Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Take a look around in your local supermarket in America.  It has so many varieties, differences, and features that we would think that it looks like something like this:

Indeed, we think of it as the ultimate variety for the omnivore.  Not so fast, says Pollan.  Looks can be deceiving.  Out of all the things in the American supermarket, almost all of the foods have (or derived from) two vegetables: corn and soy.  Your soda is made up of high fructose corn syrup.  It feeds your beef, chicken, and pork.  The eggs come from chickens who eat corn.  Milk comes from cows which ate corn.  A chicken nugget has many levels of corn.  The chicken eats the corn, the corn starch keeps the nugget together, the corn flour is the batter, and then it’s cooked in corn oil.  Your coffee creamer, Cheez Whiz, frozen TV dinner, canned fruit, ketchup, soups, snacks, cake, salad dressings. . . all corn.  Even the packaging is either corn or soy derived.  What a magical vegetable right?  Possibly.

Part I: Corn

Pollan talks about the industry and how corn has lost its function as food, but has now become a commodity.  Just look how ubiquitous corn has become.  Indeed, Pollan seems to suggest through evolutionary terms: we haven’t conquered corn; corn has conquered us.  Corn is using us so that the plant can prosper and grow everywhere.  Indeed, we are its pollinators and corn has definitely become the number one vegetable in the US.

The farms that grow the corn can feed about 129 people, but it can’t even feed the farmers who grow the corn themselves.  These crops are inedible that must be processed or fed to livestock.  How odd that we’re growing a grain that can’t even be consumed by humans unless it’s first processed.  However, the soil can’t handle that much of a single crop.  Farmers like to rotate their crops because each crop yields different nutrients.  However, there’s nothing to rotate because there’s only one single grain: corn.  So the farmers have to get synthetic fertilizer in order to make the soil usable.  With this, we no longer need the sun to grow the corn, we just need synthetic fertilizer.  What’s it made up of?  Mainly petroleum.  How much oil is needed to grow corn?  It’s estimated to be about 50 gallons of oil per acre.  Talk about a big dependence on oil.

The cattle are made to eat grass; that’s how they evolved.  The symbiotic relationship between grass and cattle is uncanny.  The cattle spreads the grasses seeds, stomps it in the ground with their hooves, fertilizes it with its own manure, and makes sure that other shrubs don’t hog the sunlight.  In turn, the grass gives cattle a free lunch.  That’s how the environment stays steady.  However, most cattle won’t eat grass in their adult years.  Why not?  Cows raised on grass take longer to fatten up.  In your grandfather’s time, cows were four to five years old when they got slaughtered.  In the fifties, the cattle would be two or three years old.  Nowadays, it’s about fourteen to sixteen months.  Fast food indeed.  They are fed corn in order to fatten them up.  It’s corn, protein (made up of molasses and urea (synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas)), fat (which is made up of beef tallow), and drugs.  Because of this, there is actual environmental harm in cattle feedlots.  The evolutionary relationship is lost and many places around these farm lots are becoming arid and a desert.  The calves are weaned from their mothers pretty quick.  Both the cow and the mother are mopey and get stressed.  But it’s so that the mother can produce more calves, and also to get these new calves fattened quickly.

With the cattle eating from corn, their meat marbles (“intramuscular fat”) which Americans have learned to love the taste of.  However, it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meats of grass-fed animals.  A lot of studies show that most of the health problems are associated with corn-fed beef.  So in a weird twist of irony, cows can’t handle eating the corn, and humans are having a hard time eating the cattle who eat the corn.  So why do it?  Well, corn is cheap and it’s the most convenient commodity on the market.  Because they can’t eat this grain (nature has made it so that they can’t eat it), they usually get sick.  That’s where the drugs come in.  Anti-biotics help out the farms nowadays.  It used to be that cheap protein was just to get the leftover parts from slaughtered cows back to the cows (cannibalism).  However, scientists discovered that this was probably the leading cause of mad-cow disease.  What surprised me is that the FDA banned cow parts to the cows except for blood products and fat.  Thus, cattle could still be eating beef tallow from slaughtered cows.  Feather meal and chicken litter (bedding, chicken shit, and discarded bits of feed) is accepted.  Again, it’s cheap protein and fat.  When a rancher first started in the business and he learned that cattle were eating cattle, his response was, “To tell you the truth, it was kind of a shock to me, too.”  Indeed.

