The Omnivore’s Dilemma: – Human-resource relations and local food economics

Maggie and I have now read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s an informative and investigative book exposing America’s mainstream food system, which ravages natural resources, animal quality of life, and human health. The book is also a song of the restorative majesty of conscious, “clean-food” sources like Polyface Farm, and the joys of knowing how the food in your mouth came to be. In peripheral passages, Pollan fires off fasinating information about various topics, from mushroom biology to the invention of chemical fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process). It’s an enjoyable read and a must for any American who cares about her food.

Reading TOD made me realize how cynical I had become towards natural resource issues. The media influence how I think, and most environmental media says either: we are ruining our environment, or we must make sacrifices to heal the environment. I  thought both sides were a bit misleading. I don’t expect environmental catastrophe any time soon, and I think most campaigns to “heal” the environment are closer to conscience-laundering feel-good rhetoric than true, systemic resource progress. Yeah, pretty cynical. And pretty confused.

Pollan, however, suggests a different possibility for human-resource relations in his description of Polyface Farm.

Consider this passage from TOD:

“By the end of the season Salatin’s grasses will have been transformed by his animals into some 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs. This is an astounding cornucopia of food to draw from a hundred acres of pasture, yet what is perhaps still more astonishing is the fact that this pasture will be in no way diminished by the process – in fact, it will be the better for it, lusher, more fertile, even springier underfoot (this thanks to the increased earthworm traffic).” (My bold – CDC.)

Astonishing, I agree! We are not making sacrifices! We get great meat and eggs out of the deal. We are not having a net negative effect on the land! The land even becomes more comfortable for us to run and walk on! This description of Polyface Farm gives me new optimism about the possibility for symbiotic human-resource relations. I’m convinced of a noble life option for anyone with money: buy some land and take care of it.

Of course, this makes perfect sense when I think historically. Flash back to when the Earth first formed – there was no life here. Over time, since then, the amount of life has only increased. The amount of biomass has never been a zero sum game. Occasionally, human artifacts pervert this natural symbiosis: harmful government regulations, an unyielding belief in profit, lack of ecological education, etc. With the right dedication and education, however, we can learn to feed ourselves and heal our land at the same time. This is a benchmark to aspire to in the UVA Garden. Thanks to MP and Joel Salatin (of Polyface Farm) for the refreshing perspective!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has also inspired me to get into local food. I used to get depressed thinking about my food: how the money I spend at the grocery store would partly shoot up the system into the bank accounts of far-off stockholders and owners who are already rich and who don’t know me at all. That’s not progressive. I’m much happier knowing and engaging the alternative offered by the local food movement and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) models of agriculture. They take great care of the land and their livestock, and I can enjoy these resources because they’re local. I’m joyful to indulge this happiness all summer long!

Just one of the benefits of following Michael Pollan as he takes a hard look at our food systems in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.



4 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: – Human-resource relations and local food economics

  1. Daniel

    Great post! I’m left wondering what sort of dedication and education it will take for us to feed ourselves and heal our lands at the same time. Additionally, when I think of the dilemma for the omnivorous person, I think firstly of what she is eating–not how to make that option (i.e. “some 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs” per season) more sustainable, but rather more ethical in regards to the animals. Does the book mention (or do you have a comment yourself!) the ethical treatment of the animals on local farms (perhaps vs. industrial farms), and whether we get more than just land that is more comfortable? In other words, does “clean-food” mean a more ethical approach to the “symbiotic human-resource relations” in food production with regards to the animals themselves?

    1. UVa Community Garden

      Animals raised on large farms as part of the mainstream industrial food system have terrible lives. They have barely any personal space, they eat foods that are not part of their natural diets, they get sick, they don’t get exercise or fresh air. Therefore, omnivores who choose not to support these practices with their dollars make a great, positive difference for animal quality of life. Smaller farms can do things differently – they can and do provide sunshine and fresh air and space for their animals. In short, yes, small farms are their supporters respect the lives of meat animals more than giant factories.

      Pollan says, and I agree, that the best scenario is for consumers to have access to visit the farms they buy from to examine the operation and decide for themselves whether they think the practices are ethical. Thus facing the questions of life, death, and human-animal relations head on.


  2. Ali

    Read Omnivore’s Dilemma during my summer in Portland – thanks for your insights, Connor, for evoking such happy memories, and for reminding me of Pollan’s subtle, shimmering optimism. Success to you + Maggie! Excited to help out when I return!

  3. UVa Community Garden

    Hi Daniel, in response to your question about animal treatment, Pollan engages with Peter Singer’s argument against “humane/ethical” meat consumption. He comes to a personal realization that since domesticated animals wouldn’t exist on this earth without the market for consumption, we as moral people have a duty to treat them well while they’re here. The disparities in animal treatment are, as Connor noted, absolutely extreme. I’ve always found that passage particularly striking so I encourage you to find it if you can (I’d help out but don’t have the book in this state)!

    Love Jonson

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