Tom MacWright

I read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan on


Full honesty: I went into reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma fully expecting to dislike it. I was acquainted with a lot of the book’s failings - its unthinking embrace of a racist, libertarian, COVID-denying, awful farmer, its unthinking approval of family farms, its spineless acceptance of meat. It’s just critically lacking introspection, on every point. Pollan gestures toward a common-sense sustainability argument around transport emissions, which is wrong. He claims that vegetarianism has been fringe for thousands of years, apparently forgetting about India. He doesn’t see the inside of an industrial slaughterhouse but assumes its cruel, and doesn’t see the inside of an independent slaughterhouse and assumes it’s a lot more humane. Where Safran Foer investigated, Pollan assumed.

Pollan is simply awful about vegetarianism. He briefly becomes vegetarian, after eating a lot of meat, and then makes a joke about how he’s suddenly “self-respecting” - a joke about vegetarians being elitist, in a book advocating for eating only locally-sourced family farmed food. He thinks about animal cruelty by reflecting on the happiness of the animals at Polyface farm - while they’re alive. He marks the “animal rightsists” as Puritan, despite having spent a long time expounding on boutique food described as “clean,” in which people are “opting-out” of globalized industry. And then vegetarian is parochial and urban - again, India exists. Then finally he suggests that, somehow, vegetarianism would lead to more industrialization and more carbon emissions, an idea just thrown out, unsupported, absurd. The sheer hubris and disrespect of this section is shocking. It’s unsurprising that Pollan himself mostly disregards the “mostly plants” idea and just eats a lot of meat.

I did, for a few lovely chapters, enjoy Pollan’s examination of the corn supply chain, and the systems around modern farming.

Besides that, this book is a lesson about the dangers of storytelling, how cute and neat observations can add up to dangerously wrong recommendations. About how neat stories can erase the people whose land was stolen, or who were forced to work the fields, or who simply weren’t lucky enough to inherit well-tended farmland. And it’s about finding a story to tell yourself - just meet the farmer, meet the chicken, drive there and drive back with the eggs and tell your friends about the chicken - Pollan just wants the stories that Whole Foods tells us about cows or family farms to be real, to be passed from person to person as a mark of authenticity, or elitism. Pollan grimaces as much at the terminology of factory farming - referring to protein, not chickens, a world full of acronyms like CAFO and government regulations, not lyrical or whimsical at all - almost as much as he does any detail of their operation.

I don’t recommend the Omnivore’s Dilemma.