With all of these diseases, about 15 to 30% cattle have abscessed livers.  This is where antibodies come in.  However, most doctors give the anti-bodies to the cattle before they get sick.  From an evolutionary perspective, that means the bugs will have a better chance of “learning” about the antibody which will create “superbugs” which will be a bigger problem.  If these drugs were banned, like some public health experts advocate, there would be a huge death rate among cattle.

The Omnivores' Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The Omnivores' Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The manure that spills out has so many residues, chemicals and heavy metals that the pool isn’t just manure, it’s literally toxic waste.  In the summer time, there’s a lot of dust that gets kicked around.  The author, at first, thought is was just dirt being kicked around, but after looking around, he realized is was actually dust from dried manure.  The cattles’ eyes are bloodshot from this dust.  The manure is everywhere that the cattle sometimes have to sleep in it.  When they get ready for slaughter, the manure is sometimes caked on them and it can get in the meat which has caused E. Coli O 157:H7.  This bacteria wasn’t known before 1980.  This bacteria has evolved to withstand the antibodies.  Because the cattle eat so much corn, one cattle consumes about 35 gallons of oil equivalency just to be fattened up.  The modern cattle has become a fossil fuel machine.

To process the corn, it requires fuel.  Yep, you guessed it: oil.  For every calorie of processed food, ten calories of fossil fuel is burned up.  Go to your pantry or cupboards.  The longer the ingredient list, the more it has corn or soybean derivatives in your food.  The food scientists are trying to figure out a way for people to have more ingredients into the food.  Why?  For all commodities, you spend what you want.  With Dave Matthews, for example, I’ll try to buy all of their albums and other stuff because that’s what I want.  I can keep buying their stuff as long as I have the money.  Food, however, is different.  I stop spending money when I get full.  For the food industry, the rate of growth is about 1% per year, and this 1% is coming from the growth of American population.  This is slow.  Thus, McDonald’s and General Mills have to either raise prices, or make people want to eat more.  Corn can help with that.  When the food is cheap, people will pay more for it.  With sugar and fat, we’ll continually eat it, even if it’s not to our benefit.  Evolution has made us like sweet things and fatty things.  It’s worked, but now the world has more obese people than starving people.  Indeed, there’s a pattern between obesity, diabetes and poverty.  Poor people can only afford cheap things.  Well, cheap things aren’t that healthy for you (usually).

Finally, Pollan checks out McDonald’s and was surprised with some of the foundings.  (I was too.)  For example, a chicken McNugget contains dimethylpolysiloxene.  It’s a carcinogen.  The McNugget also contains tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHG).  It’s lighter fluid!  Ingesting five grams of lighter fluid and kill.  About 0.02 percent of TBHG is in the McNugget.  With fast food, it’s doesn’t have that great savoring moment.  After all, which would you rather have: fast food or a home-cooked meal?  A home-cooked meal just feels (and tastes) more satisfying.  Thus, people eat more and more fast food to try and get that “savory” feeling (and taste) that they once had.

Part II: Grass

In this section, Pollan investigates the growing organic movement.  He interviews a farmer, and this farmer has stated that the organic movement has become too industrial where it shouldn’t be considered organic anymore; the government now defines it to their skewed definition.  Things that are organic uses a lot more energy and so it defeats the purpose of having an environmental aspect.  Indeed, the farmer goes on and says that if organic food expands into supermarkets and even fast-food, organic food loses its ideals of being organic in the first place.  It’s now become a contradiction in terms.  This is where Pollan investigates these claims.

When something’s organic, we automatically think of a little quant farm, but in actuality, it mimics the same industrial farm in the previous part.  The Organic movement started off as a philosophical position, but now it’s become a big business.  Whole Foods has taken advantage of this.  With these big businesses taking over, supporting small farms can’t work.  With organic foods, we tend to think of them coming from many small farms, but almost all organic food comes from two companies: Earthbound Farm and Grimmway Farms.

