Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan








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By way of warning, if you choose to read Michael Pollan’s new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, you may never look at food the same way again. Pollan traces four meals to their origin, and calls attention to our corn-overloaded diet and a national eating disorder. The dilemma in answering the question, “What shall we have for dinner” involves whether our answer makes us and the environment healthier or sicker. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Four, “The Feedlot: Making Meat (54,000 Kernals),” pp. 65-68:




The landscape that corn has made in the American Middle West is un­mistakable: It forms a second great American lawn, unfurling through the summer like an absurdly deep-pile carpet of green across the vast lands drained by the Mississippi River. Corn the plant has colonized Some 125,000 square miles of the American continent, an area twice the size of New York State; even from outer space you can’t miss it. It takes a bit more looking, however, to see some of the other landscapes that corn the commodity has created, in obscure places like Garden City, Kansas. Here in the high plains of western Kansas is where Amer­ica s first feedlots were built, beginning in the early fifties.

You’ll be speeding down one of Finney County’s ramrod roads When the empty, dun-colored January prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see—which in Kansas is really far. I say “suddenly” but in fact the swiftly rising odor—an aroma whose Proustian echoes are decidedly more bus station men’s room than cows in the country—has been heralding the feedlot’s approach for more than a mile. And then it’s upon you: Poky Feeders, population, thirty-seven thousand. A sloping subdivision of cattle pens stretches to the horizon, each one home to a hundred or so animals standing dully or lying around in a grayish mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all. The pens line a net­work of unpaved roads that loop around vast waste lagoons on their way to the feedyard’s thunderously beating heart and dominating land­mark: a rhythmically chugging feed mill that rises, soaring and silvery in the early morning light, like an industrial cathedral in the midst of a teeming metropolis of meat. As it does twelve hours a day seven days a week, the mill is noisily converting America’s river of corn into cattle feed.

I’d traveled to Poky early one January with the slightly improbable notion of visiting one particular resident, though as I nosed my rental car through the feedlot’s rolling black sea of bovinity, I began to wonder if this was realistic. I was looking for a young black steer with three white blazes on his face that I’d met the previous fall on a ranch in Vale, South Dakota, five hundred miles due north of here. In fact, the steer I hoped to find belonged to me: I’d purchased him as an eight-month-old calf from the Blair Ranch for $598. I was paying Poky Feeders $1.60 a day for his room and board (all the corn he could eat) and meds.

My interest in this steer was not strictly financial, or even gustatory No, my primary interest in this animal was educational. I wanted to learn how the industrial food chain transforms bushels of corn into steaks. How do you enlist so unlikely a creature—for the cow is an her­bivore by nature—to help dispose of America’s corn surplus? By far the biggest portion of a bushel of American commodity corn (about 60 percent of it, or some fifty-four thousand kernels) goes to feeding live­stock, and much of that goes to feeding America’s 1 00 million beef cattle—cows and bulls and steers that in times past spent most of their lives grazing on grasses out on the prairie.

America’s food animals have undergone a revolution in lifestyle in the years since World War II. At the same time much of America’s hu­man population found itself leaving the city for the suburbs, our food animals found themselves traveling in the opposite direction, leaving widely dispersed farms in places like Iowa to live in densely populated new animal cities. These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: CAFO—Confined Animal Feeding Operation. The new animal and human landscapes were both products of government policy. The postwar suburbs would never have been built if not for the interstate highway system, as well as the G.I. Bill and federally subsidized mortgages. The urbanization of America’s animal population would never have taken place if not for the advent of cheap, federally subsidized corn.

Corn itself profited from the urbanization of livestock twice. As the animals left the farm, more of the farm was left for corn, which rapidly colonized the paddocks and pastures and even the barnyards that had once been the animals’ territory. The animals left because the farmers simply couldn’t compete with the CAFOs. It cost a farmer more to grow feed corn than it cost a CAFO to buy it, for the simple reason that com­modity corn now was routinely sold for less than it cost to grow. Corn profited again as the factory farms expanded, absorbing increasing amounts of its surplus. Corn found its way into the diet of animals that never used to eat very much of it (like cattle) or any corn at all, like the farmed salmon now being bred to tolerate grain. All that excess bio­mass has to go somewhere.

The economic logic of gathering so many animals together to feed them cheap corn in CAFOs is hard to argue with; it has made meat, which used to be a special occasion in most American homes, so cheap and abundant that many of us now eat it three times a day Not so com­pelling is the biological logic behind this cheap meat. Already in their short history CAFOs have produced more than their share of environ­mental and health problems: polluted water and air, toxic wastes, novel and deadly pathogens.

Raising animals on old-fashioned mixed farms such as the Naylors’ used to make simple biological sense: You can feed them the waste products of your crops, and you can feed their waste products to your crops. In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop—what in ret­rospect you might call a solution. One of the most striking things that animal feedlots do (to paraphrase Wendell Berry) is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all).

This biological absurdity, characteristic of all CAFOs, is compounded in the cattle feedyard by a second absurdity. Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us—at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ulti­mately to the health of their eaters—to live on corn, for no other rea­son than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed. This is why I decided to follow the trail of in­dustrial corn through a single steer rather than, say, a chicken or a pig, which can get by just fine on a diet of grain: The short, unhappy life of a corn-fed feedlot steer represents the ultimate triumph of industrial thinking over the logic of evolution.


As the distance between eaters and our food has grown, we’ve become disconnected from the reality of what we’re eating. Pollan shows our reliance on corn and fossil fuel, and shows that organic industrial farming may not be what consumers expect it to be. You may or may not eat differently after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but you’ll definitely learn more about food, and will become more aware of the consequences of the food choice you make.



Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2006 issue of Executive Times


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