In his work The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the American journalist Michael Pollan reveals some of the basic presuppositions behind the contemporary food habits of the American population. Pollan’s book is arguably most valuable in the sense that he takes a broad perspective to his subject matter, considering various means by which Americans consume food, from the dominant industry of factory and mass food production, to more extremist reactions against this context, such as “back to nature” activists who consider traditional hunting and gathering techniques to be a viable and ethical alternative. In this sense, Pollan shows the underlying complexity of our food choices, showing that the binary approach to the problem is not sufficient. The either/or is a false dichotomy, and Pollan’s book forces us to think alternatives in consistency with this same complexity, as opposed to a crass reductionism.
Chapters Fifteen to Seventeen address this latter approach and also provide a somewhat critical vantage point. In these chapters, Pollan endeavors to debunk some of the myths of extremist views, such as the thesis that vegetarianism is naturally beneficial to the ecosystem or that the industrial production of food is entirely beneficial. In Chapter 15 Pollan focusses on traditional means of gathering food. In Chapter 16 he considers the multiplicity of choices the food industry has created for the American consumer, in contrast to this traditional way of life. In Chapter 17, Pollan takes a broader ethical approach, critiquing both consumerist views and responses to the latter, such as animal rights. Pollan thus essentially argues both extremes are not desirable: mass production has negative effects on dietary habits of Americans, while the position of a return to nature is too reactionary and fails to capture the diversity of our relationship to food.
Hence, in Chapter 15, the beginning of Part 3 in which Pollan takes an approach whereby he attempts to accrue the materials for his food consumption on an individual level, the author becomes a forager. Arguably what is most compelling in this chapter is this self-sufficient and “autarchic” approach to food; hence, Pollan demonstrates the complicated choices and ultimately vast knowledge required to take this form of life. The return to the “forager” is not a simplification of life, but rather shows how difficult survival in a non-industrial and non-consumer context really is. Yet in Chapter 16, Pollan emphasizes that the easy accessibility of industrialized consumer food products cannot be viewed as an advancement in our lives. Rather, Pollan (2006) makes a key distinction between “neophobia” or the fear of trying new things with “neophilia”, a compulsion to new things. (pp. 287-288): The industrialized culture creates this difference by constantly exposing us to new products, while also perhaps forcing us into siding with so-called “comfort foods”, because of our familiarity with these products. Our food choices thus become infinitely more complex than merely eating what is available to us. In Chapter 17, Pollan gives a robust criticism of the back to nature approach to this mass food production, arguing that animal rights are not close to nature, but rather an “urban” reaction to this same food production. In essence, it does not help nature, but is determined by the omnivore’s dilemma that gives us so many choices.
Yet while these arguments are compelling, perhaps Pollan does overstate some points. For example, the fact that foraging is a difficult activity does not automatically disqualify its merit. Furthermore, Pollan can be said to overstate the problem of “neophobia” and “neophilia”: is there really a fear created by the new in a mass industrial culture? Is this not looking at the phenomenon of our food relations through this same mass industrial culture, instead of emphasizing individual choice: in other words is individual choice necessarily problematized by the presentation of a vast amount of choices? Lastly, Pollan’s (2006) arguments about animal rights, while noting their “urban” (p. 325) character, perhaps miss the point of the animal rights movement: while animal rights are certainly a product or reaction to mass food production, it would appear that animal rights is concerned above all with maintaining a decent quality of life for animals, and hence is primarily an ethical question, irrespective of particular historical contexts: namely, animal rights activists are concerned with the existence of animals and their just treatment by humans.
Nonetheless, Pollan accurately highlights the complexity of our food issues. Most people think of food as a trivial matter, and arguably this is the result of the easy availability of food in American culture, repeated in the constant advertisements for food in American cultural life. Yet Pollan shows that all our food choices themselves embody a complex nexus of choices, choices which revolve around our relations to ourselves, our society and our environment. Whether one agrees with Pollan’s conclusions or not, the exposure of these issues is of value, showing how even our most quotidian activities include profound existential choices as well as consequences.
Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.