The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals – this book by Michael Pollan (not a vegan) provides a detailed and disturbing look into the western industrialized food system.
His desire to answer the question, “Where does my food come from?” led him on a cross-country adventure: From a cornfield in Iowa, to a cattle ranch in South Dakota, to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Garden City, Kansas, to a “beyond organic” farm in Virginia, and more.
On his adventure, he learned how our “food system” has been corrupted by government and corporate greed to provide the lowest quality, most dangerous, cheapest possible food to the unsuspecting, progressively unhealthier public.
Pollan starts his adventure in an Iowa cornfield. Thanks to short-sighted government programs, the military industrial complex and genetically modified crops (GMO’s), farmers have diverged from the age old tradition of rotating crops to replenish the soil of lost nutrients. Instead, they now plant the same crops (monocrops) on the same fields year-after-year-after-year, effectively destroying the soil by robbing it of all its nutrients.
To make the soil fertile enough to grow corn or soy, the farmer must put down literally tons of synthetic fertilizer, which runs off the fields when it rains, contaminating ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and eventually the ocean where all runoff ends up. It’s so bad in some parts of the country that cities are forced to issue “blue baby alerts” to notify the public that the water is unsafe to drink. It’s so toxic to young children and infants that it can turn them blue from lack of oxygen in their blood.
In addition to the synthetic fertilizer, they also must spray tons of herbicides and pesticides because the plants’ natural defenses have been weakened, and the traditional, natural forms of weed and pest control have been abandoned. These poisonous chemicals not only contaminate the food, but they also run off when it rains, contaminating water supplies just as the fertilizer does.
I grew up in the country with giant hedge trees lining every pasture. Most of these were planted during the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s to help control the wind and prevent another dust bowl from happening. Those trees are now a part of history thanks to a government program that encourages farmers to plant every square inch of their soil. Farmers cut the trees down so they can plant right up to the road and to the neighbor’s property line.
Small farmers who plant these commodity crops barely make ends meet. In fact, the only thing that keeps most of them afloat are government subsidies (aka welfare). The price farmers get for corn and soy are consistently far below what it costs to produce them, so the government makes up the difference to the tune of $24 BILLION in 2017.
These welfare checks may help the small farmers barely make ends meet, but that’s not the purpose of the subsidies. Rather, it allows the Big Food corporations to buy the raw materials for their products at steeply discounted prices so they can sell their products more cheaply to consumers while increasing their profit margins.
Most of the corn and soy crops grown in the US are GMO (or genetically engineered – GE, to be more precise). And most of that is fed to livestock: “Over 70% of harvested GE biomass is fed to food producing animals, making them the major consumers of GE crops for the past 15 plus years.”
The cheap cost of corn and soy, thanks to government subsidies, is why beef, bork, chicken, dairy and processed foods are cheaper than fruits and vegetables in the US. It’s not like that here in Ecuador. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains are very affordable here, while meat is much more expensive, as it should be.
We bought the fruits and veggies in the picture below for $28. That’s roughly 50 pounds of non-GMO, mostly organic, delicious food for a little over 50 cents per pound. This would have easily cost us over $120 in Denver.
The “Beyond Organic” Farm of Joel Salatin
Pollan’s stint on Joel Salatin’s “beyond organic” farm in Virginia showed us how everyone “thinks” farm animals are raised, but Joel’s idyllic little farm and farms like his now account for less than 5% of the animal agriculture industry in the US. In fact, farms like Joel’s “beyond organic” farm probably account for far less than 1% in the US.
Most meat animals are raised in CAFO’s: giant grassless, manure filled feedlots (picture below) where animals are fed an unnatural diet of GMO corn and soy, antibiotics, chemicals and the remains of their already slaughtered brethren (CAFO’s feed the processed remains of slaughtered animals back to the living animals to fatten them up, effectively turning herbivorous meat animals into cannibals).
While Salatin’s cows and pigs may live a more natural, happier life, they still end up in the same industrial slaughterhouses as the CAFO animals. Just like industrial-raised animals, they are forced into a shoot against their will while hearing the horrific sounds of their former pasture-mates in the slaughter line ahead of them. Their stress hormones pump through their muscles that will become meat, waiting for a long, curved knife to be pressed against their throat or a bolt gun to be pressed between their eyes. Their deaths are often anything BUT quick and painless.
If I had to choose between an industrial farm like the one Pollan tours in Garden City, Kansas, and an idyllic countryside farm like Joel Salatin’s, I would most certainly choose Joel’s model. At least the animals get to live a happy, healthy life in their natural environment until they’re slaughtered. But as a vegan, I would rather not see any animal harmed for shallow, selfish reasons such as taste and tradition.