Organic milk still comes from factory farms.  The government has taken the word “organic” and has given it a federal definition.  In this definition, it doesn’t matter how animals are treated, they just have to be fed organic things. So organic cows may never see a blade of grass, being confined in a lot eating (organic) grains.  It’s ultrapasteurized so that the organic companies like Horizan and Aurora can sell it over long distances.  The phrase “access to pasture” is also vague.

Organic TV dinners still have many ingredients that a typical TV dinner has.  The “natural flavors” are still made synthetically in a laboratory.  Under the federal definition, it’s still deemed “organic.”  It’s because that food grown in different states have different calories and vitamins.

Carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida.

Because we can’t constantly have different vitamins printed on the same label, the secretary of agriculture has simplified it by saying that organic food is no better than conventional food.  In reality, it may not be true.  A Davis research has shown that organic foods contained more vitamins than conventionally grown food.

Chickens and cows in organic farms still looks like a typical factory farm.  The “free-range” on the labels is a superfisial facade.  There’s a door for the chickens to get out of the barn, but the door stays shut for the first six weeks of their life.  After six weeks, the door is opened up, but the chickens don’t leave because they’re used to the indoors.  Besides, it doesn’t matter much because two weeks later, the chickens are slaughtered.  “Free range” doesn’t mean anything.  These “organic” farms have lost their original philosophy.

Pollan does bring up studies, however, showing that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods.  What’s interesting is that in history, any country that has used synthetic soil has collapsed as a civilization!  In other words, the organic movement has become a factory farm!  There’s still migrant labor, mobile factories, animals packed in small confines.  On the surface, one can’t tell the difference between an organic farm and a conventional farm.  Organic philosophy has nothing to do with their original philosophy.

Is organic food better?  In terms of taste, it can be, but not necessarily.  In terms of health, probably.  In terms of the environment, yes: there’s no nitrogen runoff into the waters.  In terms of farmers, yes.: there’s no subsidy checks.  In terms of public health, yes: no pesticides.

The salad that you get from Whole Foods has gotten their lettice from Argentina sometimes.  The shipment requires a lot of fuel, which also requires refrigeration.  Can we really call that organic?  The farmers who have started the organic process claim that these businesses have co-opted the term to their own morphing.  With this, the typical organic meal is still a factory farmed meal.  Foods must travel from different countries which uses up a lot of fuel.  Growing organic food uses less fossil fuels.  However, organic farms usually use up more fossil fuels than conventional farms.  In the end, it balances itself out to conventional foods economically speaking.  Pollan concludes that organic farming is no a contradiction in terms: it’s still seeped in petroleum.

On a real, sustainable farm, the animals and grass work in symbiotic relationship.  The cows eat the grass which leaves manure.  The chickens eat the larve in the manure and the chicken shit leaves nitrogen for the grass.  The cycle starts over again.  Pigs work best if they are simply pigs instead of “a protein machine with flaws.”  Indeed, pigs are happier.  You’ll never see this in a conventional farm anymore.  On a true, sustainable farm, there’s no need to clean up: the animals have already done it!  The grass is actually helpful to the environment as well.  If the sixteen million acres of corn were replaced with grass, about fourteen billion pounds of carbon would be removed, which is equivalent to removing four million cars.

So why did we do it?  Why did we get rid of all the grass and start growing corn?  MONEY.  It may look that corn produces more food, but studies show that’s actually not true.  Corn was used because it fattened the cattle quicker, but as more farmers did this, the idea of growing grass was slowly lost as knowledge.  Buying corn was cheaper than growing it, and over time, it made more economic sense to make these farms more conventional, in other words: factory farms.  The government came in and helped cattle wean off of grass and onto corn by subsidizing feedlots (tax breaks) and promoted corn-fed cows instead of grass.  The government doesn’t even force conventional farms to obey the clean air and clean water laws.

