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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Readers Edition - Preface and Introduction

Author: Michael Pollan

Preface

This book just might change your life.

I know: That sounds a little over-the-top, doesn’t it? I would never make such a bold claim except that, in the years since The Omnivore’s Dilemmawas first published in 2006, thousands of readers have told me exactly that—sometimes in letters and emails, other times in person (including complete strangers on the street): “Your book changed my life.” I’m always surprised to hear it, because that certainly wasn’t my goal when I sat down to write the book, and changing people’s lives sounds like a big responsibility. So I usually gulp and then say something like, “In a
good way, I hope.”

But I’m always curious to find out what they mean, so I often ask them to tell me exactly how they’ve changed since reading the book. The answers are very different, often surprising, and usually extremely gratifying.

Some people tell me that they lost weight after reading the book, and then they pull out snapshots of their larger former selves. Apparently what they learned in the book about how fast food is made convinced them to stop eating it, and the pounds began to fall off. (Even though this is definitely not a diet book.) Other people tell me that they read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and decided to change their career (!) and become a farmer. (Big gulp.) “How’s it working out for you?” I ask, a little nervously, since farming is a tough way to making a living. They usually tell me that the work is incredibly hard but also incredibly satisfying, and that they wouldn’t dream of doing anything else with their lives. (Phew.)

Many people tell me that the book changed the way they think about eating—and that now they spend a lot more time deciding what to put in their mouths. The book has made them aware of how their food choices affect the environment, or animals, or their own health, and they want to start “voting with their forks” (an idea I’ll explain later). For young people, that can mean encouraging their parents to shop differently—to buy organic or local food, for example. Parents are used to their kids making all sorts of demands about food—usually for the latest sugary cereal or energy drink, and so they’re pleasantly surprised when their kids start asking for organic vegetables or for eggs from small farms where the chickens live outdoors and eat a natural diet.

Then there are the vegetarians and the meat eaters, whose reactions to the book could not be more different. I’ve heard from lots of readers who say that, after reading about the way animals are treated in factory farms, they felt they could no longer eat meat and decided to become vegetarians. (Even though the book is not an argument against eating meat.) So I figured that one of the impacts of the book was to inspire vegetarianism—until I began hearing from some vegetarians, whose reactions really surprised me.

Here’s a typical letter from a vegetarian high-schooler: “I haven’t eaten a bite of meat since I was six. But after reading your book I’ve decided to start eating meat again. I never knew there were farms, like Polyface in Virginia, where the animals are treated so well and get to lead such happy lives. I want to support those kinds of farms, so now I eat that kind of humanely raised meat when I can. Instead of calling myself a vegetarian, now I call myself a ‘conscious carnivore.’”

The fact that carnivores and vegetarians responded in two totally different ways to the same information tells me that the book is doing its job. That job is simply to get us to think about something that hardly ever crosses our minds: where our food comes from and how it gets to us. So I really like the idea that two people could read the same book and come to such radically different conclusions. I didn’t write The Omnivore’s Dilemma to convince you to eat one kind of food or another. My aim was to give you the information you need to make good choices. What’s a “good choice”? That’s simple: It’s one that allows you to be true to your values—to what you most care about.

The fact is, our food choices are some of the most important choices we get to make in life. The way we eat has a bigger effect on our health and the health of the planet than any other activity. Four of the top ten diseases that kill Americans are the result of a bad diet. What you put on your plate changes nature more than anything else you do. If that sounds over-the-top, think about it: Farming has changed the landscape more than any other human activity. Agriculture has also determined which species of animals are thriving (cows, chickens, and pigs—the ones we eat) and which are in trouble (wolves and the other predators that want to eat the ones we want to eat). And though you’re probably well aware of how the fossil fuel your family uses to heat your home or power your car contributes to climate change, did you know that the farming and food industry produces even more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation put together? That’s what I mean when I say that the way you eat affects the world more than anything else you do.

This might sound like a big responsibility, and it is—but it’s also a great opportunity, especially for people your age. Why? Because although you won’t be able to vote in elections until you’re eighteen, you can vote with your fork now—by choosing to eat foods that reflect your values, and to avoid ones that don’t. Best of all, you can vote this way not just once, but three times a day.