The Omnivore’s ETHICAL Dilemma
Later in the book, Pollan dips his toe into the ethics of eating meat, but quickly yanks it out when he starts to question his decision to do so. He relies on many of the old classic excuses made by meat eaters and often heard by vegans, all of which are easily refuted.
His Stroll Through Animal Rights Issues
While “trying to enjoy a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare” at the Palm, Pollan reads “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer. This is one of the first and most influential animal rights treatises to date.
For a brief moment during this chapter of his book (and life), Pollan starts to see through the eyes of a vegan. He starts to see that the unmeasurable harm we cause to animals is not only unethical and immoral, but completely unnecessary. He says:
“It may be that as a civilization we’re groping toward a higher plane of consciousness. It may be that our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals—like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior beings—can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame.”
But as he continues writing this chapter of the book and arguing with the unresponsive pages written by Peter Singer, he slowly emerges from his brief awakening, quoting Benjamin Franklin: “The great advantage of being a ‘reasonable creature,’ is that you can find a reason for whatever you want to do.”
Then begin the justifications….
Being Vegan is Inconvenient, Selfish and Inconsiderate
In an attempt to better understand the animal rights issue, he decided to go “temporarily” vegetarian. He didn’t go vegan “because eggs and milk can be coaxed from animals without hurting or killing them.”
If you still think eggs and milk are victimless products, I encourage you to watch “Dairy Is Scary” and “What’s Wrong With Eggs? The Truth About The Egg Industry.”
If you don’t have time to watch these videos, here’s a quick summary: Dairy cows are forcefully impregnated so they produce milk. Once the calf is born, it is taken away from its mother. Some are killed immediately, some females are raised to be milk producers, and males are often sold for veal. They’ll spend their days in a pen like those below being fed an unnatural diet to fatten them up before they’re slaughtered. Once the dairy cow stops producing sufficient milk, she is also slaughtered.
Baby male chicks in the egg industry are ground alive, processed into meal, and fed back to the chickens as a source of protein and calories for the egg layers: the chicks’ own mothers (that’s right, more cannibalism in the animal ag industry). Egg laying hens are a different breed than broiler chickens, so male chicks are useless and discarded like lifeless recycling material.
After a month of eating a vegetarian diet, Pollan decided it was selfish, inconsiderate and really inconvenient. It takes more time to prepare a vegetarian meal due to all the extra “chopping” (which is done by the butcher for meat eaters). He also says:
“My new dietary restrictions throw a big wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.”
This isn’t bad manners or selfish, as Amelia noted to me, it’s self-conscious. He is worried that he’ll offend his guest or host with his dietary restrictions. He’s embarrased.
But if he had a peanut allergy, would he not ask his host to avoid peanuts? If he was Hindu, would he mind asking his host not to cook beef? If he was hosting a friend from France for dinner, would he cook horse meat for them to make them feel more comfortable?
If you’re confident in your beliefs like most vegans are…like Amelia and I are…you don’t feel selfish or inconsiderate about asking for considerations. No one need ever apologize for doing the right thing, even if it’s not the “norm” or “popular” among the masses. True friends will understand and be happy to accommodate you.
After stating how healthy and virtuous he feels eating a vegetarian diet, he then argues that we can’t simply ignore tradition. We’ve been eating meet for thousands of years and it brings great joy to us as we gather at family occasions like Thanksgiving, baseball games and religious holidays. He says:
“These ritual meals link us to our history along multiple lines—family, religion, landscape, nation, and, if you want to go back much further, biology. For although humans no longer need meat in order to survive (now that we can get our B-12 from fermented foods or supplements), we have been meat eaters for most of our time on earth. This fact of evolutionary history is reflected in the design of our teeth, the structure of our digestion, and, quite possibly, in the way my mouth still waters at the sight of a steak cooked medium rare.”
This entire argument is based on two logical fallacies: Appeal to Tradition and Appeal to Nature. It may sound like a reasonable argument, but just because we’ve always done something a certain way, or lions engage in certain behaviors, doesn’t make it right, ethical or even healthy for moral human beings.
The Yulin Dog Meat Festival is also a tradition that dates back 4,000 years in China, yet most westerners are appalled by this event. If eating a cow, pig or chicken is considered normal and traditional to Americans, why should we so fervently insist that the Chinese stop eating dogs and cats, which is considered normal and traditional to them?
The tradition argument was also used to justify slavery and the oppression of women. At what point can we stop using “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an excuse to continue harmful behaviors?
In addition to his Appeal to Tradition, none of his other justifications are accurate, as you’ll see below. These are all Appeal to Nature Logical Fallacies.
