It’s not uncommon these days to find yourself stranded in a supermarket aisle, paralyzed by the choices before you. How do you decide between the organic eggs laid by cage-free hens and the eggs laid by free-range hens fed on Omega-3 fatty acids? Should you really buy that tomato, even though it’s well out of season? Is it worth paying an extra five dollars for the sustainably farmed, antibiotic-free chicken breast?

Before trying to answer any of these questions, it would help to read Michael Pollan’s latest book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. For years, eaters have turned to Pollan, a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, for some of the most thoughtful, provocative, and practical contemporary writing on food. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is his attempt to navigate the seemingly endless food choices available to Americans today. Getting past marketing slogans, dietary fads, and cryptic ingredients—what exactly are sodium aluminum sulfate and xanthan gum, and why are they in our food?—he traces our food’s journey from farms and factories, through the marketplace, and onto our plates.

© Ken Light

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a logical successor to Pollan’s previous book, The Botany of Desire, which chronicled the history of humans’ relationship with four common plants. But it might be more appropriately grouped with other books, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, which try to explain the social and political forces that shape our food’s production, and shed light on the impact our food choices have on our health, our communities, and our planet.
What makes many of these choices so hard is that they’re personal, everyday decisions fraught with vast ethical implications. As Pollan makes clear in his book, every food purchase we make, whether it’s at a McDonald’s or a Whole Foods supermarket, supports a certain set of environmental and economic values. But we can’t be sure of which values we’re supporting when the labels on our food make it hard to understand where this food actually came from—and that’s where Pollan comes in. He recently discussed some of the fruits of his research with Greater Good.

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Greater Good: In your book you investigate the stories we’re not being told about where our food comes from. But it’s also hard to understand the stories we are being told, as they often rely on words like “sustainable farming,” “free range,” and, especially, “organic”—words that we may have encountered in the supermarket, but we may not know exactly what they mean. 

Michael Pollan: I think that’s true. In doing this research, I tried to look behind some of those stories to the reality, and sometimes the reality was not at all what the story suggested.

For instance, I think consumers assume that when they spend the extra money to support an organic dairy, they’re supporting a small farmer, they’re supporting dairies where cows get to eat grass, as cows evolved to do. But in fact, while that is true of many dairies, there are also now huge organic feedlot dairies, where cows live in groups of several thousand, where they do not get to graze in a pasture, and they eat corn all the time, which isn’t very good for the cows to eat.

That’s not deceptive, exactly. There’s nowhere on the package that says, ‘We graze our cattle on pastures on small family farms.’ But there’s a lot of suggestiveness going on—there are pictures of cows that are on grass, and that kind of thing.

GG: But what’s interesting is that ethics is even part of the marketing strategy in the first place. It’s not just about what tastes the best or is best for your health.

MP: Yeah, exactly. That’s what Whole Foods is doing. Whole Foods, very cleverly, figured out how to combine two things that are very hard to combine in American culture: pleasure and virtue. Right? They’ve made shopping a pleasurable experience and eating their food a very pleasurable experience, and they combine it with this implication, and it’s often very true, that you’re making an ethical choice when you buy their food. You may spend a little bit more—or in the case of Whole Foods, a lot more—but by buying this apple and not that one, or this steak and not that one, you’re contributing to a better environment, and you’re voting with your dollars for a better world. They hold themselves up as the supermarket of ethical choices.

But there are some real questions about that. There are a lot of foods at Whole Foods that aren’t whole, that are highly processed. It’s a mixed bag—it’s not all organic, either. And I think that their marketing strategy, which is very clever, is that by having a few things that are organic and humane, they create an aura over all of it. So you feel that you enter that store and you’re in the realm of virtuous shopping, and any decision you make within that store is not going to compromise your ethical sensibility.

I’m afraid it’s not true. I’ll give you one example. I was just in a Whole Foods in Berkeley, and they have farmed Atlantic salmon. Now I’ve never been to a salmon farm, but by and large, from everything I’ve read, farmed salmon is ethically dubious at best. There’s an enormous environmental footprint made by those farms. And the fish they produce is not as healthy as wild salmon. So I’m surprised that’s there.

You can’t go into Whole Foods and assume that all the work has been taken care of and that everything has been vetted to your satisfaction. And that’s a key issue: your satisfaction. There are so many different ethical decisions you can make, and sometimes they collide. It’s not the case that there’s virtuous food and non-virtuous food.