So it does look like that everything is cheaper. . . but that’s only short-term.  These don’t take into account of the true costs overall indirectly in the long run: the taxpayers have to pay subsidies, the health care gets more expensive through food-borne illnesses and obesity, the environment through pollution, the welfare of the workers and animals.  Overall, grass would make more sense.  But our society, especially in the meat industry, works thogh simplicity and mechanically: our food systems work on an industrial line which means predictability, consistency and interchangeability.  Corn works best through this thought process; grass doesn’t.

Interestingly enough, Pollan mentions that in history, countries who have control over grain wield the most power.

Corn helps drive the industrial complex that drives it.  No wonder the government subsidizes it so lavishly.

But this seems to produce laziness with the farmers nowadays.  True farmers, like the ones that works with grass, works pretty much everyday.  Corn farmers only need to work 50 days a year!  We typically think of farmers as not being smart.  We encourage people that if they’re smart, they should get out of the rural area and enter college.  Who’s left to take care of the farms now?  It’s the D students.  With this, the farms lose our most intelligent people.  As a grass farmer states it: “It’s a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons.”  The chemicals and pesticides on conventional farmers were invented to keep the artificial monoculture intact.

How does slaughtering animals look like on a real farm?  The author states that if one is a meat-eater, s/he should at least partake of slaughtering an animal at least once in his/her life so that one can take some direct responsibility for the killing on which one’s meat-eating depends. Otherwise, I felt the author was saying one doesn’t really deserve to be a meat-eater.  The author kills about a dozen chickens.  It was hard at first (I think slaughtering an animal would be hard, regardless if one eats meat or not), but he eventually got used to it.  We learn that the fats of these animals are actually good for us to eat.  Indeed, he stated that the most troubling thing about slaughter was that he got used to it.  The farmer states that one shouldn’t slaughter animals everyday because one eventually becomes sadistic and treats humans sadisticly too.  Indeed, studies show this, but it seems like we ignore this on conventional farms.  Instead, slaughter only happens a few times a month on real farms so that it doesn’t dehumanize the slaughterers.  With conventional farms, the same people have to do the slaughtering everyday for about 8-10 hours a day.  Imagine if the walls in slaughterhouses were made of glass.  One would see the cruelty, the carelessness, and dirt that goes on.  I don’t think people would want to buy their meat from these companies anymore.  The waste in these conventional slaughterhouses gets recycled, but as “protein meal” which is fed to pigs, cows and the chickens.  So chicken and cow guts gets refurbished and “recycled” as protein for the same animals.  Disgusting!

The market is different at a real farm.  People can go up and grab the chicken they want instead of someone handing them an already roasted chicken with a barcode.  What’s interesting is that barcodes in different countries serve different functions: in Denmark, there’s a second barcode which brings up images of the farm where the meat was raised, what kind of antibiotics the farm used, feed, slaughter date, the works.  I don’t think it would work in the US though.  When we buy food, the consumers don’t want to know that information.

Cheapness and ignorance are mutally reinforcing.  And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring–to the carelessness of both producers and consumers.

In reality, there isn’t a big difference between a Wal-Mart and a Whole Foods: they are part of a globalized market and tries to produce food cheaply.  Most economists agree that a small producer can make a good profit as long as it’s an exceptional product and there’s no imitation to the industrial model.  The focus, therefore, should be on local rather than global markets.  However, the USDA won’t approve some of the techniques at these real farms, such as slaughtering.  But the ironic thing is that these governmental regulations assume that the animals were already living in their own manure and eating corn instead of grass.  The food market has ignored what is really happening in nature.  We want blueberries in the winter time and beef in the summer time, when in nature, it should be the other way around.  If everything is local again, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to what the season is.  Of course, eating local means more work: no more microwaves (unless your original food was local), no blueberries until the summer, no corn until the fall.  Our industrial kitchens are used to that, but neither are we.  Industrial food isn’t the same as real food.

