ribald dialogue. He could have simply visited a restaurant and written about the taste. But that would have given me far less appreciation for the food. Eating isn't just about consuming food, it's about the people who prepared it, and history too.

                2. Here's a link to the Fresh Air interview with Pollan

                  Link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st...

                  1. I hate to be a TDQ-come-lately to this discussion, but have any of you been reading John Mackay's blog? Mr. Mackay is co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods. He posted a lengthy "open letter" to Mr. Pollen. Then, Mr. Pollen wrote a response, which Mr. Mackay posted in his blog. Mr. Mackay's reply to Mr. Pollen's repsonse appears in the blog, as well as quite a bit of response from the public at large.

                    It's a fascinating (and perhaps mind-changing, for me anyway) read.

                    http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blogs...

                    ~TDQ

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      Yes I've read the exchange. I'm glad that Mackay is aware of what the blogworld thinks of WFoods. I noticed that my local WF now has a huge sign proclaiming their support for local farmers.

                      1. re: cheryl_h

                        Do you think that's a good thing? I detect a hint of skepticism from you about their sincerity in the changes they've said they're making to increase their support of local farmers(thought I could just be reading more into it than what's really there.)

                        ~TDQ

                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                          I think it's mostly PR, but any support of local farming is good I guess. I still prefer my farmer's markets. WF is good about naming sources of many of their products so anyone who is interested can do their own research.

                          1. re: cheryl_h

                            I too, worry that its just PR. I would like to think that it isn't. Where I live, there is a waiting list for farmers wanting to get into the Farmers Market. And, there are just a handful of markets compared to a pretty sprawling metro area, so most people have to drive to them. It would be terrific to have more.

                            So, if there were a way for local farmers to sell their excess produce to WF AND to sell their produce at a weekly "Farmers Market" in WF's parking lot, those would be good things, I think.

                            I suspect it's too late to see any results this growing season where I live, but it would be interesting to see where this issue stands this time next year.

                            ~TDQ

                      2. re: The Dairy Queen

                        John Mackey is overreacting. The Omnivore's Dillema is not about Whole Foods, in fact the name "Whole Foods" appears on about 16 pages of the 400+ page book. Pollan's assesment of "Industrial Organic" food production is ambivalent. It positive as well as negative, and more revealing than criticial.

                        Mackey's letters are empty rhetoric. Though they are almost unreadably long, he fails to answer Pollan's central question: what percentage of Whole Foods TOTAL SALES are from products supplied by local, artisinal food producers. Instead Mackey confuses the reader by focusing on the percentage breakdown of their vendots.
                        To clarify by a purely speculative example: Whole Foods sells 20 types of nut butter, 19 are from artisinal, family nut butter producrs, one is from an industrial organic company. As Mackey is quick to point out: 95% of their nut butter suppliers are artisinal family farms. But if 60% of nut butter sales go to the low priced, industrial organic nut butters than that 95% figure is meaningless.

                        Pollan's primary criticisms of the Industrial Organic are not centered on Whole Foods, but on some of their most important suppliers: Petaluma Poultry, Earthbound Farms and Cascadian Farms. Mackay criticizes Pollan for not contacting Whole Foods, but he had plenty of interaction with these three suppliers, who represent a significant percentage of Whole Food's sales. Two facts that sum up his argument:
                        -Organic "Rosie" Free Range chickens grown by Petaluma Poultry never set foot outside.
                        -It takes 60 calories of energy to bring one calorie of Earthbound Farms organic mixed greens to the plate of a diner in Manhattan.

                        Pollan's conclusion regarding industrial organics is mixed. He points out that the growth of organic mega-farms such as Earthbound represent growth in pesticide and herbicide free land (although petroleum consumption is comparable to conventional africulture). Certainly movements towards more humane animal husbandry are positive. But Pollan's point is that most consumers believe that the products sold at Whole Foods are far more sustainable, artisinal, healthy and humane than they actually are (Pollan refrains from really delving into the issue of pseudo-healthy, organic junk food such as TVP and processed soy prducts). Whole Foods projects an image that, though not technically false, is certainly misleading. I heard gasps from the audience at my local book store in Berkeley when Pollan spoke of the conditions of the Organic Rosie Chicken (a staple at NorCal Whole Foods markets) and these were from people who consider themselves informed and progressive thinking eaters.

