Omnivore's Dilemma a Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan Term Paper

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Omnivore's Dilemma

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. Penguin Press, 2006.

Having too many choices can be confusing. One of the advantages of being a koala bear is that the bear's food choices are relatively easy, says Michael Pollan in the Omnivore's Dilemma. The bear subsides on eucalyptus trees and little else. Humans, on the other hand, along with a few other omnivorous species like pigs and dogs can eat nearly anything. But natural omnivores also need a dizzying array of vitamins and minerals to survive. The quest to satisfy these complex nutritional needs and deal with choice means that quite often an omnivore can make the wrong nutritional choice. The careless hunter-gatherer may consume some poison berries, which unlike strawberries or blueberries may kill him but not a bird. A careless individual living in modernity, lured by the cheapness and easy satisfaction of an Extra Value Meal may choose a Big Mac for dinner and suffer the dietary and health consequences as a result.

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These examples show how on one hand, the bigness of the human brain may partly be due to our need to figure out what is edible and what is not edible. On the other hand so many choices can lead to bad decision-making. Indeed, the over-thinking of the American diet -- through bad legislation, the corporatization of the American dining table, and well-meaning but misguided 'nutritionism' that sees a meal as a series of dietary requirements rather than a communal experience of savoring tastes and flavors has contributed to the current crisis of obesity in America. Americans have become confused over what to eat, and are nearly ready to give up, having been assured during the 1980s that oat bran and shunning dietary fats will help them prevent heart disease, and during the early 21st century that carbohydrates and Omega-3 fatty acids are salvation.

Term Paper on Omnivore's Dilemma a Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan Assignment

Over the course of the book, Pollan describes different meals that he consumes, including a fast food meal at McDonald's, a commercially produced but organic meal from the popular (and expensive) supermarket chain Whole Foods, a meal from a farm raised by an individual farmer Joe Saladin according to traditional modes of production and, finally, a meal of game meat from an animal he killed himself. Pollan, although he toys with the idea of vegetarianism at one point, ultimately does not see abstaining from meat as a viable solution -- rather he is in search of how to be omnivorous in an ethical fashion.

Pollan begins his journey where food presumably begins -- in a corn field. But what kind of corn field? A corn field financed with farm subsidies. One of the surprising facts Pollan reveals in his book is how, industrialized corn is in almost everything we eat, from Chicken McNuggets to beef, as well as Twinkees. The most wrenching transformation of America into a monoculture begins when Earl Butz, Richard Nixon's second secretary of agriculture, made corn a highly subsidized product to lower the price of food costs during the hyper-inflation of the 1970s. American agriculture methods had already seen a substantial shift in techniques when industrial fertilizer and industrial pesticides became popular. The chemicals like ammonium nitrate used to make bombs and gasses in World War II were converted to agricultural pesticides. Now, with a shift to a corn crop monoculture, the effects upon the American diet became seismic -- food costs went down, particularly the cost of highly processed foods. This enabled portion sizes to explode. High-fructose corn syrup, a highly concentrated form of corn-derived sweetener, began to replace more costly and less potent sugar in mass-produced foods in everything from McDonald's French Fries to tomato sauce, spiking the nation's sugar consumption and desire for sweet and fatty 'junk' foods.

Corn is even used to fuel our cars, because it is too cheap -- and to feed the beef we eat. Corn fattens calves unnaturally fast, and also forces farmers to use antibiotics to prevent the cows from growing ill because the young animal's immune system is not designed to cope with corn. Pollan has a typical meal from McDonald's analyzed, and finds that everything consists of corn: from the beef-processed McNuggets derived from cows fed with corn, to the corn oil the potatoes are fried in, to the artificial thickeners in the milkshakes, to the sugar in the soda -- all are corn-based. 75% of the carbon that Americans now consume from food comes from corn -- and one in three American children eats such corn-processed fast food at least once a day.

Today, Americans do not have to pay much money for food, but are paying a heavy price: "As a society, we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselves -- about a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s. Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world...Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water. So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability or priority?" (Pollan 243). Corn-based products provide large and concentrated amounts of cheap, non-nutritious calories, one reason why the poor are more likely to be heavy than the wealthy -- but even the wealthy are paying a price with their waistlines for the high price of corn because it is so ubiquitous. The price also paid in enjoyment -- Pollan describes his McDonald's meal, eaten with his son and his wife in their car as good for a bite or two, but then tasteless afterwards. He deliberately eats the meal in the car given that one in every five American meals today is eaten in the car, as opposed to the family dinner table.

One of the most interesting characters to emerge from Pollan's book is the Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, who describes himself as a fundamentalist Christian and environmentalist. Salatin, in an effort to go 'back to basics' in a radical way, has an entirely natural farm, where free-ranging, grass (as opposed to corn-eating) cows are rotated on different fields. Chickens also run free, and are allowed to eat bugs from the cow manure. The free-range movement of the chickens spreads the manure as fertilizer and the bird's own excrement also acts as a fertilizer for the fields. There is no topsoil depletion as there is from conventional models of irrigation, no toxic chemicals involved, no antibiotics needed, as the cows are all grass-fed. This is in potent contrast to the industrialized farming practices of George Naylor, a farmer from a generation of farmers, who has enthusiastically accepted government subsidies and methods of organic farming. Riding around on the farm on his tractor, Naylor says: "Growing corn is just riding tractors and spraying," spraying, that is, with ammonium nitrate fertilizers (Pollan 50).

However, not even Salatin intends for his farm lifestyle to be sustainable for everyone. He only sells to local buyers and views mainstream society with hostility. Pollan first met Salatin when he tried to have a chicken shipped to him, and was told that if Pollan wanted a chicken, Pollan had to come to Virginia pick it up himself. On one hand, Salatin does not use massive amounts of fossil fuel in shipping like an industrialized farm production company -- but for Pollan to come to the farm to get the chicken, obviously, fossil fuels were used! A similar comment might be made about the gun assembly used to manufacture the car and weapon Pollan used to hunt and kill a wild boar, as well as the technology Pollan used to find the mushrooms used to season the boar, and to make sure they were not poisonous.

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