Part III: The Forest

In this last part, Pollan wants to go even further down the food chain and make a meal that he, himself, has either grown, hunted, or gathered.  Vegetables are easy, just grow a garden.  But what about mushrooms or meat?  With that you’ll have to hunt.  Admittedly, Pollan isn’t suggesting we should go back to the hunter/gather mode of our ancestors.  There’s too many humans, and not enough resources.  But at the same time, it’s just impractical to do so.  As Pollan states, hunting and gathering’s “chief value for us at this point is not so much economic or practical as it is didactic.”  Part of this means we can eat a lot of different things (if one is an omnivore), but the problem is how do we know what is safe to eat?  At the beginning, it’s guesswork.  Animals had to eat only a little bit to see if it gave them a stomachache.  If it does, it’s probably best not to eat it.  (This is why it’s so hard to poison rats.)

Along the discovery, Pollan considers the question of going vegetarian.  Since this is a chapter I was very interested in, I’ll go into more details in this chapter.  With the brackets, these were questions that popped into my head as I was reading it.

He’s trying to read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. It’s a book that gets you riled up.  It demands you to defend your eating habits and lifestyle, or else change it.  He agrees that Singer’s arguments are simple and really hard to argue against.  People are equal.  (Yeah, we’ll accept that.)  But what do we mean by it?  After all, people aren’t equal at all: some are smarter, handsomer, more gifted.  But Singer points out, “Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact.”Everyone’s interests ought to receive equal consideration regardless of what they are like or what abilities they have.”  (Yes, I’ll agree.)  If having higher intelligence doesn’t entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?  Basically, the conversation goes like this:

  • Pollan: But humans differ from animals in morally significant ways.
  • Singer: Yes, so we should treat a child and pig alike.  But equal treatment isn’t the same as equal consideration of interests.  Children have an interest of being educated, pigs have an interest in rooting around in the dirt.  So they both have interests, the principle of equality states that they receive the same consideration.  What this means is that children and pigs have something in common when it comes to interest: avoid pain.  Using Bentham, Singer is using the “argument from marginal cases.”  Some humans–infants, the severely retarded, the demented–don’t have the mental function that goes above the chimp.  However, these beings cannot recognize our moral rules, but we still include them in our moral circle and moral consideration.  So why do we exclude the chimp if the mental functions of the chimp are higher than these marginal beings?
  • Pollan: But it’s a chimp, and these marginal beings are human!
  • Singer: Not good enough!  To exclude a chimp because of it’s not human is like excluding a slave because s/he’s not white.  The latter example is racism, the former is speciesism.
  • Pollan: But the differences between blacks and whites are trivial compared to the differences between a boy and the chimp.
  • Singer: Let’s do a thought experiment.  Imagine a society that discriminates on something trivial, like intelligence.  Does that offend you?  It would.  Then why is the fact that animals lack this or that human characteristic any more just as a basis for discrimination?  Either we don’t owe any justice to the severely retarded and marginal beings, or we also owe it to animals with higher capabilities.  So equality means it’s based on interests rather than characteristics.
  • Pollan is stunned.  It could be that evil is going on around us and we don’t even notice it.  Pollan: why should we treat animals any more ethically than they treat one another?  This was Ben Franklin’s defense.  In other words, they do it too, so why can’t we?  It’s natural.  Using the natural law theory.
  • Animal rightists: Do you want to base your morals on the natural order?  Murder and rape are natural, getting eaten by a shark is natural.  And with this, we can choose: we don’t need meat in order to survive; carnivores, however, do.  At the same time, this commits the naturalistic fallacy.  Part of our physiology isn’t suited to eat meat.  Indeed, most of our ailments are due to our meat-eating habits.
  • Pollan: wouldn’t life in the wild be worse for these animals?
  • Animal rightists: This was the same argument made for slaves and women.  Freedom is preferred.
  • Pollan: we raise animals to be eaten.  So without us, they wouldn’t exist.  If everyone in the world was Jewish, there would hardly be any bacon.
  • Animal rightists: but if chickens don’t exist, they can’t be wronged.  It’s like saying it’s a good thing that slaves exist because without us, they wouldn’t exist.
  • Pollan: Animals on factory farms have never known any other life.
  • Animal rightists: Animals feel a need to exercise, stretch their wings or limbs, turn around, regardless if they’ve lived this life or not.”  To measure their suffering, we don’t count their prior experiences, but the frustration of their instincts.
  • Pollan: but there are so many problems in the world, surely the morals concerning animals isn’t the first priority.
  • Animal rightists: but you can do something very simple.  Just stop eating meat.
  • Pollan: but morals deals with moral animals, as Kant points out.  It’s a term reserved for us.
  • Animal rightists: ahh, but what about the marginal people, the slaves and women?  They don’t do any ethical decision making, yet we grant them rights.  The word “us” didn’t include them.
  • Pollan: Yes, but that’s because they’re one of us.  Isn’t it natural to give special consideration to your own kind?
  • Animal rightists: That’s speciesism.  White people have said the same thing: that person is “one of us.”  That other being isn’t.
  • Pollan: Still, we can include these marginal beings because it’s not arbitrary.  We’ll make them into the moral community because we all have been and probably will be marginal people.  Also, these beings have parents, siblings, which makes our interest in their welfare deeper than our interest in the welfare of even the most intelligent animal.

Using utilitarianism, if you perform a painful medical experiment on a severely retarded orphaned child (who probably can’t understand pain), and a normal ape, we must sacrifice the child.  Why?  Because the ape has greater capacity to feel pain.So here’s the problem, the argument for marginal cases can be used to help the animals, but it can also easily hurt the marginal cases.  So it’s consistent logically, but we may not be prepared to hold on to that.  But the problem still stares at you in the face: everyday problems aren’t between choosing an ape or a severely retarded orphaned baby, but between a pig and tofu.  Do we owe any moral consideration to animals?  If so, how can we justify eating them?  Why can’t we torture them?  Yet, we cause them suffering by eating them.

Pollan has bought a steer for slaughter, but they won’t let him see it get slaughtered.  Why?  If people know what happens in a slaughterhouse, people will probably not eat meat.It’s not that it’s inhumane, but it’s because we don’t like to be reminded of what meat is.  Pollan wants to defend eating animals by reading Peter Singer.  Can he do it?  Hunting has gotten a bad reputation these days, even with those that still eats meat.  It’s as if they’re opposed to the killing, but there lies the problem: how did you get that steak?  Or perhaps the Enlightenment has passed through other species much like it’s gone through the other gender (women’s rights) and other races (minority rights).  It’s also the idea that these animals are out of view.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Pigs are easily as intelligent as dogs, yet we’ll slaughter pigs but not dogs.  It’s a cultural thing.  We go and buy meat where it won’t look like an animal.  We don’t want to see the suffering or brutality of animals: it’s the reality of the world.

So what’s a solution: look away (which means we’re not facing reality), or become vegetarians.  Well, Pollan says I choose neither.  With animal experiments, that seems just because it benefits humans.  But with eating animals, we don’t need to eat them anymore, so what exactly are we putting on the human side of the scale to outweigh the interests of the animal?  “It tastes good?”  Does that outweigh or even balance the suffering of an animal?  So it’s one thing to choose an infant over a chimp, or some pigs being sacrificed to learn about surgery, but if the choice is, as Singer puts it, “a lifetime of suffering for a non-human animal and the gastronomic preferences of a human being temporarily,” then it seems hard to justify.  Now Pollan says that it seems biased because he’s already a meat-eater.  So he tries to be a vegetarian for a while so that he can make a non-biased argument for why eating meat is ok.  It’s more work and thought.  Eating meat is more convenient.  What’s interesting is that his vegetarian lifestyle alienates him from other people, it takes away some human experience.  Other people now have to accommodate him and this is either a burden or uncomfortable.  Someone’s going to feel bad.  But at the same time, he feels alienated from traditions that he grew up with: Thanksgiving turkey, hot dogs at the ballpark, and certain family traditions.  Those would have to be gone.  These traditions link us to our history through family, religion, landscape, nation.  Now he’s not saying that we should continue to eat meat because of what we inherited, but we do have a lot that we’ve inherited.  So giving animals rights may get us out of the brutishness of humanity, but we seem to give up a huge part of our identity.  Now it’s not regrettable to give this up, but this isn’t a trivial thing to give up.  Eating meat is something deep in our biology.  [I’m wondering if there is a hidden argument here?  If so, what is it?  Is it a good argument?]

What about language?  It seems that without language, it could make animals be in more pain.  An ape cannot comprehend the purpose of going to the dentist for example.  Going back to the factory farms, animals are treated like machines, “production units,” basically incapable of feeling pain.  But no one believes this anymore.  Thus, eating meat from these places means you have to suspend your beliefs about it and turn away from it.  In other words, ignore it.  Chickens are “force-molted”–starved of food and water for days to trick the body to make more eggs when it eats again.  Debeaking chickens, cutting off tails, and some scientists are figuring out how to take out the “stress gene” so that they won’t feel stressed.  So vegetarianism is an answer.  But there are animals that don’t live on these factory farms.  Polyface farm is an example.  Domestication of animals isn’t slavery.  Thus, Regan is wrong.

Domestication isn’t a master/slave relationship with humans and animals.  There’s no dominance.  Rather, it was an evolutionary development.  It was to their benefit to become domesticated.  How so?  Perhaps tens of thousands of years ago, when just by luck and trial and error, some animals were more likely to survive and prosper when they made an alliance with humans rather than living alone.  Kind of like the bird and the rhinoceros who evolved to work together, maybe domesticated animals and humans evolved to work together: humans gave these animals food and protection, and in return the animals gave us milk, eggs, and even their flesh.  With this, the animals became tame and humans no longer needed to become hunter-gatherers.  With this, there are thousands of domesticated animals and barely wild animals comparatively speaking.  So if Regan is right, then the domesticated animals will actually not be happy.  They don’t want liberation.  They prefer the protection of the farmer rather than the freedom but with the chance of getting eaten by a predator  .So the major difference between a factory farm and a good farm is that a factory farm doesn’t give the animals their “characteristic form of life.”  In other words, eudaimonia. [But I ask so what?  Suppose that this is true.  Singer still needs to be answered: why not go vegetarian?]

But hasn’t the chicken just traded predators?  The weasel for the farmer?  Sure, but it’s not a bad deal.  Which would you take: you live a free life but there’s a good chance you’ll be eaten in the wild at the age of 30 and it’s a miserable death, or you are more restricted (it’s still a relatively good life), but you’ll die around the age of 80 but it’s more of a humane death?  He admits pigs are the exception.  If that’s the case, why not give up pork? [To me, this almost sounds like Hobbes.]  With wild animals, they are needed or else the prey will overpopulate.  Thus, the whole entire herd suffers.  So through evolution, the good life for the dear is to have wolves.  In a similar way, the good life for the chicken is to have a predator, and the best predator is the farmer.  If you want chickens to go extinct, then liberate them.  For the individual, it’s bad news; for the group, you need predators.  The animal rightists only concern themselves with individual animals, not the group.  Can’t a group have interests instead of single individuals?  It’s like a nation or a corporation having interests. [But then here’s a question: could that work for humans too?]

“Morality is an artifact of human culture devised to help humans negotiate human social relations.”  It seems anthropomorphic that our (human) moral system will work in nature.  [If this is true, then why have concern for animals in factory farms?]  With the vegan lifestyle, there’s a clash of interests.  For example, the grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, the farmer’s tractor to get the vegetables crushes birds.  Killing animals is unavoidable no matter what we do or what lifestyle we choose to eat.  “If your goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone” (p. 326).

Interestingly enough, he contacts Singer.  Singer agrees that a Good Farm does add to the total of animal happiness.  But with Singer’s definition of “person,” eating beef and poultry would be ok, but not the intelligent pig.  But Singer does say that he isn’t confident in his arguments and so buying meat from one of these farms might be ok.  Pollan is going to be practical here.  Eating animals, in principle, is moral; it just depends on the practice.

