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The Omnivore’s Dilemma Book Summary

Introduction 

Hi Success Titan reader, I’m Sal Damiata and that’s the book summary of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Enjoy your read!

Who’s this book for? 

  • Everybody lacking awareness of how the US food chains work.
  • Everybody purchasing food without any awareness of how they are produced
  • Everybody that doesn’t like how the food economy works and wants to find a way out.

What you’ll learn from this book 

  • How to make healthy food choices for you and your loved ones.
  • How food choices inevitably affect our finances, health, and planet.
  • How to rediscover tackle the negatives of industrial food production and rediscover true pleasure in food.

The book in a nutshell

  • Much of the food we consume today is produced industrially and this entails unethical practices, environment damage, and high economic costs. Eating is an agricultural, biological and political act that we all should take more responsibly for the good ow our own species.

Three sentence summary

  • According to Pollan, 1/4 of all items in the US supermarket are made of corn. Some examples are eggs, chicken, corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup, candies, ice cream, cereals, chewing gum, and mayonnaise. Also, drinks are not excluded here, for example, sodas like Coca Cola, Spite and Ice Tea are made 100% out of corn apart from the water component. 
  • Organic food today is mostly crap because due to the movement gaining popularity, small farms couldn’t keep up with the market demand and expanded by sacrificing some of the original movement ideals.
  • Purchasing food from local farms is one of the best choices you can make as it will reduce the costs of transportation of food, it will support local farms and positively contribute to the health of our environment.

Big Ideas

Those are the most relevant ideas expressed in the book that we’ll explore together.

  1. Eating is an agricultural, biological and political act 
  2. We are fed Corn
  3. Organic is more a label than a food 
  4. CAFOs vs. Management-intensive grazing
  5. Buy from local farms

Let’s explore them together now:

Big Idea #1: Eating is an agricultural, biological and political act  

Nowadays we live in a globalized and highly industrialized world where we can have almost every type of food we want at any time. This leaves us in a constant choice dilemma on what foods to purchase, a choice that will inevitably have an impact on our world.

Food, according to Pollan, is the bounty of the earth and power of the sun captured by plants and animals. With the advent of industrial agriculture, anyway, the demand for food was so high that the natural sun cycle was not enough to satisfy it. That’s when farming techniques came into usage, letting us produce higher quantities of food, even if they were off-season. 

This inevitably came with some costs, like polluted water and air, chemicals and pesticides being pumped into our foods, poor animal treatment and the spreading of diseases. 

A Relatable Example

Before the advent of today’s technology, we used to get 2 calories of food energy from 1 calorie of fossil fuel energy. Today we only get 1 calorie of food with 10 calories of fossil fuel energy used. 

Americans use oil to grow corn, and then corn to make an oil substitute. This means that 17% of our fossil fuel actually feeds us while another 18% is used for transportation, factors contributing to climate change. The majority of the food in the US (and oftentimes in other parts of the world) is so polluted and low quality that today’s generation of people gets diabetes much more frequently. So much that it will be the first generation dying earlier than their parents, due to their poor diets.

Moreover today’s food culture is costing the US citizens more than they know, in fact, the American government subsidizes the big food industries with more than $25 Billion a year, making the production of those foods per on the taxpayers themselves, i.e. the citizens. 

Big Idea #2: We are fed Corn 

Corn is a very adaptive and genetically robust plant that can be harvested largely today thanks to the new technologies. In fact, in 1920 farmers could only produce 20 bushels of corn per acre, today they can produce more than 180 bushels per acre.  

Why is there an overproduction of corn? First of all, corn is cheaper than the other edible plants and it’s also subsidized by the American government so that there is always an overproduction of it. Pollan states that 80% of our calories are only coming from 4 or 5 different plants instead of the hundreds of thousands we could consume.

A Relatable Example

According to Pollan, 1/4 of all items in the US supermarket are made of corn. Some examples are eggs, chicken, corn starch, corn oil, corn syrup, candies, ice cream, cereals, chewing gum, and mayonnaise. Also, drinks are not excluded here, for example, sodas like Coca Cola, Spite and Ice Tea are made 100% out of corn apart from the water component. 

What about corn percentages in fast food chains? Milkshakes are made of 78% of corn, chicken nuggets 56%, cheeseburgers 52% and french fries 23%. The cows we eat, moreover, are fed with the surplus corn produced even if they’re supposed to eat grass.