Does this sort of voting make a difference? Without a doubt. Consider the changes we’ve seen in just the last few years. When The Omnivore’s Dilemma was published in 2006, there were four thousand farmers’ markets in America; now there are more than eight thousand. In 2006, organic food was a fifteen-billion-dollar industry; now it’s a thirty-five- billion-dollar industry. The market for sustainably raised meat, milk, and eggs has exploded in the last decade. A new generation of young people are starting small sustainable farms. (One of the most popular internships for college students today is working on an organic farm.) Since Michelle Obama food was a fifteen-billion-dollar industry; now it’s a thirty-five- billion-dollar industry. The market for sustainably raised meat, milk, and eggs has exploded in the last decade. A new generation of young people are starting small sustainable farms (One of the most popular internships for college students today is working on an organic farm.) Since Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House, the number of Americans growing vegetables at home has soared, to about 35 percent of all families. And a whole range of food and farming issues that have never been on the public’s radar are now being debated across the country and in Washington, D.C.

One of the most exciting developments we’ve seen in the last decade or so is the rise of a “food movement” in America—a movement to change the way we produce and consume food, so that farmers, food workers, animals, the land, and the environment are all treated with greater respect. There’s a lot we can all do to push the food system in this direction, but it begins with informing yourself about what’s at stake, and then voting—with your fork now, and then in a few years with your ballot—for the kind of world you’d like to live in. This book is an invitation to think about both the problems of how we produce food today and some of the inspiring solutions people are coming up with to build a better food system for everyone and everything it touches. Welcome to the conversation.

Michael Pollan, 2015

Introduction

Before I began working on this book, I never gave much thought to where my food came from. I didn’t spend much time worrying about what I should and shouldn’t eat. Food came from the supermarket and as long as it tasted good, I ate it.

Until, that is, I had the chance to peer behind the curtain of the modern American food chain. This came in 1998. I was working on an article about genetically modified food—food created by changing plant DNA in the laboratory. My reporting took me to the Magic Valley in Idaho, where most of the french fries you’ve ever eaten begin their life as Russet Burbank potatoes. There I visited a farm like no farm I’d ever seen or imagined.

It was fifteen thousand acres, divided into 135-acre crop circles. Each circle resembled the green face of a tremendous clock with a slowly rotating second hand. That sweeping second hand was the irrigation machine, a pipe more than a thousand feet long that delivered a steady rain of water, fertilizer, and pesticide to the potato plants. The whole farm was managed from a bank of computer monitors in a control room. Sitting in that room, the farmer could, at the flick of a switch, douse his crops with water or whatever chemical he thought they needed.

One of these chemicals was a pesticide called Monitor, used to control bugs. The chemical is so toxic to the nervous system that no one is allowed in the field for five days after it is sprayed. Even if the irrigation machine breaks during that time, farmers won’t send a worker out to fix it because the chemical is so dangerous. They’d rather let that whole 135-acres crop of potatoes dry up and die.

That wasn’t all. During the growing season, some pesticides get inside the potato plant so that they will kill any bug that takes a bite. But these pesticides mean people can’t eat the potatoes while they’re growing, either. After the harvest, the potatoes are stored for six months in a gigantic shed. Here the chemicals gradually fade until the potatoes are safe to eat. Only then can they be turned into french fries.

That’s how we grow potatoes?

I had no idea.

A BURGER WITH YOUR FRIES?

A few years later, while working on another story, I found myself driving down Interstate 5, the big highway that runs between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I was on my way to visit a farmer in California’s Central Valley. It was one of those gorgeous autumn days when the hills of California are gold. Out of nowhere, a really nasty smell assaulted my nostrils—the stench of a gas station restroom sorely in need of attention. But I could see nothing that might explain the smell—all around me were the same blue skies and golden hills.