Our Teeth are Designed to Eat Meat
If you have a dog or a cat, please go look at their teeth right now. Dogs are true omnivores; cats are true carnivores. Their teeth are almost identical in design. They have long canines, much longer than their other teeth, but more importantly, they have serrated molars, like a jagged knife. These are used to slice through raw meat, which is much tougher than cooked meat.
Now, go look in the mirror at your own teeth. Your canines are short by comparison. They’re barely longer and sometimes shorter than your other teeth. Look at your molars. They’re FLAT! Just like a cow or horse or monkey or ape; all herbivores or mostly herbivores (monkeys and apes sometimes eat bugs and very rarely eat other monkeys).
How can anyone look at the teeth of carnivores and omnivores and say our teeth look like theirs? It’s delusional!
Our Digestive Tract is Designed to Process Meat
This is another myth that’s harder to see because our digestive tract isn’t visible. However, the human digestive tract looks just like that of other primates like apes and monkeys, who eat little to no meat. It doesn’t look or act like the digestive tract of carnivores or omnivores.
We’re optimized to extract every last morsel of nutrition from plants, which is why our intestines are much longer in relation to our body size than carnivores and omnivores. Compare that to the relatively short intestines of lions and bears, which are designed to get the putrefying flesh out of their bodies as quickly as possible.
The acid in our stomachs is also far weaker than carnivores and omnivores. The higher acidity of their stomachs allows them to more easily digest denser foods like meat. They even have special enzymes in their stomachs that help them digest meat, while humans have special enzymes in our mouths that help us digest plants and starches.
Our Mouths Water at the Sight of a Steak
After 2 and a half years of being vegan, my mouth no longer waters at the sight of meat. Instead, my stomach turns. The sight, sound and smell of meat is disgusting to me now.
When you’re raised from childhood eating a particular dish, you develop a taste for it. People in India love food so spicy it makes most American’s double over in pain, dripping with sweat. People in Ghana eat termites. People in Zambia eat grasshoppers. The Chinese eat bee and silkworm larvae.
To most American’s these foods sound and look disgusting, but to the people who have eaten them for generations, they are perfectly normal and very appetizing. Their mouths may even water at the sight or smell of them.
Just because some people find meat appetizing, doesn’t mean we evolved to eat it; we just got accustomed to eating it.
For another popular justification, Pollan says we evolved to eat meat because it’s the only source of Vitamin B12, which isn’t true. B12 is a microbe that’s found in the intestines of animals, but it’s also found in bugs (often consumed in fruits and veggies), the soil (at least it used to be in the soil before we destroyed it with chemicals and monocrops), and it’s also found in untreated water (the kind our ancestors drank before chlorine). These last 3 locations were the most likely sources of B12 for our ancestors, not animal intestines.
The Paleo Myths
Pollan also relies on many of the Paleo Diet myths about our anthropological history, which are far from settled, such as, “our brains grew larger from hunting and eating meat.” This is one possibility, however, many anthropologists think it just as likely that our ability to cook with fire and digest starches from tubers is the reason our brains grew.
After all, the main digestive difference between man and ape is the presence of starch-digesting enzymes in our saliva, which are 6 to 8 times more powerful in humans than other primates. Our unique trait among the primate kingdom is our ability to digest starch. Could that be why our brains grew larger than theirs?
The Paleo argument is a basic chicken and egg debate. Which came first? The hunter or the hunter’s brain? It seems to me that our brains would have to be pretty large to hunt while lacking any of the evolutionary advantages given to carnivores and omnivores, like speed, claws, REAL canines, serrated molars and the ability to digest raw meat without dying.
We needed to have tools (aka weapons) BEFORE we could hunt. Saying our brains evolved because we learned to hunt is like saying the egg came before the chicken. It doesn’t make sense if you think about it logically and rationally.
The Connective Tissue Digesting Enzyme, Elastase
One argument Pollan proposes for eating meat is that humans possess an enzyme called elastase that help us to digest elastin, which is a protein only found in the connective tissues of animals. If his assertion is correct, that means humans do show at least some evolutionary predisposition to eating meat. This momentarily shook my confidence in my understanding of human biology.
However, it only took a quick search to find his interpretation of the science to be lacking. In fact, “Elastase activity has been found in human, rat, cow, horse, dog, cat, guinea pig, chicken and fish pancreases….The human pancreas does not synthesize an elastase similar to pig PE I, because the human gene corresponding to the gene of rat pancreatic elastase I is silent in this tissue….The other pancreatic ‘elastases’ either do not solubilize elastin or have not been sequenced.”