                        I am thrilled with the growth of Industrial Organic agriculture. Anything that moves away from the current, highly unsustainable model is a good thing. Wal-Mart is selling organic? Fantastic! But I have no delusions about Industrial Organic food. It is still far removed from an ideal of artisinal, local farmers, ranchers and food processers. Pollan's intent is to make that distinction clear to the consumer, and Mackay's intent is to obscure that distinction.

                        1. re: Morton the Mousse

                          Thank you for this reply. I'm only recently getting up to speed on Omnivore's Dilemma and honestly, I have only read press about the book and excerpts from the book, not the book in its entirety. In an effort to save on paper, I'm waiting for a friend to finish it so we can swap.

                          I'm embarrassed to ask, but I'm going to anyway because with a handle like mine one cannot take oneself too seriously, what is TVP?

                          I do understand the importance of buying local and supporting local farmers. I shop at farmers markets and my local co-op (although, I still find that an astonishing percentage of produce from my "local" market comes from a couple thousand miles away.)

                          May I ask your opinion on this, what are the ethics of eating seasonally? What if you live in a place where the growing season is very short? Places in the upper Midwest where you might have only 90 (or fewer) frost free days a year? What are the ethics of buying fresh buy "imported" (either from within or without the U.S.) produce then?

                          John Mackay makes the point that Whole Foods customers want organic produce even when it’s out of season. Sure, in some parts of the U.S., along the West coast certainly, where you can just eat what's in season. But, in other parts of the country, it needs to be imported from somewhere, unless you're only supposed to eat frozen, canned or root vegetables, which the chowhound part of me can’t bear. If I eat locally and seasonally whenever possible but supplement my diet with “imported” out of season organic produce, is that an acceptable compromise?

                          I find much of the debate about the ethics of our food choices to be California-centric, partly because California supplies a lot of produce to the rest of the country, but also because (my opinion only) California tends to be driving the importance-of-organics discussion for various socio-political reasons.

                          Even though I haven’t read Pollen’s book in its entirety, and I do understand the point you’re making about 16 pages and the significant amount of time he spent with WF suppliers, in hindsight, it might have been best for him to have asked Whole Foods for an interview and let them decline. He could have protected himself from that particular criticism they are making of him and, except for being able to say that they declined to be interviewed, his book would have been substantially unchanged.

                          ~TDQ

                          1. re: The Dairy Queen

                            TVP stands for textured vegetable protein and is used as a meat analog, for instance as a replacement for ground beef in lasagne.

                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              I agree with you that much of the "locavore" perspective is California-centric. However, Pollan's point isn't that people should only be buying from local farmers. He just wants to poke holes in the Whole Foods image and make it clear that when you buy goods from Whole Foods you aren't necessarily supporting small, artisinal, humane family farms and ranches.

                              In hindsight, it would have been good of Pollan to interview Whole Foods for the book. But I believe Pollan's point that he was approaching Whole Foods from the perspective of a consumer, not a journalist. He tried to show what the average shopping trip to Whole Foods felt like, and what the average meal from Whole Foods tasted like. He focused his invvestigative journalism on the suppliers themselves. In another section of the book from the consumer's perspective, Pollan describes a family meal at McDonalds. I certainly wouldn't have expected him to interview McDonalds so he could ask them their opinion on the Big Mac he ate.

                              Textured Vegetable Protien or TVP is one of the most hideous creations embraced by the Industrial Organic industry. Any time you see "fake" chicken, beef, pork, etc it is most likely made from TVP. TVP production is energy intensive and environmentally deleterious, it is undigestible, it contains little of nutritional value and it tastes terrible. However, it is the main ingredient in many organic, vegetarian, processed foods. Consumers believe they are eating something healthy but in fact the long term health consequences of TVP are unknown.