GG: So what’s an example of one of those collisions of virtues?

MP: Well, some people are really concerned about their health, or their children’s health. And for them, perhaps organic is a good choice because it has no pesticides. Some people really care about the welfare of the animals. Well, organic is a better choice, but it doesn’t really solve that problem. Organic animals can live on feedlots. They can be fed diets they shouldn’t be eating. I did visit farms that sell free-range organic chicken. Those are not chickens running around in little farm yards. They’re in a huge confinement operation. They don’t go outside, in fact. They have the option of going outside, but they don’t take it.

Or some people care about energy. The food system is a tremendous chunk of our energy use—20 percent. I think driving consumes around 18 percent of the energy we use. People don’t think of food that way, but the choices you make about food have a huge impact on global warming and our dependence on foreign oil.

But you can grow and consume food in a way that doesn’t consume as much energy. The interesting thing is that it’s not organic. Organic is a little bit better on energy consumption, in that you’re not spreading fossil fuel fertilizer, you’re using compost. But it’s still processed the same way now, and it’s still transported all over the country the same way. So if energy is what you’re really worried about, you should be buying locally grown food, even if it’s not organic. So you see how it gets a little bit more complicated.

GG: This movement to buy more locally grown food is something you discuss in your book. Other than reducing our energy usage, what other cases can be made for buying locally?

MP: Again, it’s a question of what you care about. But local underwrites the continuing existence of local farms. Now why is that a value? Well, because local farms give us a certain kind of local landscape. Where I come from, in New England, there is this undulating patchwork of fields and forests, outlined by stone walls. You look at that landscape, and it’s picturesque; it’s a really precious American landscape. Where did it come from? Well, it came from farmers and their animals and the people who ate those animals, or drank their milk. And without that system, it’s a museum that has to be mowed to keep it like that. So keeping those farms alive is really the way to keep those landscapes alive. And that’s why I would argue that buying locally in a place like New England is a more valuable, ethical act than writing a check to a land trust or land conservation group. It is an environmental decision. It’s an aesthetic decision, too.

But there are also virtues in having farmers in your community. These people understand something about nature that a lot of the rest of us don’t—about water, about weather. If there were no farms in my town in New England, there would be no farmers. These are people who are artists or craftsmen of nature. The best ones have developed models to teach us how to get along better in nature than we do. And to lose that whole encyclopedia of knowledge would be a terrible loss.

And another thing about supporting local farms is that you can ask farmers what they’re doing. All these supermarket stories—labels—are really just substitutes for being able to ask the farmer yourself.

GG: But if we commit to supporting local farms, are we hurting farmers in other countries who might need our dollars more?

MP: Yeah, well, you could argue that. Although on the ground I think that argument looks a little different. I mean, now lots of our produce comes from Mexico. But that’s no small farmer growing those blackberries. Chances are that’s an American company who had bought land from a former subsistence farmer who’s going broke because our exports of corn have essentially put him out of business. He sold his good farm land to the consolidator, who’s growing for export, and he’s moved on to more marginal land, or he’s moved to the city, where he’s joining the impoverished.

So that idea that you’re supporting small farmers in the Third World when you buy that product—I don’t think so. There may be cases where that’s true, but by and large you’re supporting an export agriculture that’s highly mechanized, supports very few people, and, odds are, has displaced a lot of subsistence farmers.

GG: I think a lot of people get frustrated or confused when they realize that some of these ethical choices conflict. What can you tell them?

MP: Yeah, there are a certain number of people who, when you apprise them of the complexities of these choices, throw up their hands and just turn off. They’re like, ‘It’s so complicated, I’m going to McDonalds.’ And it is and it isn’t complicated. If you put it in the starkest terms, there are good and bad choices. There are choices that are basically building a new food system, and there are many struts underneath that food system: humane, organic, pastured, etc. And you do have a lot of votes; you have three votes a day, at least. And even if you just cast one or two of them in an ethical way every day, you’ve made a contribution to building this alternative. And that’s not a small thing.

It’s not all or nothing. People shouldn’t feel because they can’t go whole hog, and make all their eating choices completely consistent with their personal affect, that they shouldn’t go at all. If you’re conscious, the odds are your instincts will then tell you what to do. If you just give it a little thought, eat with some more consciousness, I have enough confidence in human nature that you will then make choices that are better than the ones you make in ignorance. But you have to be informed.

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