“What this suggests to me is that people who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones they eat don’t suffer, and that their deaths are swift and painless–for animal welfare, in other words, than rights” (p. 328).  With this, Pollan might be in the animal welfareist camp.  Indeed, Bentham was a meat-eater.  His reasoning is similar to Pollan’s.  With hunting, using utilitarianism, it’s better than actually buying meat.  The hunter has made the animal suffer less.So the dilemma again: look away, or become a vegetarian.  Pollan wants to offer a third alternative: look, which will then force us to not buy meat from factory farms.  [Be honest: could you look at the slaughter of a cow, a chicken, or a pig in full exposure?]  If this happens, yes meat will become more expensive, and thus we probably wouldn’t eat it as much.  But if we did eat meat, we would do so with full consciousness, ceremony and the respect they deserve.

It was a fascinating chapter, but I still felt like he didn’t answer the question completely.

The hunt is on.  Pollan hunts for a pig.  This almost felt like reading a journal instead of an analysis of living the forest.  However, he’s very detailed in his trek and the emotionality feels so authentic that I felt I was with him during the hunt.  Hunting takes us away from civilization and to return to the state of nature.  The tourist isn’t in nature, the tourist is simply visiting nature, without getting involved, as if he’s a spectator.  The hunter is nature.  Pollan hunts for wild pigs and when he eventually kills one, he’s amazed and aware that this animal has lost the category of animal and has now become “meat.”

At first, he’s excited.  And when you’re reading along with him, you can’t help but be excited with hiim too.  But as he’s dressing the pig, this excitement quickly shifts into disgust.  He can’t look at the pig with pride, but with cleaning out the pig, the smell, the bloody mess, and the whole process takes him away to wear he feels disgusted.  What interested me was when he’s looking at the photo’s of him and his pig, he can’t help but feel disgusted again.  The pig is splayed open and he feels estranged.  But he’s fully conscious of what he did.

Later on, Pollan searches for mushrooms.  He’s out harvesting with a group and again the hunt is on.  His senses are similar to hunting pig: your senses have to be sharp and fully aware of where the mushrooms are hiding.  But the work behind it makes one fully aware.  By being fully conscious, he’s brought back something to work that’s been missing: self-awareness.  When we cook, we don’t ever think of where it came from or the work that it took to get that food.  But with Pollan making a meal where everything on the menu was from Pollan’s sweat and brow, he’s fully conscious of his meal and the work that was put into it.  He even bakes some bread with wild yeast.  I couldn’t help but think of how work is something we take for granted.  When we work (especially with food), we do take it for granted about the farmers getting the grain, about the ranchers getting the meat, and the gatherers to get the fungi.  Perhaps the closest thing that we have of this full awareness is Thanksgiving where so much work and dedication is put into the meal, that we feel a sense of pride and joy in the work.  Indeed, Pollan suggests that maybe we should try this out sometime to bring that awareness back into the meal.  At the same time, he suggests that if making a Thanksgiving meal is a rarity (because of the hard work), so should going to fast-food restaurants.  It’s kind of like Thanksgiving but in reverse.  In fast-food, there’s is absolutely no awareness going on.  We should have some consciousness in our meals.

This last portion was probably my least favorite (except the portion about the ethics of eating meat), but in other ways, it was a nice break from the journalistic and philosophical aspects of the hunt.  It goes great with the collection about demi-vegetarianiam that I wrote about.  One certainly does look at food differently after reading this book.  Not philosophically per se, but simply different.  I’m glad I read it, and I consider Pollan a fine writer and an intellectual about food culture.  I wish there were more people like him.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Culture, Economics, Health, Vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

  1. Pingback: Demi-Vegetarianism « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Meat, A Love Story by Susan Bourette « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  3. Crisicroeds says:

    Great site this and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  4. bibliochef says:

    I thought the Singer book you reviewed earlier (I reviewed both) was much better though it got less press.

    • shaunmiller says:

      Singer’s book got less press because I think people thought of it as a philosophy book rather than a current issues book. It’s sad because I do think that Singer’s book does deserve some credit and it needs to be read. I would rather read Singer’s than Pollan’s if I had to start over. They were both interesting, but Singer’s is more about the ethics of eating (which is something I’m more interested in), and Pollan’s was more about how the food industry has change over the past fifty years. It’s important to know that, but the ethics of it all strikes closer to home to me.

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