                              1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                Pikawicca and MTM--thank you for your replies. Is TVP labelled as such so you know you're eating it? Honestly, until now, I would have assumed it harmless. I'm going to do a CH search (and then a google search), but if you have any recommendations on how I educate myself more on this, I would appreciate your thoughts.

                                Thank you again,

                                ~TDQ

                        2. I am going to read it. I loved the Salon article. Thanks!

                          1. I'm inspired by MP. He's challenging Mackey to do better because he's in a position to move the needle more. (sure Mackey's flack folks are writing his dish) but as a direct result Whole Foods now states on all produce signs where the item is from. Transparency at last. Additionally each WF is now required to buy "out the back door" from a minimum of 4 local providers.

                            1. I read TOD while on vacation recently.

                              I now understand the source of all of the anti-chain, anti-HFCS, anti-big agribusiness, anti-mass market meat, pro-artisan, locovore, etc. sentiment that is so common on CH. I am more committed to buying and eating meat that has been humanely raised and slaughtered. While Slow Food was only tangentially discussed in TOK, I still find SF's arguments uncompelling.

                              However, as a scientist, I have a healthy soupcon of skepticism about Pollan's position. Frankly, given his clear biases, I don't know enough about a lot of the topics discussed (ecology, food science, etc.) to be totally convinced about the totality of his position against corn-derived products, use of pesticides, etc.

                              I do believe that many of his observations are self-evident though, hence I will seek out and pay for "good" meat.

                              Here's the other thing that bothered me. He states that meals 1 and 4 are both unsustainable; McDonalds because it destroys the environment and people who eat McDonalds directly and indirectly and because of its dependence on petroleum, a limited resource. He also says the meal he hunted and gathered is unsustainable, presumably because of the amount of time required to obtain the food.

                              I believe that there is consensus among historians that man's cultural and scientific advancements over the milennia are predominantly because instead of each adult using 14 hours a day to hunt, gather, and prepare food, the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals for food and labor enabled greater efficiency in food production. That allowed for specialization of people, permitting education, research, and artists to start, then flourish.

                              If one accepts that as truth, why has Pollan discounted the additional efficiencies of mass-market food production to free more time such that humans can achieve more? Our scientific knowledge has been doubling every ten years during the era of industrial food (if you can believe THOSE figures).

                              Pollan seems to imply that Polyface is doing it right but is limited to a fairly small scale. So, to feed the entire country, I speculate that Pollan would advocate just having more Polyfaces to serve every community. That's a lot of Polyfaces.

                              Joel Salatin is portrayed as a unique individual. Realistically, how many Joel Salatins are there out there, willing and able to work and farm like that to produce a great product? If we could find tens or hundreds of thousands of Joel Salatins to make Polyface clones, it would likely drive the price of this high quality food down. Maybe that wouldn't bother Joel Salatin, maybe it would drive him out of business. However, I assert that you can't find enough Joel Salatins out there. If we had 100,000 Polyface clones (which assumes that one Polyface can feed 3000 people...I have no idea whether that's true) we would have a broad spectrum of abilities and dedication to farm like Polyface. The less capable/committed farmers will start "cheating" to keep pace with the ones who can.

                              Another bias is that Pollan failed to factor in how much gas was used to drive to the Sierra to gather his morels. On that banner day, they brought back 60 pounds. How about when they drive that far and bag 1 pound. How about the gas used in his unsuccessful boar and chanterelle hunts? There was no mention of that petrochemical use.

                              Please discuss.

