‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan is a scientific critique of the American way of eating. The first three chapters of Section One concerned plants and how these are processed and presented to Americans as food stuffs.
Pollan starts by highlighting the case of a farmer in Iowa, growing corn. While the farmer is struggling to make ends meet, his corn is used in a huge range of different food products, none of which are actually manufactured at the farm. He then goes on to explain how important corn is as a plant to the world. The writer’s explanation of corn’s central place in both agricultural and industrial production of food was illuminating and surprising. The sheer range of products this plant is used in is astounding. Its central place in New World cultures like the Maya goes back many thousands of years. One especially interesting revelation was that North Americans, when analysed chemically, are actually more ‘made of corn’ now than Mexicans ever were. Indeed, Pollan refers to the plant as: “the protocapitalist plant.” (page 9).
A further surprising insight comes when we learn that corn could not grow or reproduce without human help. It has become a symbiot. This was against my expectations about this section, as I had assumed that all plants could grow without human help. He also highlights the personal case of a farmer, George Naylor, and the town, Chudan, close to where he farms. The nature of the farmland and the decline of the town present a view very far from that of a rich agricultural prosperity, and instead seem like dead-end, dying places with little in the way of life of any kind. This goes against expectations that corn is the most efficient agricultural crops.
Another interesting aspect of the chapters was the story of Fritz Haber, who developed technology to create nitrogen artificially, and helped to produce poison gas as a result. His work also meant that artificial fertilisers changed the world of agriculture. Insights like this, which sometimes contradict one’s expectations of history, are a real strength of Pollan’s work.
Overall, this was an interesting read, with Pollan drawing some depressing conclusions about how the use of agricultural nitrates is causing widespread environmental damage, with water supplies and the air we breathe being affected. The piece concludes with a section on how corn is littered across the roads in rural areas, a perfect summing up of how this once sacred food is now treated as a product.
In conclusion, Pollan’s work highlights the industrialisation of our food chain, and how distant modern farming often seems from real food production.