And then, very suddenly, the golden hills turned jet-black on both sides of the highway: black with tens of thousands of cattle crowded onto a carpet of manure that stretched as far as the eye could see. I was driving through a feedlot, with tens of thousands of animals bellying up to a concrete trough that ran along the side of the highway for what seemed like miles. Behind them rose two vast pyramids, one yellow, the other black: a pile of corn and a pile of manure. The cattle, I realized, were spending their days transforming the stuff of one pile into the stuff of the other.

This is where our meat comes from?

I had no idea.

Suddenly that “happy meal” of hamburger and fries looked a lot less happy. Between the feedlot and the potato farm, I realized just how little I knew about the way our food is produced. The picture in my head, of small family farms with white picket fences and red barns and happy animals on green pastures, was seriously out of date.

THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA

Now I had a big problem. I went from never thinking about where my food came from to thinking about it all the time. I started worrying about what I should and shouldn’t eat. Just because food was in the supermarket, did that mean it was good to eat?

The more I studied and read about food the more I realized I was suffering from a form of the omnivore’s dilemma. This is a big name for a very old problem. Human beings are omnivores. That means we eat plants, meat, mushrooms—just about anything. But because we are omnivores we have very little built-in instinct that tells us which foods are good for us and which aren’t. That’s the dilemma—we can eat anything, but how do we know what to eat?

The omnivore’s dilemma has been around a long time. But today we have a very modern form of this dilemma. We have a thousand choices of food in our supermarkets, but we don’t really know where our food comes from. As I discovered, just finding out how our potatoes are grown might scare you off french fries for the rest of your life.

In the past, people knew about food because they grew it or hunted it themselves. They learned about food from their parents and grandparents. They cooked and ate the same foods people in their part of the world had always eaten. Modern Americans don’t have strong food traditions. Instead we have dozens of different “experts” who give us lots of different advice about what to eat and what not to eat.

It’s one thing to be crazy about food because you like to eat. But I found I was going crazy from worrying about food. So I set out to try to solve the modern omnivore’s dilemma. I decided to become a food detective, to find out where our food comes from and what exactly it is we are eating. My detective work became the book you now hold in your hands.

FOUR MEALS

As a food detective, I had to go back to the beginning, to the farms and fields where our food is grown. Then I followed it each step of the way, and watched what happened to our food on its way to our stomachs. Each step was another link in a chain—a food chain.

A food chain is a system for growing, making, and delivering food. In this book, I follow four different food chains. Each one has its own section. They are:

Industrial

This is where most of our food comes from today. This chain starts in a giant field, usually in the Midwest, where a single crop is grown—corn, or perhaps soybeans—and ends up in a supermarket or fast-food restaurant.

Industrial Organic

This food is grown on large industrial farms, but with only natural fertilizers, and natural bug and weed control. It is sold in the same way as industrial food.

Local Sustainable

This is food grown on small farms that raise lots of different kinds of crops and animals. The food from the farm doesn’t need to be processed, and it travels a short distance—to a farmer’s market, for example—before it reaches your table.

Hunter­Gatherer

This is the oldest type of food chain there is. It’s hardly a chain at all, really. It is made up simply of you, hunting, growing, or finding your food.

All these food chains end the same way—with a meal. And so I thought it important to end each section of the book with a meal, whether it was a fast-food hamburger eaten in a speeding car, or a meal I made myself from start to finish.

THE PLEASURES OF EATING

When I was ten years old, I started my own “farm” in a patch of our backyard. From that age until now, I have always had a vegetable garden, even if only a small one. The feeling of being connected to food is very important to me. It’s an experience that I think most of us are missing today. We’re so confused about food that we’ve forgotten what food really is—the bounty of the earth and the power of the sun captured by plants and animals.

There were parts of this book that were difficult to write, because the facts were so unpleasant. Some of those facts might make you lose your appetite. But the point of this book is not to scare you or make you afraid of food. I think we enjoy food much more if we take a little time to know what it is we’re putting in our mouths. Then we can really appreciate the truly wonderful gifts that plants and animals have given us. To me, that’s the point of this book, to help you rediscover the pleasures of food and learn to enjoy your meals in a new way.

DMU Timestamp: April 04, 2016 20:58