                              13 Replies
                              1. re: filth

                                Hi, thought provoking post. (I read the book too, for the record, and agreed with a lot of his points, but his upper-middle class angst was a little irritating after a while.) Just wanted to add something in the vein of your point about industrial efficiency allowing for pursuit of other, non food-gathering or -preparation activities. I think people often overlook how much modern women's ability to pursue careers of their choice has been affected by mass-production of food. Now that we ladies do not have to spend the majority of our hours per day preparing food for our (historically large) families, we have time to pursue other goals. I say this as a woman, a former professional cook, who is passionate about cooking and food, devoted to her local farmers market, is friends with quite a few farmers, makes almost everything from scratch and eats practically zero processed food. But, that is my choice, and it is a luxury to be able to CHOOSE to do these things.

                                If I wanted to spend 100 hours a week running a company or practicing law or medicine, I sure would not be able to spend the hours I do shopping for and preparing my food and I am sure I would be grateful that many, many prepared foodstuffs exist so that I can both work and eat. And not have to go home after a 12-hour day and kill, scald, pluck, and cook the chicken I want to eat for dinner.

                                Not saying that industrial food production is the fundamental cause of women's freedom (hardly!), and it obviously both benefits and causes harm to people and the environment, but it is easy for us to take for granted many of the benefits that industrialization has given to those of us lucky enough to live in wealthy, first-world countries.

                                1. re: filth

                                  It's all about the hidden costs. It's only truly efficient if at the end of the day, the hidden costs that have been passed on to society and to the world, aren't greater than the benefits of the efficiencies. Otherwise we're just using resources and shifting wealth - the rich get richer, the poor get exploited. Why should the "sustainable" model be any different? Is someone claiming that there are no hidden costs for sustainable enterprises? That would be truly amazing, since every human endeavor since we stopped hunting and gathering, and since we invented the wheel has had unforeseen consequences and hidden costs.

                                  Efficiencies = more leisure time = couch potatoes = increased medical costs... Well - it may not be progress, but it's commerce!

                                  Eat foie gras and beluga caviar while you can.

                                  1. re: applehome

                                    You're talking more about "public" or "social" costs and goods. Public goods include the ecosystem services provided by tropical forests, watersheds, biodiversity, soils in many areas, and the like. These goods are most often undervalued. Although the costs of depletion of such goods can be extemely high to society, users are often way undercharged. Slash-and-burn farmers in the Amazon live briefly from the organic matter in tropical forests,converting forests at a high cost to society.

                                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                      Sam,

                                      IIRC, this is your area of expertise. Can you speak to this from a hard scientific and financial perspective? My sense is that people who criticize big agriculture have some empirical and theoretical grounds but have their biases and see things through the tinted lenses that support their hypothesis.

                                      My sense of it is that ecological "harm" is a very hazy subject. From my own perspective [medical research and adult entertainment :-)], the more complex the system, the more difficult it is to tease out cause and effect. And, the more covariates, the more difficult it is to predict consequences and interpret results. This leads to the cynic's statement that an experiment can be designed to show whatever the investigator wants it to. I have seen first hand that that is true.

                                      IMO, the effects to biological systems are often poorly predictable. When put on the ecological scale, I would have to imagine that it is truly impossible to control for variables since, I reckon, we can't even identify all the counfounders.

                                      This is why I have my own skepticism about the "beyond organic/back to nature" types.

                                      1. re: filth

                                        It is not so difficult to quantify many of the effects of human activities on ecosystems or agricultural ecosystems. You're right that complex interactions lead to more understanding and measurement difficulties. More difficult is valuating--assigning quantitative value to social goods. While experiments can be designed to provide a desired outcome, the process of peer review generally gets people back to honest science.

                                        Overall and as a personal opinion, people should think globally when thinking about food systems and the ways we eat.

                                  2. re: filth

                                    i think one of pollan's main standing points is that u.s. food policy is currently begetting, funding and enforcing unsustainable food systems. pollan would say that one of the reasons there are not thousands of polyface farms is that law and subsidies pay the monsanto and cargill types to monopolize and put the salatin types at increasing disadvantage as their numbers and economic clout diminish.

                                    re the "additional efficiencies of of mass-market food production": actually when you add up all factors, there are diseconomies of scale as farm size increases. an interesting paper on the subject:

                                    http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream...

