Book Review: “Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” by Michael Pollan

I decided to read this book after reading Michael Pollan’s other recent book: In Defense of Food. In this book, Pollan goes into great details about the sources of foods and how it evolves into the “industrialized” model such that most of foods are coming from corn and soy beans. A lot of it is repeated in “In Defense of Food.” I enjoyed reading about the rise of corn (or its ancestor – maize), the science and the history of it. What’s omnivore’s dilemma? As creatures who can eat many different things, how do we know what’s good to eat and what’s not? Also, we need to eat a variety of foods to stay healthy. It’s very enjoyable book.

The author talks about the four possible foods sources in four parts. 1) food from corn, 2) food from industrial organic meal, 3) the local sustainable meal – food from grass, 4) The DIY meal – hunted, gathered, and gardened food.

Part 1: The industrialized food chain starts with corn because dried corn is easy to transport and almost indestructible. “The chain is powered by oil and gasoline and controlled by giant corporations like Cargill and ADM. It separates us from our food and keeps us from knowing what it really is we’re eating.”

In 1919, one quarter of Americans lived on a farm. The average farmer feed 12 other Americans, vs. 140 nowadays. The corns that are being grown are mostly hybrid (whose parents have different traits – resists disease and produces lots of ears.) It’s used to 9x the yields of farms from 20 bushels per acre to 180 bushels. The GMO (genetically modified organism) corn seeds do even better. It got some help from the U.S. government after WW2 by converting the bomb-making know how (use of ammonium nitrate) to making fertilizer (same common ingredient – nitrogen). Farming is no longer an ecological loop – it’s more like a factory – converting raw materials (seed and fertilizer) and turned it into a finished product – corn. Every bushels of corn requires about 1/2 gallon of oil to grow. In the end, we put in 7x energy (growing, transporting, and storing food) to get the energy stored in the food itself. The nitrogen cycle of the fertilizer was explained.

Even with all the help in industrial methods and productivity (from 4B bushels in 1970 to 13B bushels now), the farmers are still losing money due to the depressed corn prices, despite the government subsidy. This leads to consolidation. The corns are used: 47% for animal feed, 24% for fuel (Ethenal), and 19% exported, 4% for high fructose corn syrup, 6% for other processed food. The sad part is that the animals (cows, pigs, chickens) we eat are being fed corn which by nature they don’t eat, so they can grow 5x or even 10x as fast (from 4~5 years to 14 months). This means the animal meat we eat are not healthy when they’re alive – potentially causes chronic diseases for the consumers.

Wow, the efficiency of turning corns into meat: beef: 7:1 for beef, 6.5:1 for pork, and 2.6:1 for chicken. Chicken is a more efficient meat machine. A corn kernel consists of germ (used for corn oil), pericap, and endosperm. Cornstarch is made of what’s left of the kernel. Using an enzyme, the cornstarch’s glucose can be transformed to fructose. HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup) is made of 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The rest of cornstarch can be fermented to become ethanol and even plastic. The book has a nice diagram of the corn-derived products. Breakfast cereal box consists of only 4 cents worth of materials and can be sold for $4. Undigestible corn starch (resistant starch) is being invented to get us to eat more of the fake food without gaining weight. On getting fat, the poor are hit the hardest because cheap foods are loaded with sugar and fat.

Rats solve the omnivore’s dilemma by tasting a small sample. We have a body of knowledge about food and cooking foods. French eat variety of foods in small portions and don’t go back for seconds. They eat with family and friends in long, leisurely meals. Every step up the food chain (from corn to beef), approximately 90% of energy is lost.

Part II: Industrial organic meal
“Organic” definition could be very loose – 95% organic ingredients unless it’s labeled 100% organic. “Made with Organic ingredients” just need to have 70% organic ingredients. But no use of pesticides except natural substance like BT (made from a common soil bacteria) and plants are fertilized with manure. Instead of chemical weed killers, a tractor plows the field to kill them but it kills off nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Organic salad production from Earthbound as described in the book is impressive. But free-range chickens are not so free-ranging. Most of the “Cornish-Cross” chickens stayed inside the warehouse-like barn instead of roaming outside. They take only 7 weeks to grow from egg to full size. Organic cows are never fed corn that contains residues of atrazine, the potentially harmful herbicide.

Organic fruits and vegetables contained higher levels of vitamin C and a wider range of natural chemicals called polyphenols, which help plants to defend themselves against pests and diseases. Our bodies evolved to use these same compounds to protect us from disease. Unfortunately, almost 80% of the fuel burned is used to process food and move it around – no different from non-organic food.

Part III: The local sustainable meal: food from grass
The author travelled to Polyface Farm to investigate their sustainable, “beyond-organic” local farm. It boasts a year of grazing on grass by cows, chickens and hens, all self sustaining and self replenishing – all the energy used to make the food comes from the sun – no pesticides, no artificial fertilizer, no polution and no extra waste. Some lessons about annuals: wheat, rice and corn are annuals: they don’t put down a deep root system. Instead, they survive by making seeds, which have to be planted every year. There are at least 8 kinds of grasses being eaten: Red Clover, Fescue, Foxtail, Timothy, Orchard Grass, Blue Grass, and Lupines. The trick is not to let the cows take a second bite until the grass has had time to recover. This takes about 14 days. By moving the cows daily, the cows don’t get a second bite. Chickens take 56 days to grow big enough to be slaughtered. They get 20% of their diet from fresh grass, worms, grasshoppers, and crickets they find. They do eat a mixture of corn, toasted soybean, and kelp. In nature, birds follow the herbivores and dine on the insects that would otherwise bother the herbivore.

During the winter, the animals move into barn. Their droppings (manure) are covered with a layer of wood chips or straws to form compost and warming up the floor. A layer of corns were added to the manure to turn them into alcohol for the pigs to root out with their snout. “Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer the’s doing something wrong.” The forest next to the pasture held the water, and the farm cool in the summer and it offers plenty of chipmunk for coyotes do they don’t attack the farm animals.

Part IV: Hunted, gathered, and gardened food.
Lots of gory details about hunting and gathering mushroom. Interesting.