The Omnivore’s Dilemma Summary

In today's modern world where there's literally hundreds of food types available, which ones should we eat?

Psychologist Paul Rozin referred to this as the "Omnivore's Dilemma".

In this summary of his best selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, author Michael Pollan examines and shares his insights on the types of foods that America is producing today and the alternative options available in order to produce them.

Who should read this?

  • ✓  Health-conscious individuals who want to know which types of foods are good for the body
    ✓ Anyone wanting to know about sustainability and the production process of today's modern selection of food 
  • ✓ People who are interested in learning about food policies and the politics surrounding it.

The Omnivore's Dilemma Main Ideas

  • The modernization of food production provided us with a ton of options but at the same time made choosing which ones to eat (good for our bodies) more difficult
  • For the sake of efficiency and ability to produce quickly, large industrial companies will do anything, including pollute land, water, and air, and put harmful chemicals in their products (pesticides, etc.,), and go with the unethical treatment of livestock and other animals
  • The huge surplus of corn in the US lead to heavy processing in order to extend its shelf life, making it very profitable for large corporations
  • The low price of meat comes at a cost = unethical treatment of animals and environmental and health risks
  • Supporting local farm produce and organic food is healthier and better for the environment 

Quick Summary of The Omnivore's Dilemma

​Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a dead-simple approach to deciding what to eat:

What foods are in season right now and which animals can we hunt?

Fast forward to today, we have cheeseburgers, chocolate, cereals, soda, rice, eggs,  popcorn---you name it. 

And since most manufactured food today are cheap, we have an endless list of choices from the moment we wake up until we hit the bed again.

There was a time when livestock and crops were grown and harvested by local farmers. Due to the limitation of their supply, technology, and process, they weren't able to produce much---which is why food were relatively more expensive back then.

As the population grew, however, man needed to adapt. So we built machines and systems that enabled us to be more efficient, faster, and produce more food.

And while that is a good thing, it also lead to the development of bad industrial farming methods that big food corporations used to generate all sorts of products.

All this efficiency and abundance comes at a cost. Land, air, and water are polluted. Chemicals and all sorts of pesticides are injected and sprayed on plants just so they can remain available all-year round.

​​A century ago, ​farmers were able to produce 20 bushels of corn per acre. Today, they can generate 180 from the same parcel of land.

Corn is present and is a main ingredient on most of the processed foods being sold today. Its price keeps on dropping yet farmers still generate an absurd amount of it.

The reason? The US Government subsidizes the corn farmers ​if they lose a dollar for every bushel they sell. This is to prevent the farmers from getting out of business.

​But where do you think all these excess corn goes?

Answer: To big food corporations who add it as corn-based ingredients into their product. The author reveals that one in four items present in an American supermarket contains some form of corn additive to it.

Excess corn gets re-processed into artificial ingredients, being re-labeled into all sorts of names like: Hydrogenated fat, high-fructose syrup, and more. These ingredients then makes its way to the food we usually find in our homes: soft-drinks, cereals, snacks, and most instant foods.

This practice makes big food corporations a ton of money. And that's why they will do anything including bad industrial farming and production methods.

The author revealed that a big part of the money that Americans pay for their food actually goes into the services needed to produce synthetic corn-based additives---not on the actual source itself (livestock, plants, )

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO are facilities that built with the sole purpose of maximum production. 

But this maximum production and profit comes at a huge cost. Animals are crammed into tight spaces (to maximize space) and the feeding process is automated. And because corn is abundant and cheap, this is the main food that these animals eat.  

A couple of decades ago, the human element was a must in the production of food. And this meant there was simply "more care" that goes into the feeding and growing of the sources of our food. 

And while you can argue that CAFOs allowed us to access more food cheaply, they incorporate dubious and unethical methods into their processes just so they can maximize production and profit. Some of which include:

-  Since they maximize space, animals can't graze or move around and suffer living in tight cages, which also leads to the spread of diseases.

- Since cheap corn is what CAFOs use to feed animals, even those who are not meant to eat them are being genetically modified to tolerate corn. Both cows and fish, for example, are being re-engineered for CAFOs so they can consume corn.

- Since animals tend to get sick at CAFOs (due to bad living conditions), the only way to keep them from dying until they get slaughtered is to give them as much antibiotics as possible. These diseases and antibiotics of course will eventually lead to our own bodies when we consume products that came from these animals and plants.

- CAFOs are known to pollute both land and water with heavy metals and all sorts of chemicals that they use.

These types of practices, according to the author, is what lead to the organic food revolution.

Because while its technically more expensive to produce organically-grown products, they're healthier and taste better overall. Also, animals are treated and taken care of well better in actual farms than in CAFOs. 

And rather than use pesticides and all sorts of antibiotics, organic farmers focus on natural methods to grow and produce food (composting, allowing plants to grow at a natural pace, etc.,)

Studies shown that organically-grown produce are healthier and contain more vitamins when compared to artificially-modified ones.​​

Sadly, as more awareness and recognition is placed on organically-produced foods, those once-small farms and food companies are somewhat starting to become the very evil corporations they were trying to go against. 

As demand for organic food grew, these small farms and producers started to have the same problems that traditional food corporations faced. Naturally, this lead to them using the same solutions.

It didn't help that the US Dept. of Agriculture implements very loose rules about which foods can be classified as organically-grown. They have vague laws which allowed big companies to cash in on the whole organic thing, ultimately leading to consumers paying even more for what they believe are legit, authentic, organic food. But it really isn't.

One way to address the issue of CAFOs is through management-intensive grazing. This is a farming method that promotes "cycling" animals to various farms daily in order to allow the natural growth process. Both for animals and land. It's also better for the environment as grass absorbs carbon.

My Personal Takeaways

The industrialization of food production brought cheap food that are easily accessible. Yet it comes at a huge cost.

How corn is being managed as a food source plays a main factor on how food is being produced in the US. 

A lot of the food being produced in the US right now are made up of artificial ingredients from corn.

CAFOs epitomize everything that is negative in the current food production process in the US. Sure it's efficient, but it's also unethical and destroys the environment.

Organic farms and its methods are the way to go if the US wants to build a more sustainable and healthier alternative to CAFOs. 

The government should come up with ways to support the smaller, local farmers and be stricter with big corporations who are now also capitalizing on the leniency of the laws, If this continues, most food being labeled as organic right now will mean nothing at all. In the end, consumers are the ones who suffer. Not only will they pay more for food incorrectly and not genuinely produced organically, they will also end up unhealthy.


My Favorite Quotes from The Omnivore's Dilemma

You are what what you eat eats.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.

The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

Don't eat anything incapable of rotting. 

So that's us: processed corn, walking.

When chickens get to live like chickens, they'll taste like chickens, too.

Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world - and what is to become of it.

If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat

If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.

Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. 

The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values–and not just "value"–will inform their purchasing decisions.

Wildness is more a quality than a place, and though humans can't manufacture it, they can nourish and husband it...
The gardener cultivates wildness, but he does so carefully and respectfully, in full recognition of its mystery.

About the Author Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist, and professor. He is the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at University of California, Berkeley.

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