                                    as far as pollan's biases, i think he's got some skewed perceptions on agricultural systems due to living in california. he's a journalist, and doesn't paint himself as a scientist or economist, he writes books as food for thought. he isn't a demigogue to be followed blindly.

                                    1. re: filth

                                      I think you're wrong about the issue of time in food production, or at least the consensus about it. There's some evidence that hunter-gatherers spend considerably *less* time getting and preparing food than the early agriculturalists did. There's also counter-evidence, of course, and it's dangerous to generalize too much from studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers, since we don't know how much like prehistoric hunter-gatherers they are. Still, agriculture isn't necessarily the most time-sparing way of making a living.

                                      The undisputed advantages of agriculture are a) that you can stay in one place year round, rather than migrating to where the food is in a given season, and b) you can support a larger population on less land. Staying put gives you more incentive to develop your material culture, since you don't have to carry everything with you. It also allows you to store food, which means that there are seasons when you may be spending little or no time on food production. Development of material culture then eventually does lead to labor-saving tools and practices, specialization, social stratification, long-distance trade, writing, etc., etc. The concentration of population also has a lot of influence on development of art and technology -- you get a critical mass of creative people together, and they start building on one anothers' ideas and achievements.

                                      At least, those were some of the arguments that seemed to have the most currency when I was studying anthropology a decade ago.

                                      [Edited to add a couple of sentences.]

                                      1. re: jlafler

                                        As an anthropologist you would know that there was a huge overlap between amounts of leisure time for traditional hunter-gatherers and sedentary agriculturalists. Many hunter gatherers at the time of European contact had been pushed into marginal and degraded/ing areas. They had lilttle leisure time.

                                        On the other hand earlier and some post-contact groups did quite well: the Kwakiutl and other NW coast groups dependent on salmon and bear fat; the sub-Saharan group (I forget!) dependent on mgongo nuts; Great Plains groups with horses who depended on buffalo; the acorn eaters of the lower Sierra Nevada (?), and the like.

                                        Agriculture in the favorable areas may have been fun for a bit, but unfortunately almost instantaneously gave way to surpluses and then to stratified societies. The poor worked the land, were subjugated and taxed, and the social layers of the rich and powerful sat on their shoulders. Class differentiation was even stronger as the elites controlled water through irrigation. And agriculture in more marginal areas has always been able to support a lot of people in moderate to extreme poverty--as is teh case today.

                                      2. re: filth

                                        Exponential growth in organic farms and ranches over the past few decades indicates that there are many would-be Joel Salatins out there. The largest barrier to growth in organic farming is not public disinterest, but government regulations and subsidies that make organic farming less profitable and competitive than it would be in a free market that placed a value on externalities.

                                        1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                          There are also a growing number of organizations devoted to bringing the diner into direct contact (and thereby encouraging interaction) with the farmer, wine maker, cheese maker, etc., through dinners provided from produce and meat raised on local farms. One of the most interesting of these is Outstanding in the Field, founded by Jim Denevan (www.outstandinginthefield.com). The dinners sell out superfast, though.

                                          1. re: Morton the Mousse

                                            Sorry, free markets don't value externalities. Unfortunately, it is up to "governments" (policy) to assign and enforce values to goods in order to have consumers, producers, or other actors internalize previous externalities.

                                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                              This probably isn't the right forum for a debate of economic theory. Existing "free" markets don't value externalities. But in theory, free markets trumpet property rights, and you can't have absolute property rights without a mechanism that values externalities.

                                          2. re: filth

                                            Joel Salatin and Polyface were held as the ideal in Omnivore's Dilemma. Has anyone read (I'm sure most DC hounds have) about the new deal with Polyface and Chipotle in Charlottesville?

                                            http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...

                                            I'm curious how this will hold out in the future with rising demand for his pork. This sounds like the beginning of Stoneyfield Farm and how Hirshberg went from a small farm to large factory organics to keep up with rising demands.