In other words, even herbivores like cows and horses possess the elastase enzyme, meaning this cannot be held as proof we evolved to eat meat since they didn’t. The elastase enzyme is most likely an evolutionary genetic fragment leftover from some common ancestor millions of years ago. Additionally, the elastase enzyme gene is dormant/silent in humans, which means it doesn’t function the same way as it does in omnivores like rats and bears, or carnivores like lions and tigers.
The elastase enzyme cannot be used to justify meat eating.
The French Paradox
Another justification he uses in support of the high-fat animal diet is the French Paradox, which has been debunked since he authored this book. The French Paradox basically states that French people eat a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol, mostly from dairy and meat, but don’t suffer the same rates of heart disease as other parts of the world who eat the same way.
According to Pollan, the French are “a population of wine-swilling cheese eaters with lower rates of heart disease and obesity.” He says it’s the way they take time to “enjoy” their meals and the amount of wine they drink that has such heart-healthy consequences.
Again, the French Paradox mystery has been debunked. It turns out there is no paradox. France only started eating the western diet in large numbers back in the 80s and 90s, when the original study on heart disease in France was done. It takes time to develop heart disease after you change your diet, so the results hadn’t shown up yet. If you start smoking today, you’re not going to get cancer tomorrow.
Additionally, for whatever reason, doctors in France tended to underreport the number of deaths from heart disease on death certificates. Correcting for this underreporting puts France right in line with the rest of the western diet eating nations. There is no French Paradox, so taking time to enjoy a glass of wine with your 3 hour dinner apparently has no impact on heart disease rates.
There is No “Omnivore’s Dilemma”
There are a lot more unsound arguments made as the justifications continue, like domestication was evolutionary rather than a human construct because the animals “discovered” they had a better chance of survival by allowing us to domesticate them. Mr. Pollan, we domesticated them to improve our own chance of survival. They were just along for the ride. Refuting all of his justifications would take an entire book, which I may write at some point, but not today.
Here in the real world, there is no “omnivore’s dilemma” simply because we aren’t true omnivores. We’re pretenders. We used our large brains to figure out how to fake being omnivores to improve our own survival rates. And it worked really well for a really long time, but now it’s on the verge of killing us all.
Like the dinosaurs, we have become too large (in numbers) and too highly adapted to our specific environment. Our appetites for animal products have grown so dramatically over the past 100 years that our production of them is destroying the planet and our own long-term health along with it. We humans have become the proverbial asteroid, orchestrating our own not-so-slow-motion mass extinction event.
The crux of the omnivore’s dilemma, at least according to Pollan, is that we can eat virtually anything, which makes it hard to know what we should be eating. This is a valid point, and one that food marketers love to exploit.
Rather than an “omnivore’s dilemma,” what we really have is a “marketer’s dream.” Since we can eat almost anything, marketers are happy to package almost anything up and sell it to us, even if it makes us sick or slowly kills us. As long as we keep buying what they’re pushing, the corporations will continue hitting Wall Street’s quarterly earnings estimates, nothing will change, they’ll continue to get richer and we’ll continue to get sicker.
But that paradigm only works if you continue to participate in it. You can decide to use your large brain to make better, healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more compassionate choices.
For more details on how we’re manipulated for profit, check out my blog post, “Doubt Is Our Product 2.0: What Big Food Learned from Big Tobacco.”
I’m not demanding or even asking everyone to go vegan. That’s a choice I made for myself because I felt like it was the right thing to do for my own health, for the planet and for the animals. All I’m asking of you is that you think about your choices and stop allowing yourself to be manipulated by marketers who are only concerned with sales and profits and earnings projections.
To quote Pollan, “It may be that as a civilization we’re groping toward a higher plane of consciousness.” Even though he failed to reach the peak himself, let’s hope he’s right about civilization as a whole.
Despite this being a non-plant-based, non-vegan book, I still think it’s worth reading to understand just how tainted the US food system has become. The current state of the US food supply shows just how comprehensive and complete the takeover of America by corporations has been. In fact, a considerable amount of that food supply isn’t actually food at all. It’s petroleum, natural gas, hazardous chemicals and cannibalism.
My only complaint about the book is the author’s attempt to address the ethical issues of meat eating. As an investigative journalist and non-vegan, he lacks the necessary understanding of the biological, moral and ethical issues to mount a credible argument for or against the ethics of veganism. He should have stuck with his investigation of our food system and skipped the ethical dilemma.
This book provides an eye-opening view into the highly efficient, superficially impressive, environmentally destructive and utterly cruel western industrialized food system. If you want to learn where your food comes from and how to make better choices about what food you buy and from whom you buy it, I highly recommend reading this book.
Just don’t let the irrational and inaccurate justifications to eat meat influence your decision to choose a healthier, more sustainable and more compassionate diet.Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And please share with your friends to help spread the word about healthy plant-based eating.