Big Idea #3: Organic is more a label than a food 

The phenomenon of organic food surged as a consequence of the awareness of how regular food was produced, stored and delivered to provide a better health solution to consumers. Real organic food is much better than the regular one (even if that should be the regular one) as apart from having a better taste and quality, it also contains cancer-fighting polyphenols. Anyway, even if that phenomenon was born with the best intentions and was a good one at the beginning, it ended up getting corrupted by government intervention. 

Organic food today is mostly crap because due to the movement gaining popularity, small farms couldn’t keep up with the market demand and expanded by sacrificing some of the original movement ideals. The problem is that the US government made allowance for the organic label with no strict regulations and vague standards to big industries as well, so that could have it instead of only small ones. This means the majority of what you find out there is not organic but a fake organic, just like the label representing the happy cows wandering through the grass. 

A Relatable Example

As Pollen found out, many products meat labeled organic were produced with animals that were kept in small and constricted spaces for the first 5 weeks of their lives and then allowed to go into open spaces for the other 2 weeks (since they lived 7 weeks in total). 

The problem is that those animals have been conditioned to stay inside after the first 5 weeks as their food and water was inside and they never went to the open spaces that would make them grow as organic. That’s another business lie put in front of our eyes but what’s the reason for all of that? To make supermarkets profit more by always having food on their shelves regardless of seasonability or natural availability of products. 

Big Idea #4: CAFOs vs. Management-intensive grazing 

A CAFO is a concentrated animal feeding operation, representing an animal feeding area where more than 1000 animal units are grouped for more than 45 days each year. In those areas, animals are treated unethically, just as you’ve probably seen in many videos circulating on the internet. In those places where the majority of the meat that Americans consume is produced, diseases amongst animals are very common as they are only corn feed even if they’re not supposed to eat corn. 

Eating a diet that’s not there makes those animals sick as it weakens their immune system and so they are injected antibiotics to keep them alive. They are constantly filled with those antibiotics that they develop antibiotic resistance superbugs that we later inject and can’t defeat with medicines. 

A Relatable Example

As concerns plant cultivation and livestock, growing grass instead of corn with management intensive grazing is a much better solution. Management-intensive grazing is a farming technique where livestock are moved into various portions of the pasture while others rest. This promotes optimum grass growth using the plants’ natural growth cycle by using the natural relationships between grass and cows. 

Animals enjoy their natural diets and avoid contracting diseases and infecting us in return and the environment doesn’t suffer the pollution of water of chemicals and hormones. 

Big Idea #5: Buy from local farms 

We saw how today’s’ food culture is emptying our pockets, destroying our health and the environment along with treating millions of animals unethically every month. This reinforces the first idea that eating is a biological, political and agricultural act. How can we avoid such a culture and progress towards a more sustainable generation of humans?

A Relatable Example

Pollen advices purchasing food from local farms for various reasons. One of those is the reduction of transportation costs and thus of the Co2 emissions negatively impacting our environment. Another reason for that is that by supporting local farms we encourage them to keep producing without sacrificing the quality of their products or adapting to big industry standards. 

This means they’ll avoid using pesticides and will keep producing food that is created in accordance with the natural ecosystem, thus promoting the stability and harmony of our environment and making our life on earth as humans as best as possible.

Conclusion & Takeaway

Our eating choices play a huge role in how society develops, make it a priority to eat in a way that is responsible as every action has a consequence, just as every cause has an effect. The consumer can be a creator of a new food chain but only if he starts to shop for values and not perceived value of the food itself. 

My Personal Advice 

I believe that everybody being aware of this has his own responsibility and must recognize that action must be taken to change our world for the better. Together we can make this change possible not only for us but also for the future of our children and the prosperity of humankind and its related species on this planet. Start today with your contribution, even if small as you never know how many people you could be impacting with your intervention. Thanks for your collaboration.

More About The Author

Michael Pollan is an American author, journalist, and activist. He was an unconscious eater, just like many people worldwide, until he found himself behind the curtain of food production by visiting farms. He then started making his own research until he found out the facts outlined in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Today he is a contributor writer at the New York Times Magazine, apart from participating in various documentaries centered in his food-related subjects.

Reading Suggestions

  • “In Defense of Food” – Michael Pollan
  • “Fast Food Nation” – Eric Schlosser
  • “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” – Barbara Kingsolver
  • “The China Study” – T. Colin Campbell 
  • “How not to Die” – Gene Stone