The Omnivore's Dilemma looks at how Americans (and it's very definitely Americans) eat, by planning and eating three meals. One represents "industrial agriculture", defined as the foods most people eat most times, either from supermarkets or fast-food restaurants. One represents "organic agriculture", and one hunted, gathered, and self-grown foods--"eating off the grid".
Yes, that's three and Pollan's title says four. It turns out there are two kinds of "organic" (at least in some people's minds), so Pollan is forced to eat two meals for that category.
Category 1 is industrial agriculture. Indeed, a theme of the book as a whole is how this country's policies (at the Federal level) have turned agriculture from a craft, or a small business, into an industry, changing the entire food chain into a single industrial process with one main input and several outputs. That one major input is corn. Our current system (at least in Pollan's analysis) effectively forces many farmers to not only grow corn, but to grow as much corn as physically possible on their land, every year, with maximum application of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. Because their government subsidies (which all corn farmers get) are based on bushels (not acres), the more corn they deliver to the grain elevator, the more their income, period end of sentence. This forces corn production up far above real demand, of course. What that means is that prices drop, meaning that subsidies drop every year or so ... but that just means the farmer is motivated to deliver more corn to the elevator.
The real beneficiary of all this, in Dilemma's analysis, is Big Agriculture, companies like Cargill and Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland. And McDonald's—as Pollan documents, well over half the food you eat at McDonald's is corn-based. The chickens are corn-fed, as are the beef cattle (and the pigs that make the bacon in Egg McMuffins). Corn sweetener is used in sauces and breads. Corn oil is used in deep-frying of the rare non-corn food, french fries. Corn byproducts (and more corn syrup) are used in the shakes, and corn syrup is the main ingredient of the sodas.
It's really agriculture-as-industry. There is zero motivation for a farmer to produce better, higher-quality crops. In fact, there's a disincentive, since the grain elevator will only pay you a standard rate for a standard product, say #2 corn. There is just no market for especially good-tasting or attractive crops on the industrial scale, which is the way farmers get paid.
What makes turning crops into industrial products especially insidious is that the government ends up deciding what most people will eat. Because there's so much corn out there (far more than we can actually eat as corn) it gets used in everything, and fed to everything. Trouble is, corn-fed beef is demonstrably less healthy than grass-finished. Corn syrup seems to be less healthy than cane sugar.
I like grass-fed beef, myself, but it's quite hard to find in "ordinary" stores. I even tried Whole Foods locally, but they seem to only have corn-finished stuff. In fact, the USDA has determined that "marbled" beef is better than non-marbled. Marbling with fat means "corn-finished". The U.S. Government is subsizing and insisting on a less-healthy food.
And to top it all off: every calorie of energy in industrial corn requires more than one calorie of energy in the form of fertilizers and fuels and other chemicals to grow. We're basically eating petroleum. (Pollan doesn't mention this, but this also makes the idea of corn-derived ethanol as a motor fuel insane. It's converting petroleum into another fuel at great cost, then burning it anyway. Ethanol derived from less-petroleum-intensive crops would make sense, or at least more sense.)
The first meal was at McDonald's. Mostly corn-based, disposable, eaten in 10 minutes in a car.
Researching his organic meal, Pollan found that as organic food has become more popular, it has spawned (as anyone would predict) its own industry. Most "organic" food now is grown on factory farms. Organic beef and chicken comes from corn-fed factory-raised animals. The difference is that they're fed "organically-raised" corn, meaning only certain fertilizers and pesticides can be used. His "industrial-organic" meal is just stuff bought in a fancier supermarket. As he writes, it's probably somewhat healthier and environmentally superior to non-organic food, but it's a small difference in degree, not a different kind of food.
The other organic meal is what might be called "really organic" (although nobody in the book actually calls it that). It's food raised on a "grass farm". Not only no fertilizers or pesticides are used: this farm uses only a small amount of purchased feed. The cattle eat grass. The chickens eat insects and grass (and some corn). The turkeys eat grass and insects and other forest-fodder. The pigs eat in the forests, and also some commercial feed. The rabbits ... the point I'm making is that it's very complex. This one farm, worked by 5 people, raises all those animals plus several kinds of produce. They don't use the same high-tech that an Iowa corn farm uses, but it's definitely not anti-scientific. The owner of Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin, and his father, have invented a bunch of new equipment to make this style of farming maximally efficient. They use machines, and the whole growth cycle is based on a sophisticated knowledge of the physiology of both the plants and animals, combined with the intimate experience with them that a third-generation farmer like Salatin ends up with.
And by Pollan's account the place produces wonderful food. Local restaurants advertise specials using Polyface ingredients—everyone knows that Polyface eggs are better than storebought. That's one way the place is profitable, they can charge a premium for their they-wouldn't-call-them-products. They also sell a lot of stuff directly to locals who just plain want really good, really healthy chickens, rabbits, eggs, and produce.
With the Polyface-stuff meal, Pollan starts to get into the food writing genre. What I mean is, you start getting really sensuous, hunger-inducing descriptions of how he prepared what was apparently a really, really good meal of Polyface chicken, eggs (in a souffle) and so forth.
For his final meal, he goes even closer to nature. In order to prepare this feast, he learns to hunt and gather. Literally, he learns to use a rifle, hunts his own pig, and gathers his own wild mushrooms, fruit, and shellfish. He also engages in horticulture, growing his own produce in a garden to create a final repast that's described in such luscious, tender terms that I felt, not hungry, but replete after reading about it. (It probably isn't a coincidence that Pollan also wrote The Botany of Desire).
Pollan's too good a writer not to have deliberately made a progression here from the sterile, quickly-bolted McDonald's meal through the adequate organic-groceries meal to the excellent Polyface Farm meal, to the ultimate, wonderful, nearly-religious-experience that he makes of the hunted, gathered, and self-grown feast he ends his quest with. It works.
It's a rich book. In this essay I haven't even touched on whole themes of the book (like what it's like to work in the food business). It's a personal book, partly about the author's family and friends. And, in conclusion, it's an excellent book, and I recommend it to anyone who eats.
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals